Last Updated November, 2017.
The patois of bourbon has developed over centuries. During that time, the language mostly stayed within the confines of distilleries. But now a rekindled obsession for American whiskey is pushing the jargon into the mainstream. Chalk some of it up to a more sophisticated market, and the rest to promotion.
Visiting bourbon country makes one thing inherently clear: very little separates one distillery from another. It’s a game of technicalities. Every bourbon distiller is in the business of aging corn-based whiskey in barrels to put into bottles, but distinguishing their product amid a sea of tempting amber liquids is a different art form entirely. Understanding a few core terms can help any curious whiskey fan understand what they’re buying, and even why they like what’s in their glass. We asked employees in the bourbon industry to arm us with a basic vocabulary.
“Whiskey must follow a specific set of legal requirements to be called a bourbon. It’s unique to the United States and must be made here — but it doesn’t have to be from Kentucky. It must be made of at least 51 percent corn and feature no other flavor additives beyond water. It must be distilled at 160 proof or less and barreled at 125 proof or less in only new charred oak barrels. It must be also be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. If it doesn’t meet all of those rules, it’s not a bourbon.” – Elizabeth O’Neill, Master Taster for Woodford Reserve
“A rye whiskey has to be at least 51 percent rye in its mash bill. The composite of the rest of the mash bill can be made from either corn or barley. Bulleit Rye is 95 percent rye 5 percent barley. There are some ryes that are merely 51 percent rye. Rye has a very high starch content, so you’re gonna find that a lot of ryes are going to contain malted barley, which breaks the starch down in the rye for the yeast during fermentation. American rye has to be aged at least two years to become a straight rye whiskey. It has to be aged in new charred oak barrels as well. Canadian rye has to meet an entirely different set of parameters. It has a totally different legal definition. They can add artful colors and flavors. So American rye is really where its at.” – Brian Downing, Bartender at The Silver Dollar Louisville, staffer at the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller
Bottled in Bond
“In the early 1800s people were putting anything in a bottle, any kind of spirit, vodka, gin whatever. They were flavoring it with or coloring it with iodine, tobacco, licorice. Whatever they could find to color it or flavor it to make people believe it was bourbon. Well, it was killing people and making people sick. So the government stepped in and created the Bottled-in-Bond Act. Today Bottle in Bond means, by government standards, it is a minimum of four years old. It will always be bottled at 100 proof. It must also be distilled by one distiller. It sounds crazy, but it is legal to get bourbon from multiple distilleries and put it in a bottle and call it bourbon. But to call it a Bottle in Bond, it has to be one distiller. And it has to be one distilling season — from January to December of the same year. So you’re looking at a very high-quality product. When you see ‘Bottled in Bond’, what you see is quality.” – Sheila Osbourne, General Manager at the Bourbon Heritage Center Heaven Hill Distilleries
“In 1897, Colonel E.H. Taylor, who is a distiller, helps pass what’s called the Bottled-in-Bond Act. The Bottle Act is the first consumer protection act in United States history. It states a handful of things to make a Bonded Spirit. It must be aged at least four years. It must be bottled at no greater or no less than 100 proof, exactly 50 percent alcohol. It must come from grain produced in one season. It must be distilled at one location and aged under U.S. Government supervision. Now what’s interesting is that while there’s a handful of Bottled-in-Bond bourbons, it doesn’t actually only apply to bourbon. Any spirit can technically be Bottled in Bond.” – Brian Downing, Bartender at Silver Dollar Louisville, staffer at Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller
“The definition of small batch is very vague. It basically means whatever the distillery that it comes from says it means. There’s no set-in-stone definition. From our perspective, when they first put Four Roses Small Batch together, they took 17 barrels. They put together a formula and it required 17 barrels of the four different Four Roses bourbons’ mash bills in the correct proportions. So that’s what we term a small batch. Now, honestly, does that mean every time we produce this we only dump 17 barrels? No. but every time we dump barrels it will be in increments of 17. So we keep the same formula every time.” – John Rhea, Chief Operating Officer at Four Roses
“While there is no legal definition, general industry standard is around 150 barrels or less. What that means is we’re really choosy about what goes into that batch. It delivers a more premium experience for the consumer.” – Hunter Davis, Tour Guide at the Jim Beam Distillery
“Single barrel is small batch to the extreme. It is a batch of one barrel. What this means is that our tasters have gone into the warehouse for a product like Knob Creek Single Barrel, and they’re going to taste many different barrels and pick out a couple that they think are truly exceptional, that really highlight something fantastic about that product. They bottle it one barrel at a time, and therefore each bottle is going to be a little bit different — whereas small batch would taste the same each and every time.” – Hunter Davis, Tour Guide at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse
“A mash bill is simply a ratio of grains used in making whiskey. By law, to be bourbon it has to be at least 51 percent corn; the remainder of that can be any grain we choose. Now, traditionally, a lot of bourbons are going to run around 70 percent corn with the remainder made up between rye and malt. However, there’s a category of wheated bourbons that instead of rye use wheat. Certainly you can use any other grain. One of our most recent releases, Jim Beam Signature Collection, along with some of our Harvest Collection, uses brown rice.” – Hunter Davis, Tour Guide at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse
Sour Mash and Sweet Mash
“Sour mash refers to putting the already-distilled mash back into your fermentation. A lot of people think it’s about the yeast, like a sourdough bread. It’s not. The yeast actually dies during distillation. It’s about the consistency of it and having that acidity to control some bacteria growth. It was pioneered by James Crow in the 1930s, at what is now Woodford Reserve. And so it really helps people get a consistent profile in their bourbon.
The sweet mash is how we do things, which is an older method. It means that only fresh water, grains and yeast are used in the fermentation process every time. It’s a harder way of doing things. You do not have that consistency unless you’re very very specific about your process. But you definitely get a lot more flavor.” – Jared Smith, marketing and events at Wilderness Trail Distillery
“When it says ‘barrel proof’ on the label, that means the bourbon was bottled at the actual proof that an aged bourbon was barreled at. It’s not cut down with water. We take it, filter it, make sure to clean all of the char out of it, and they will actually bottle it at that proof. As whiskey ages in barrels through the years — 10, 12, 14 years — you lose part of it through evaporation. And when evaporation happens your proof in the barrel can go up, sometimes as high as 150 proof. Some people like a higher-proof bourbon, so that’s why we barrel it at barrel-proof or barrel-strength bourbon. Then you have your other aged bourbons, your 80 proof, 90 proof, 94 proof — they will take the bourbon that comes out of the barrel and they’ll reduce it with distilled water to cut it down to whatever proof we want to bottle it at.” – Charley Downs, Artisanal Distiller at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience