Bourbon 101: Everything You Need to Know

Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about bourbon whiskey in one easy-to-digest guide!

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Bourbon is one of my favorite spirits for cocktails, and that’s why I made it the official spirit of Feast + West‘s birthday month — January.

Today, I’m sharing a guide to bourbon for all your cocktail-making this month. Over the next few months, I’m going to focus most of my cocktail posts each month on one spirit at a time.

I want to teach you about spirits, so you can know more about what you’re putting into your drinks and feel more confident choosing the right liquors. You can buy one bottle each month and learn to make a host of cocktails with it all month long.

OK, ready to talk bourbon? Let’s get right into it!

What is bourbon?

Bourbon, or bourbon whiskey, is an American whiskey — an oak barrel-aged, distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name is French.

Bourbon is well-known for being made in Kentucky, but it may be distilled anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. Bourbon is seeing a big boom in the expansion of craft distilleries.

The United States and Canadian laws regulate that any product labeled ‘bourbon’ must be made in the U.S.

whiskey barrels at a distillery

How is bourbon different than whiskey?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, There are many other types of whiskey, including scotch, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky and rye.

The difference between them all is in the makeup, as whiskey can be made from different types of grains. Bourbon must be made with corn.

Specifically, bourbon must be made with 51 percent corn. The other 49 percent is a grain mixture known as the ‘mash bill,’ usually a combination of barley, rye and wheat. Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels and bottled at 80 proof or more, which means it is 40 percent alcohol by volume. 

Also, bourbon may not have added color or flavoring so, for example, peanut butter whiskey is not a bourbon.

What is single-barrel bourbon?

If a bottle is labeled ‘single-barrel,’ the bourbon has been bottled from just one barrel, so it’s very pure and therefore rare and more expensive. If it’s labeled ‘small-batch,’ the bourbon was bottled from a few select barrels. If it has neither label, lots of barrels were combined to make it.

Bourbon has no aging requirements, whereas straight bourbon must be distilled for at least two years. Some bourbons have age statements on the bottles, which tell you the age of the youngest bourbon in the bottle. 

the best old-fashioned cocktail recipe in a patterned glass with a sphere ice cube on a black and white plaid coaster

What does bourbon taste like?

It depends on the brand, but bourbon can taste dark, fruity, woody, spicy or floral. It can also nod to citrus, toffee, caramel, chocolate, coffee or vanilla flavors.

How to drink bourbon?

Smell it first. Pour it into the glass, then take a whiff. Swirl it around as you take a second sniff. Then take a sip. This allows your taste buds to adjust slightly before you take in this flavorful spirit.

Bourbon can be served neat (without any mixers or ice), diluted with water, on the rocks (over ice cubes) or mixed with soda and in cocktails. Bourbon is also used in cooking. (I love it in pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving!)

I like to use whiskey stones or ice balls when I drink mine on the rocks, rather than with regular ice, because it keeps the bourbon from getting too watery too quickly.

Bourbon brands

Popular brands: Bulleit, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Old Crow, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Angel’s Envy, Tin Cup, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams

Feast + West favorites: Bulleit, Maker’s Mark, Old Forrester, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Angel’s Envy, Blanton’s, Four Roses

a julep cocktail with a mint leaf garnish next to a bottle of whiskey

Bourbon recipes

Classic bourbon cocktails

More bourbon cocktails

Clementine Hot Toddy // Bourbon + Ginger Ale // Maple Bourbon Milkshake // Pomegranate Bourbon Fizz // Honey Peach Old-Fashioned // Basil Julep // Peach Whiskey Smash

When is national bourbon day?

National Bourbon Day is June 14.

Further reading

(Sources // Esquire, Serious Eats)

The Golden Ratio Guide:

Mix the perfect cocktail, every time

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    • Susannah says

      I love a good old-fashioned too! Bourbon is definitely an acquired taste. I have a few cocktails coming up this month that are a bit on the sweeter side so you might enjoy them!

  1. Melissa says

    Oh my goodness, a book club for booze. You are my hero.

    Some other brands you might consider, incidentally: Willet (high proof, but not as hot as Bulleit), Prichard’s (incredibly smooth, a little caramel-y), Basil Hayden (what I drink if I can’t find Prichard’s), and Michter’s (outstanding at this price point). All of these make exceptional cocktails, but they also shine served neat.

    I vote for bourbon every month! “Bourbon with Easter candy…” “Bourbon with grilling…” 😉

    Okay, rye is good, too. Oooo bourye! Do bouryes!

    • Susannah says

      This made me laugh out loud, Melissa. You are so funny. Yes, a book club for booze. I’m so glad you’re in! 😉

      That is incredibly helpful. I definitely haven’t forayed into the finer bourbons yet, but I am definitely going to have to try some of these! Thank you so much for sharing these, friend!

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