Understanding Bourbon

Rarely, if ever, do you see a woman belly up to the bar and order a shot of bourbon.  Bourbon is a drink for manly men, and it is the antithesis of a drink with an umbrella in it.  There are a plethora of different bourbons on the market, and each has their own characteristics.  Within the bourbon world, there are 3 main classifications, and most bourbon drinkers stay within one of these groups with fierce loyalty.

The taste and strength of bourbon can vary depending upon how long it was aged, its proof and a variety of other variables within the production process.  However, the most salient differences between bourbons emanate from the grains used within the distilling regimen.  In order to be called bourbon, it must contain at least 51% corn — and most bourbons contain at least some barley.  The third grain used is what gives a given bourbon its character, and defines which of the three groups that bourbon falls into:

Traditional Bourbon

Traditional bourbons use a mix of 70% corn and the other 30% split between rye and barley.  These bourbons are characterized by hints of spice, honey and light caramel.  Most traditional bourbons are approximately 85 proof.  Prominent examples of traditional bourbons include:

  • Baker’s
  • Booker’s
  • Evan Williams
  • Jim Beam
  • Knob Creek
  • Old Crow
  • Wild Turkey

Wheat Recipe Bourbon

These bourbons utilize a mix of corn, barley and wheat — hence the name of the category.  The inclusion of wheat yields a softer and sweeter taste — taking a bit of the edge off what otherwise can be a very strong drink.  The most salient examples of wheat recipe bourbons on the market today include:

  • Maker’s Mark
  • Old Fitzgerald
  • Rebel Yell
  • Van Winkle

High Rye Recipe Bourbon

High rye recipe bourbons use the same ingredients as traditional bourbons, but instead of including equal amounts of barley and rye, these bourbons go heavy on the rye.  This results in a spicier taste and a sharper aroma when compared to traditional recipe bourbons.  Popular high rye recipe bourbon brands include:

  • Basil Hayden’s
  • Buffalo Trace
  • Eagle Rare
  • Four Roses
  • George T. Stagg
  • Old Forester
  • Old Grand-Dad
  • Woodford Reserve

If you desire to expand your drink repertoire into the realm of bourbon, then be sure to check out at least one example within each of these groups.  Selections within a group itself can greatly vary consequent to the unique process used by the particular distillery.  A martini might make you appear smooth, a beer shows you can be a regular guy — but nothing says “rough and tumble” better than ordering a stiff shot of bourbon.

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