Subourbia’s Definitive Newbie Guide to Bourbon


What is Bourbon?

Before you ask me that, ask me what is Whiskey.

Umm, ok.  What is Whiskey?

Thank you for asking.  Whiskey is any distilled spirit that is made from a mash of fermented grains.  Let’s break that down.  As you must know by now simply by surviving college, liquor is different from beer and wine.  It is stronger, more expensive, and will cause a massive headache if consumed in large quantities without Waffle House to soak it up.  But did you know that at some point in the process of distillation, all three are basically the same thing?   Imagine you had a giant, and I mean giant tub, and you filled it with grapes, or grains (malt, barley, wheat, corn, etc), and then you added water, yeast, and sugar.  You let that bad boy sit for a few days, and the yeast eats the sugars and begins to ferment it thus creating some alcohol byproduct.  At that point, you essentially have something called ‘Beer’ (hops are usually needed at this point).  If it was grapes, ‘Wine’.  From there ingredients can be changed, it can be tanked to increase alcohol, etc, but that’s essentially the end of Beer or Wine .  If it’s a spirit though, it then undergoes a process called distillation.  In essence, that big mash of grains and yeast is boiled to a certain temp (less than that of water), the alcohol is collected as vapor, it is condensed or cooled to return it to a liquid, then it is collected.  A better analysis is below, but there you have the essentials of a whiskey.

Popular Mechanics explains distilling

What is the difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?

All bourbon is whiskey.  Not all whiskey is bourbon.  It’s like, all frogs are animals, but not all animals are frogs.  Get it?  Bourbon is a subset of Whiskey that has cleared several guidelines.  Same thing is true for Scotch Whisky (yeah they drop the E everywhere else), Irish Whisky, Rye Whiskey, etc.  All of those are simply subsets of whiskey that have met more precise guidelines.  Got it?  Ok let’s move on.

Ok so what defines a Bourbon?

Bourbon has a set of requirements that must be met.  First of all, bourbon can only be made in ‘Merica.  It is not true that a bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, it could potentially be made in Hawaii.  Bourbon has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels (law actually states containers but I have yet to see bourbon made in a canoe or a desk) and it has to be made of a mash bill with a majority of corn (nerds will say at least 51%, but anyone who took statistics can say that the majority of the ingredients means at least 51%).  Those are 3 of the requirements that are easy to remember.  The other 3 are a bit more mathematical and deal with the proof.  Bourbon cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof, it can’t be put into the barrel at more than 125 proof, and it can’t be bottled at less than 80 proof.  I haven’t memorized the first two proof rules, but just know that anything labeled bourbon will have at least 80 proof.

What is a Straight Bourbon?

One problem with regular bourbon is that there are no aging requirements.  A bourbon could be aged for 2 months and be labeled a bourbon.  Straight Bourbon has a few more rules that must be followed.  One of them is that the bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years (and if it’s less than 4 years old it has to state the age on the bottle).  It also can contain no coloring, flavoring, or any other spirits (Update: apparently this holds true for regular Bourbon too).  Got it?  Good, let’s move on.

Ok now I understand Bourbon and Straight Bourbon, so what is the difference between Small Batch and Single Barrel?

Great questions, now we get into some nitty gritty metaphor time.  Let’s suppose you just started a new distillery called Tasty Berben (what else would you name it)?  You have just distilled your first batch of bourbon (which by the way is called White Dog or Moonshine before it is aged in a barrel).  You have made enough bourbon to fill 10 brand new charred oak barrels that you bought.  You notice that your first batch is 130 proof, so you add a little water to get it down to 125 (remember one of the rules above) and then you fill up all 10 barrels.  You store those 10 barrels for 4 years in a warehouse called a Rickhouse (or Rackhouse, interchangeable terms).  After 4 years, you are finally ready to bottle.  You take 8 of those 10 barrels out and empty them into a large steel tank.  You check the flavor, it’s awesome.  You check the proof, it’s 134, and you water it down to 90 proof so that you can fill more bottles.  You begin bottling, and thus you have made Small Batch Bourbon.

The annoying part of all of this is that there are no legal requirements for how many barrels constitute a Small Batch.  It could be 2 barrels, it could be 200 in a giant distillery.  That’s why in this day and age Small Batch should be ignored.  It’s more of a nice marketing term than a statement related to the contents inside.  Jefferson’s entry level product is labeled as Jefferson’s Very Small Batch Bourbon, but no one knows the exact number of barrels for it to be ‘Very’.  For whatever reason, that adverb bothers the hell out of me.

Now, let’s suppose that you decide the 9th and 10th barrels should be bottled only for close friends and family that made the distillery happen, and maybe the workers.  You take barrel #9 and dump it, and only it, into a small holding tank.  You check the proof, 132, and water it down to 90, and bottle just that amount.  You have just made Single Barrel bourbon.  That means what you are drinking came specifically from 1 barrel, not a blend of barrels.  Often times a Single Barrel will actually list the barrel number, or specific details, but not always.

Barrel 10 you decide should also be Single Barrel, but you want it to taste exactly as it does right from the barrel.  You decide to bottle it without watering it down at all.  You empty it into a small holding tank, it’s 129 proof, and you bottle straight from that.  You have just created Barrel Proof bourbon.  Make sense?   The bottle is the same proof as the barrel, hence they may write Barrel Proof on the label.

One caveat, Barrel Proof (or Cask Strength) may not always be Single Barrel.  If you took barrel #9 and #10, combined BOTH into a steel holding tank, and bottled it without adding water, you just created Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon as opposed to Single Barrel.  Got all 3 now?  Great, moving on.

I have skipped non-chill filtering.  That’s more for intermediate bourbon fans.

Any other terms I need to know?

Bottled-in-Bond is another one you should know.  Here is a nice article that explains in depth what bottled in bond means:

Bottled in Bond Explained

To me it always means 2 things.  It’s 100 proof, and it’s probably under-rated as a bourbon.

ONE LAST THING FOR YOU TO KNOW.

Very important here, and this took me awhile to figure out, and it bugs me the most.  You are standing in a store and you see a nice bottle of bourbon that says Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey on it.  You get excited, you know it has met many requirements.  You look at the front label and it says Billy Bobs Bourbon.  You think, man I haven’t had this one, but I bet Billy Bob makes a great bourbon, I mean it says Kentucky Straight Bourbon on the label.  Odds are about 50/50 that a bottle of bourbon you are looking at WAS NOT DISTILLED by the company that bottled it.  That’s called a NDP or Non Distilling Producer.  You know that nice bottle of Bulleit Bourbon you see?  Bulleit didn’t make it.  Jefferson’s Very Small Batch?  Jefferson’s didn’t make it.  The list goes on and on.  A fantastic fellow named Sku (Twitter @Skusrecenteats) actually listed out all the NDPs and actual Distillers.  Check it out here:

Sku’s NDP/Distiller List

Now let’s be clear about something.  Being an NDP doesn’t mean that’s a big deal as long as they are honest on the bottle about WHERE it is distilled.  I have seen several lawsuits directed at NDPs who made it sound like they distilled the stuff themselves.  Most of the time NDPs are honest about where it comes from, and more often than not it’s worth the price.  Also several newer distilleries have been sourcing bourbon (and really good bourbon I might add) while their own distill ages.  Examples include Smooth Ambler, Willett, and High West.  All of them bottle excellent bourbon until the day their own is ready for distribution.  So being an NDP isn’t that big of a deal, as long as they are clear about it.  (See a good comment below about NDPs).

The point here is, just be an informed consumer.  A lot of stuff you see at Total Wine is private label, meaning it’s sourced from somewhere else and bottled as an independent private label brand exclusive to Total Wine.  I noticed guys the other day grabbing something called Winchester and reading the label and saying “Small Batch Bourbon with a totally natural distillation process, they must make great stuff”.  Come on people…

Now that class is over, what is your favorite Bourbon?

This is one of the hardest questions ever to answer for big bourbon enthusiasts.  Why?  Because you have never heard of probably 90% of my favorites, and you will never see them in a store.  We can’t just name a product that you can go find without having to think about it.  Once you adopt Bourbon as a hobby, you move beyond the standard store shelf bourbons and into the rare bourbon world, but until then, stick with stuff you can actually find.

Ok fancy pants, what’s a good starter Bourbon for under $30?

There are some very good finds out there for sub $30 range, and that doesn’t include the kind that mixes wonderfully with a coke at an SEC football game.  I’m talking about real bourbon, the kind you can drink over a few cubes of ice (or neat once you get there).  If you have a larger liquor store near you that buys their own barrels, see if they have Buffalo Trace private barrel picks or 1792 private barrel picks.  Store pick bourbons (or private barrel as I call them) means those stores have tasted several samples of barrels for a particular bourbon, chosen one, and that the bottles from that barrel (and the barrel itself) are sent to the store.  They are always recognizable by a label somewhere on the bottle specifying who bought the bottle, and are usually found on top of the actual barrel itself.  Groups can also buy barrels, but typically you won’t find those in a store.  If your local has no barrel picks, a regular non-store pick Buffalo Trace is a nice introduction to bourbon, as is Elijah Craig Small Batch, Jefferson’s Very Small Batch, Weller Special Reserve, Four Roses Small Batch, and Old Grand Dad 114.  A gem in this range, if your store has it, is Henry McKenna 10 year Bottled in Bond.  It’s perhaps the best kept secret in cheap bourbon, but don’t tell anyone ok?

What are some good Bourbons in the $30 to $50 range?

Here is the sweet spot, lots of good options.  Back to private barrels, if you can find Eagle Rare (store picks or standard), buy all day long (same holds true for any Weller product besides Special Reserve, if you happen to find a store with some).  Four Roses Single Barrel (both private store picks and regular), Old Forester 1897, Knob Creek store picks, Smooth Ambler 10 year, and Russell Reserve 10 year Small Batch are all great picks in this range.  There used to be a bourbon you could buy in this range called Elmer T. Lee.  It very rarely makes it to store shelves these days, and you will probably need to ask for it, but it’s a great Single Barrel bourbon in this range.

What is a good bottle to splurge at more than $50?

Two private barrel picks are very appealing in this price range, Smooth Ambler and Four Roses.  Both are barrel proof, and excellent additions at any bar.  Four Roses has 10 different recipes that they use for their Barrel Strength Private Program, so its extremely rare to have similar picks at nearby stores.  Jefferson’s Ocean is an interesting bourbon at this range, but perhaps worth trying at a bar or from a friend before you buy a bottle.  EH Taylor Single Barrel is a tasty bourbon, but a bit overpriced.  Booker’s is a great barrel proof bourbon in this range, easy to find, but will need some icing down for you to enjoy early on in your bourbon career.  Lastly, ask if the store has any Stagg Jr.  It’s never on shelves, but it’s a great find if you score one.

Should I join a Bourbon of the month club to get started?

Don’t you dare join a bourbon of the month club, it’s a total scam.  You will pay $80 or more per month for an average $40-50 bottle that is collecting dust at your local shop.  No you are better off buying a really nice standard shelf or slightly allocated bottle and going from there.

How can I get more involved in Bourbon?

Social media has a huge presence in the bourbon world.  All of that information follows below.  Don’t spend your money on online stores like Caskers, etc., go to your local store and spend 10% less and begin to build relationships with the owners, managers, and employees, most of whom genuinely want customers they can count on and vice versa.  Relationships are the key to securing rare releases, but they take time to build.

How can I learn more about Bourbon on social media?

Create a Twitter account and follow some of the following people: @bourbon_gamer, @bourbonbanter, @sippncorn, @skusrecenteats, @bourbontruth, @bourbonseason, @breakingbourbon, @bourbonrcom, @bourbonblog, @cooperedtot, @epicbourbon, @rwbourbon, and of course all the Distilleries of your favorite brands.  I know I am leaving some good ones out, but you will see them in conversations from the ones above and can start to follow them.

On Reddit, subscribe to /r/bourbon and /r/Scotchswap for starters.  You will find more as you browse there.

On Facebook, find and friend someone else already connected to the Bourbon groups and have them add you.  There are way to many to list, and many are Private and not findable.

Instagram….well…I’m working on that one.  I’m not quite connected yet.

Where I can get some Pappy Van Winkle?

henrylaugh

7 Comments on Subourbia’s Definitive Newbie Guide to Bourbon

  1. Great article, very nice and educational. The only thing I am going to take issue with casting dispersions on the NDP. This is not a big deal, and people need to get over it. When there was a bourbon glut, these are the guys who kept it going and frankly, by accident discovered some things in the aging process.

    Every master distiller will tell you the mash bill and the distilling is not as important as the aging. and that is what the NDP bring to the table. How and where it is aged is more important than were the distillate came from, Especially when it gets over 10 years. I got news for everyone, 12 year Weller is not Pappy Van Winkle. Yes it may have the same mash bill but that is only the small part of it, and there is a big difference in the taste.

    So I would say get over the NDP’s, frankly, they are helping with the bourbon revival, and while some of their marketing practices do suck, some of these guys are picking and aging and bottling great and unique bourbon.

    This has been going on for over 50 years and is not a big deal

    • Very good points, I think I was considering TerraPure when I wrote that. I will make a revision at the end and reference your comment. Thank you!

    • The question is why one should pick an NDP bottle over the Distiller Produced bottle right next to it for less money? I can’t think of a reason to do so.

  2. OK, so how about a link to a follow-up article to explain “non-chill filtering” lik you did for “bottled in bond”?

  3. Chilled vs. Non-chilled Filter
    When bourbon first came on the scene, they found that if you put ice in it, it clouded the bourbon. People thought it was bad. So they started dropping the temperature to around 32° and filtered the bourbon after the dumping from the bottle. I think it was Buffalo Trace who came out with the first commercially available non-chilled product in George T Stagg in 2002. They just put it through filtration at normal room temperature. They used to have during their tours, a comparison of chilled (Buffalo Trace) and non-chilled (Stagg) by putting them on a heat lamp, I’ve not seen this in a while. The BT just sat there and the Stagg had a tornado of all the enzymes and proteins left in the bourbon. I belong to the Bourbon Society in Louisville and we had Drew (KBD Master distiller) bring the same product, one chilled filtered and one non, we had a 100% attendance choosing the chilled. The non-chilled has more unique flavors and is usually cast strength. If you like the full flavor profile, you’ll never stop craving it, I know they are in the premium range, and I’ll take a Stagg any day over a Pappy….soooo good! BTW – if you have extras you find somewhere, please call me, I can’t buy enough…and yes I drink them and share with friends.

  4. What a good article. Thanks for taking the time to put it out there…

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