When discussing bourbon, there’s a tendency to dismiss its enigmatic appeal. Born right here in the United States, there are few liquors that are more difficult to define. However, that’s what makes the corn-based spirit so much fun to talk about, let alone drink. For those familiar with whiskey, you may not have given much thought to what makes separates bourbon from other whiskeys, if anything. Luckily, we’ve done the work for you in this complete guide to bourbon styles.
Here, we’ll cover what differentiates bourbon from other whiskeys and break down seven of the most common styles of the American-made spirit, along with a couple of our favorite bottles from each. Since bourbon’s set of legally bound, yet not completely stringent, criteria is what essentially defines it on a granular level, the rest of its classifications are sort of up for interpretation, lending this unique liquor to a plethora of different styles and techniques. Typically, a bourbon’s variety will be determined by one of three things: ingredients, aging, and batch size, but alcohol proof is also something to consider. Ultimately though, if it tastes good to you, that’s what matters most.
What Exactly Is Bourbon?
It Can Be Tricky
Bourbon, also known as bourbon whiskey, is a strictly-American liquor. Although the origins are a little murky, most historians cite its creation as stemming from two independent sources. One story follows a Baptist minister in late-18th century Kentucky named Elijah Craig who first charred the inside of an oak barrel and used it to age his corn-based whiskey. But then, a few miles away in Bourbon County, Kentucky, a distiller by the name of Jacob Spears was using this same process, and became the first to use the name “bourbon whiskey.”
While 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky, bourbon doesn’t have to be from the Bluegrass State alone. Tennessee, Indiana, New York, Texas, and even Wisconsin have been known to produce quality batches. However, federal standards dictate that bourbon is a “distinctive product of the United States” and cannot be called such if produced in another country.
According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, bourbon must meet six different legal requirements in order to bear the name. Aside from being American-made, bourbon must also be made from a mashbill that’s at least 51% corn. Most grain mixtures also include rye and malted barley, but corn must be the majority.
When the batch is distilled (the process of separating the alcohol from the liquid), the alcohol content must be no more than 160 proof (or 80% ABV), and by the time it enters into the aging process, the alcohol content must be no more than 125 proof (or 62.5% ABV).
The bourbon must then be aged only in new charred oak casks. While certain distilleries will finish the liquor in other types of barrels, including port wine, the barrels they’re aged in are required to be new, charred, and oak. Despite popular belief, there is no minimum requirement for bourbon aging, unless it’s labeled “straight bourbon” (see below). And last, but not least, by the time the bourbon is bottled, the alcohol level must be 80 proof (or 40% ABV) or more.
Neighbors To The South
Unlike champagne, which must come from the Champagne region in France, or tequila, which is only produced in specific areas of Mexico, bourbon doesn’t need to be from Bourbon County, or even Kentucky. One of the most popular non-Kentucky regions for this style of whiskey is neighboring Tennessee, even if certain distilleries don’t actually use the word “bourbon” on the bottle labels themselves. Tennessee’s golden child, Jack Daniel’s, is technically a bourbon, but you ask them and they will certainly tell you that there’s a distinction.
For many of these Tennessee distilleries, Jack Daniel’s included, there’s an additional step put in to ensure that the liquor sets itself apart. With almost every Tennessee “bourbon,” that additional step is called the Lincoln County Process, where, prior to aging, the alcohol is filtered through charcoal chips for flavor, making Tennessee whiskey a distinct style rather than merely another region. However, as long as the liquor adheres to the six criteria for bourbon, it’s still bourbon whiskey whether they like it or not.
Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon
Other than having an intriguing bottle design, Heaven’s Door doesn’t reject the “bourbon” label that may have become stigmatized within its home state. Fairly new compared to many of its contemporaries, the distillery was co-founded by Bob Dylan himself (and named after one of the rock star’s songs). Heaven’s Door is a straight bourbon that’s aged at least six years in new charred oak barrels, yet from the Volunteer State. This ultra-sippable whiskey has notes of vanilla and baking spices.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Coy Hill High Proof
For its fourth annual special release, the Lynchburg giant unveiled its strongest bottle yet. While style-wise, the Coy Hill checks a lot of boxes, including “single barrel” and “barrel proof,” it’s also proof of the staying power of this American liquor. Arguably the biggest name in whiskey, even synonymous with the word for some, Jack Daniel’s has named this limited issue after the highest-elevated hill on its property. Ranging from 137.4 to 148.3 proof, the Coy Hill goes from barrel to bottle with minimal filtration.
Single-Barrel & Small Batch
Exclusivity Is Key
Similar in that they offer exclusivity as opposed to their continuous-still counterparts, single-barrel and small batch bourbons are still differently defined. The criteria for denoting something as small batch is vague, and said “small batch” can range from six barrels to thirty. Single-barrel bourbon is, by definition, from a small batch, however, the more controlled barreling process allows for more discrepancy from one bottle to the next, making for a different experience each time around.
Both single-barrel and small batch labels imply a more premium product, and many times a barrel number or batch number will be inscribed somewhere on the bottle. While regular bourbon finds consistency by blending together multiple barrels, the uniqueness from bottle to bottle, or year to year, on either of these scarce commodities makes them more sought-after.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve (9 Year)
The Kentucky distillery known for having insanely smooth liquor raised some eyebrows with the release of its 120-proof single barrel bourbon in 2010. Launched in 1992, Knob Creek has slowly become a mainstay for many bars and whiskey cabinets, perfecting its 9-year aging model, although some varieties have climbed up to 14 years. This hand-picked, single-barrel bourbon has a subtle smokiness, with notes of caramel and vanilla to round out its full flavor profile.
Famous for starting the single-barrel trend back in the ‘80s, Blanton’s has since become one of the most coveted names for any bourbon collection. With its famed racehorse stopper that comes in eight different variations (one position for each letter in its name), Blanton’s’ grenade-shaped bottle is as unforgettable as the oaky whiskey inside. Both smooth and complex, Blanton’s Gold Edition is one of the paradigms of Kentucky bourbon with tobacco and honey notes as well.
Simply put, straight bourbon is just like regular bourbon, except with a couple of added standards. For one, it must be aged for two years or more and must denote that age unless it’s four years or more (see: Bottled-In-Bond). Unlike other types of bourbon, straight bourbon may also not contain any added flavorings such as vanilla, caramel, or charcoal (although it’s allowed to have some extra water added to reduce proof). This moonshine must be made from 100%, cereal-grain mashbill bourbon (that’s 51% or more corn, of course).
The only tampering of the batch that is allowed is the blending of one or more batches into one. In some instances, one or more different distilleries have “mingled,” but in order to retain the straight bourbon name, these distilleries must be from the same state. Moreover, when blended with other straight bourbons, the bottle must denote the age of the youngest bourbon used.
Considered by many to be the oldest continually operating distillery in the United States, Buffalo Trace has gotten by on over 200 years of bourbon-making expertise. Its flagship label is extremely affordable, with its signature brown-sugary sweetness accompanied with an almost unexpectedly complex finish. Since 1792, this Kentucky staple has perfected the straight bourbon variety, offering toffee, anise, and dark fruit notes on the back end that’s perfect for mixing or drinking straight-up.
George T. Stagg
One of the most grail-worthy bourbons around, George T. Stagg will cost you a pretty penny, but nearly everyone who’s been lucky enough to taste it will agree that those pennies are worth every drop. Aged anywhere from ten to fifteen years, this straight bourbon has bordered on 150 proof with some vintages. However, the taste is indescribable, especially once diluted to perfection. Flavors of dark chocolate, toffee, and molasses are just some of the complexities that undergird this beverage to provide an unforgettable sipping — nay, savoring — experience.
Derived from the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897, which applies to all American distilled beverages, bottled-in-bond — or bonded — bourbon must be aged at least four years. However, there are a few other stringent standards put in place that make this style a bit rarer. Unlike straight bourbon, bottled-in-bond must come from a single distillery and be distilled in a single season (either January through June or July through December).
The aging process must be done in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. Government supervision. As opposed to the 80-proof standard of typical bourbon, bottled-in-bond must then be bottled at 100 proof (or 50% ABV). While becoming increasingly rarer throughout the years, bottled-in-bond bourbon is the lasting effect of the very earliest initiative to establish some sort of legal standard for bourbon whiskey.
Kings County Bottled-In-Bond Straight Bourbon
The New York-based distillery is one of the few willing to go through the exhaustive process of bonding its small batches. Slapped with a Prohibition-style label, Kings County Bottled-In-Bond won’t break the bank either and is a great choice for those who’ve always wanted to try one of the more elusive varieties out there. At exactly 100 proof, this bourbon opens with vanilla and caramel, with a smooth cinnamon finish. Led by the virtue that consumers should know exactly where their whiskey is coming from, Kings County Distillery doesn’t mind going the extra mile, trusting that the process will be well worth the tasty result.
Woodford Reserve Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon
When Woodford Reserve released its Bottled in Bond bourbon back in 2018, fans of the Kentucky distillery licked their lips with joy. Though introduced in its current form in 1996, the premium spirits label is actually a rebrand of a distillery dating to 1812 following the repurchase of the facility by the Brown-Forman Corporation, who owned it from the 1940s through the ‘60s. Specializing in small batch whiskey, Woodford Reserve had never released a bonded bourbon in the distillery’s 200-plus-year history. This particular, highly-coveted batch boasts unique hints of tart apple pie and pear on the palate.
...But Not Too High
Simply put, high-rye bourbon refers to a higher than normal rye content. Most bourbon mashbills will contain a combination of corn, rye, and malted barley. While still needing to maintain that 51% corn content, a high-rye variety usually has a mashbill that’s between 20 to 35% rye content, although there are technically no regulations in place to ensure this.
The added rye simply tells the consumer that they’re in for a flavor that might hold notes of spices or fruit, which come from the added grain content, while other distillers might not note the extra rye content at all. Rye also typically has a stronger aroma than regular bourbon. It’s important to note that a high-rye can be made in other varieties, such as small batch or bottled-in-bond.
Redemption High Rye Bourbon
Perhaps the benchmark for high-rye bourbon, Redemption High-Rye is quite literally raising the bar for rye content, boasting a mashbill that contains 36% of the grain, which, of course, results in a unique profile. With a colorful taste that features notes ranging from mint to cinnamon to chocolate, the palate also offers hints of black pepper and fennel from the extra rye content. The Indiana-based distillery swears by its mashbill preference for its bourbons, which are inspired by recipes from pre-Prohibition, a time when rye whiskey was the favorite.
Four Roses Small Batch Select Bourbon
Still quite affordable for those looking to beef up their rye collections, Four Roses Small Batch Select is a reliable bourbon made from a blend of six different barrels, each aged at least six years and each containing a different high-rye mashbill makeup. Perhaps less spicy than its contemporaries, this Kentucky-based spirit offers a mellower flavor for those who prefer some middle ground, with notes of fruit, oak, cinnamon, and spearmint, and a nose that possesses holiday bouquets of nutmeg and clove.
A Much Softer Sip
When rye is substituted with wheat in the mashbill, it makes what is referred to as wheated bourbon, and can even be considered high-wheat if there’s enough in there. The addition of wheat makes for a unique drinking experience, and one that certain bourbon lovers swear by. The result is a tad softer than other types of whiskey, producing an earthy flavor and smooth finish. It’s also said that to really get the subtleties of a wheat bourbon, it’s better to sip this one neat or on the rocks.
1792 Sweet Wheat
This award-winning wheated bourbon is one of the few out there that is actually affordable. 1792 Bourbon, named after the year Kentucky became a state, is a premium distillery and a subsidiary of Barton, that’s been offering high-end spirits since the late 19th century. Its Sweet Wheat variety is as soft and smooth as the name implies, finding layered notes of vanilla, caramel, and dried fruit that blend together on its distinct palate that’s due to the subtle nature of its high-wheat mashbill.
Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year Bourbon
Pappy Van Winkle isn’t just considered by many to be the king of high-wheat bourbon, but the kind of bourbon outright. Becoming one of the most sought-after labels in the world, no matter what the variety, these spirits don’t disappoint. Believe it or not, Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year is one of the more acquirable bottles of the bunch, and at only $2,000 a pop! What makes this wheated bourbon so coveted, you ask? Well, for starters, the production run is only a fraction of what its “competitors” put out. Secondly, the unmistakable pecan and oak flavors are balanced to perfection for perhaps the smoothest sipping you’ll ever experience. A white buffalo, indeed.
Barrel Proof/Cask Strength
In order to save money and lessen the ABV percentage to make the bourbon more drinkable, distillers will usually dilute the moonshine with water after the aging process until it’s around the requisite 40% minimum. Barrel proof — or cask strength — bourbon, on the other hand, does not undergo any dilution, the result being a higher alcohol proof.
Barrel proof bourbon usually has a range between 52 to 66% ABV. If it gets much higher than that, it could be considered still-strength bourbon. There are some regulations that come into play here as well. Under a government ruling put in place to combat false advertising, bourbon can only be called barrel proof if the bottles aren’t more than 1% ABV lower than when it came out of the barrels. Obviously, cask strength bourbon results in a much hotter drinking experience that’s favored by some enthusiasts. Although others prefer the rawer moonshine so that they can dilute — or customize — the bourbon themselves.
Old Grand-Dad 114
At 114 proof, Old Grand-Dad’s cask strength bourbon is a force to be reckoned with. A subsidiary of Kentucky’s own Jim Beam, Old Grand-Dad has been making spirits since 1840, and produces one of the top ten best-selling straight whiskies on the market. Typically running around 80 proof, its 114-proof variety is hot to the touch, but goes down smooth once diluted with a splash of water. The palate may be buried underneath all the alcohol, but when you get there, you’ll notice orange peel notes complementing the spice found from the high-rye makeup.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 023
Blending 10-, 12-, and 15-year-old barrels from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana, Batch 023 layers really well despite being nearly 108 proof. The unconventional mingling allows for its unique flavor profile that consists of currant, walnut, black licorice, and even catnip. Introduced in 2013, Barrell Craft Spirits was founded on the idea of unique processes and creativity, all while using traditional bourbon-making techniques, focusing on high-quality casks, and establishing an identity through tried-and-true conventions.
The Complete Guide to Tequila Styles
Now that you’ve learned all about bourbon styles, check out our complete guide to tequila styles to help you fill up your liquor cabinet.