What Bartenders Should Know about Bourbon

By Ray Foley

Bourbon is the best-known and probably the most popular whiskey produced in the United States. It has an amber color and a slightly sweet flavor. By law, straight bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, and it must be aged in brand-new, charred oak barrels for at least two years.

Although Tennessee whiskey doesn’t have to be made this way, both Tennessee distilleries — George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s — also follow these guidelines. After aging, only pure water can be added to reduce the barrel proof strength to bottling (selling) proof. Scotch whiskies, Canadian whiskies, and Irish whiskies can have added caramel coloring, but bourbon can’t.

A little history

Settlers on the East Coast of North America began making rye whiskey in the 1700s. They were mostly immigrants from Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland and weren’t familiar with corn.

In the 1790s, when the U.S. government imposed a tax on distilled spirits, the whiskey makers of Pennsylvania revolted, culminating in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. President Washington called out federal troops to put down the rebellion, and many distillers fled west to Kentucky, where the law wasn’t imposed quite so strictly.

In Kentucky, early settlers had already begun making whiskey from corn, and the newcomers quickly learned how to use this American grain to make what would become known as bourbon. Its name came about because it was shipped from Bourbon County in Kentucky to places such as St. Louis and New Orleans, where it soon became known as whiskey from Bourbon and eventually bourbon whiskey.

Popular brands

Here are the brands you are most likely to come across as a bartender.

  • Baker’s: Aged for 7 years and bottled at 107 proof.

  • Basil Hayden’s: Aged for 7 years and 80 proof.

  • Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon: Produced in a variety of proofs and ages.

  • Booker’s Bourbon: Produced in a variety of proofs and ages.

  • Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 90 proof and produced in a variety of ages.

  • Bulleit Bourbon: Aged for 6 years and 90 proof.

  • Distillers’ Masterpiece: Available in 18 and 20 year old versions. The 18 year old is finished in cognac casks, and the 20 year old is finished in Geyser Peak port wine casks.

  • Elijah Craig Bourbon: 12 years old and 94 proof.

  • Evan Williams Black Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: 7 years old and 86 proof.

  • Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Vintage-dated and 86.6 proof.

  • Four Roses Bourbon: 80 proof.

  • I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: 86 proof; very limited distribution.

  • Jim Beam: 4 years old and 80 proof. Beam Choice: 5 years old and 80 proof.

  • Jim Beam Black: Aged for 8 years and 86 proof.

  • Knob Creek: Aged for 9 years and bottled at 100 proof.

  • Lexington: 86 proof.

  • Old Charter Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: 8 years old and 80 proof; 10 years old and 86 proof. The Classic 90: 12 years old and 90 proof. Proprietor’s Reserve: 13 years old and 90 proof.

  • Old Crow Bourbon: Aged for 3 years and 80 proof.

  • Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: 86 and 90 proof. Very Special Old Fitzgerald (Bourbon Heritage Collection): 8 years old and 100 proof; very limited distribution.

  • Old Grand-Dad: 86 proof. Bottled in Bond: 100 proof. 114 Barrel Proof.

  • Wild Turkey: 80 proof. Wild Turkey Rare Breed: a blend of 6, 8, and 12 year old stocks that’s usually around 108 proof. Wild Turkey Old Number 8 Brand: 101 proof. Kentucky Spirit: 101 proof.

  • Woodford Reserve: 7 years old and 90.4 proof.

Specialty bourbons

As you discover bourbon whiskey, you come across several different types within the category, including small batch and single barrel, which are more expensive and harder to find.

Small batch

A small batch bourbon is produced and distilled in small quantities of approximately 1,000 gallons or fewer. In other words, it’s made in small batches, but you probably figured that out. The following are small batch bourbons:

  • Baker’s

  • Basil Hayden’s Small Batch

  • Booker’s Small Batch

  • Elijah Craig

  • Four Roses Small Batch

  • Knob Creek

  • Maker’s Mark Kentucky Homemade Bourbon

  • Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon

  • Old Rip Van Winkle and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve

  • Ridgemont Reserve 1792

  • Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select

Single barrel

Single barrel bourbon also has a self-explanatory name. Each bottle contains bourbon whiskey from just one barrel, with no blending. Some single barrel bourbons include

  • Benchmark/XO Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

  • Blanton’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

  • Elijah Craig Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

  • Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Kentucky Straight Bourbon

  • Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

  • Henry McKenna Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

  • Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel

  • Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

A limited number of distilleries produce a whiskey bottled at barrel proof, which enters the barrel at 125 proof and gains strength during aging, so it sometimes exceeds the 125-proof legal limit. Pretty potent stuff — drink at your own risk.

Flavored American bourbons

You can now find flavored bourbons from American distillers. It seems that bourbon has developed a sweet taste of its own. Here’s a list of the new flavors; most are honey flavored, with a few cinnamon and fruit flavors thrown in for variety:

  • Bird Dog Whiskey: Blackberry, Peach, Hot Cinnamon

  • Evan Williams Honey Reserve

  • Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve

  • Evan Williams Cherry Reserve

  • Knob Creek Smoked Maple

  • Red Stag: Black Cherry, Honey Tea, Spiced, Hardcore Cider

  • Wild Turkey American Honey