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A spurious libation for your consideration

A little something from the editor's desk

Bourbon: What it is ... and isn't

© 2016 Dan Chadwick

This is the third in a series on Bourbon by Zach Pearson. Read the first two: Bourbon and Bourbon After the Act.

Defining bourbon is complicated. It’s easiest to quote the relevant laws then talk about them, so let’s go to the official record, the Federal Standards of Identity for Whiskey, CFR 27 5.22 (b). Skip down if you don't care to wade through the laws.

(b) Class 2; whiskey. “Whiskey” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey, stored in oak containers (except that corn whiskey need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.

(b.1.i) “Bourbon whiskey”, “rye whiskey”, “wheat whiskey”, “malt whiskey”, or “rye malt whiskey” is whiskey produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

(b.i.ii) “Corn whiskey” is whiskey produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn grain, and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 125° proof in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood; and also includes mixtures of such whiskey.

(b.1.iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whiskey”, “straight corn whiskey”, and whiskey conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as “straight whiskey”. No other whiskies may be designated “straight”. “Straight whiskey” includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.

(b.2) “Whiskey distilled from bourbon (rye, wheat, malt, or rye malt) mash” is whiskey produced in the United States at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored in used oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. Whiskey conforming to the standard of identity for corn whiskey must be designated corn whiskey.

(b.3) “Light whiskey” is whiskey produced in the United States at more than 160° proof, on or after January 26, 1968, and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies. If “light whiskey” is mixed with less than 20 percent of straight whiskey on a proof gallon basis, the mixture shall be designated “blended light whiskey” (light whiskey—a blend).

(b.4) “Blended whiskey” (whiskey—a blend) is a mixture which contains straight whiskey or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and, separately, or in combination, whiskey or neutral spirits. A blended whiskey containing not less than 51 percent on a proof gallon basis of one of the types of straight whiskey shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whiskey; for example, “blended rye whiskey” (rye whiskey—a blend).

(b.5.i) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) is a mixture of straight whiskies which does not conform to the standard of identify for “straight whiskey.” Products so designated may contain harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a).

(b.5.ii) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whiskey, and not conforming to the standard for straight whiskey, shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whiskey; for example, “a blend of straight rye whiskies” (blended straight rye whiskies). “A blend of straight whiskies” consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whiskey shall include straight whiskey of the same type which was produced in the same State or by the same proprietor within the same State, provided that such whiskey contains harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as stated in 27 CFR5.23(a).

(b.5.iii) The harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials allowed under this section shall not include neutral spirits or alcohol in their original state. Neutral spirits or alcohol may only appear in a “blend of straight whiskies” or in a “blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whiskey” as a vehicle for recognized flavoring of blending material.

(b.6) “Spirit whiskey” is a mixture of neutral spirits and not less than 5 percent on a proof gallon basis of whiskey, or straight whiskey, or straight whiskey and whiskey, if the straight whiskey component is less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis.

So here we go. Bourbon is made from a grain mash that is at least 51% and no more than 80% of a single grain (typically corn) with the addition of malted barley (for the enzymes that convert starches to sugars) and a “flavor grain” (either wheat or rye), distilled twice, once through a column still and a second time through what is effectively a pot still, coming out of the second distillation at less than 160 proof. It is put into a new, charred oak barrel at lower than 125 proof. It is then bottled at no less than 80 proof. If it is aged for two years, it can be called Straight. If it aged for less than four years, the bottle must state how long the Bourbon was aged in wood. If you don’t see an age statement on a bottle, you can assume it’s not much older than four years old.

Bonded Bourbon must be the product of one distillery in one distilling season, aged at a Federally bonded warehouse for no less than four years, and bottled at 100 proof with only water as the addition to cut it down from barrel proof. More importantly to us, it must have the DSP of the distillery and the DSP of the bottler, if it’s different, so you know who’s making your Bourbon.

Let’s talk about flavor grains. Most all Bourbon recipes have between 60 and 75% corn, and about 10% barley malt. This leaves between 15 and 30% available for a flavor grain, and this is typically either rye or wheat. Rye gives more green and spicy notes to a Bourbon, while wheat is softer, with a more honeyed aroma and flavor. Some high rye Bourbons include Bulleit (made by MGPI), Old Grand-Dad (Beam, though it’s a different yeast and mashbill than the other Beam things) and Buffalo Trace. In the wheater camp, the flagship is Pappy, but also W.L. Weller (Buffalo Trace), Maker’s Mark and Old Fitzgerald (Heaven Hill).

I know this is a lot of Federal Code, and it’s pretty impenetrable, so just to clarify things:

  • Bourbon
    • Is made from a mash of between 51 and 80 percent corn
    • Distilled at 160 proof or less and barrelled at 125 proof or less in charred new oak
    • Can have no colorings or flavorings added to it
  • Straight Bourbon
    • Must be aged for 2 years
  • Bonded Bourbon
    • Must be the product of one distillery in one distilling year (from January to December)
    • Must be aged at least four years in a federally approved warehouse
    • Must be bottled at 100 proof
    • Must identify the DSP code of the plant where it was distilled and/or bottled

If you see the word “blended” or “a blend of” on a label, all bets are off. Blended whiskey can be only 20% whiskey and 80% GNS (Grain Neutral Spirits) and can have up to 2.5% by volume of caramel coloring and “traditional flavoring agents”, which typically means sweetened Sherry. To make matters worse, blended whiskies are exempt from CFR 5.36 (d), which means if they’re not distilling their own whiskey, they don’t have to report where it comes from. I’ve noticed that the new labels for High West (who do buy from MGPI) now say “A Blend of Straight Whiskies” on the label instead of stating “distilled in Indiana, bottled in Colorado”.

Next time: Making Bourbon