Bourbon — an American Whiskey - dummies

Bourbon — an American Whiskey

By Perry Luntz

Several different terms are used to classify the types of American whiskeys known as Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. The following list cuts through the jargon:

  • Sour mash whiskey: Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey aren’t blended; they’re classified as “straight whiskey.” That makes maintaining a consistency of flavor — and often color — difficult from one distillation to another. Color control is maintained by the addition of caramel, which has nothing to do with the flavor. To maintain flavor consistency from year to year, however, a distiller “saves” some of the mash from one batch to use as a starter in the next batch. Like sourdough bread that’s made with a starter from a previous batch of dough, all straight whiskey is made using this starter and can be called sour mash whiskey. The term is not an indicator of better or lesser quality, just that the flavor and color will be the same in one bottle as in another purchased weeks or months later.
  • Small batch Bourbons: These small batches are a modern version of the old pot still method of making whiskey, akin to craft distilling. The term was introduced in the 1980s by the Jim Beam Company. A small batch Bourbon is bottled from a small group of specially selected barrels that are blended together in a manner similar to that of Reserve wines. These batches are said to be “the best of the best,” but remember that every distiller has his own interpretation of what constitutes a “small batch.”
  • Single barrel Bourbon: A single barrel Bourbon is bottled from one specifically chosen cask. Obviously, the flavor depends on the distiller’s ability to match the current preference in whiskey tastes. Each bottle from the barrel should state the barrel number on the label.
  • Vintage Bourbon: The vintage is another means of modernizing Bourbon offerings. Similar to the small batch Bourbons, these whiskeys are older than the mandated four years. As with wines, vintage is a statement of superiority.
  • Bottled-in-Bond: This method came into being in 1897 when the federal government permitted distillers to keep their barrels in government supervised warehouses for the four-year minimum aging period. More than anything else, this was a move to control taxation. After the minimum period, the distiller was allowed to remove his whiskey for bottling at 100 proof (50 percent ABV). Bottled-in-Bond came to be seen as a mark of superior quality whiskey. Actually, it’s on the same level as any straight whiskey bottled at 100 proof with no age statement. Because of federal cost cutting, very few inspectors are around today, so the process and the term aren’t often used.