If you’re just beginning on the road to enjoying bourbon, you may be wondering what different types of bourbon you’ll encounter when you go shopping at the liquor store. Although there are not as many different varieties of bourbon as there are some other alcoholic beverages out there, you should still familiarize yourself with and understand the styles and types you’re likely to come across. It’s also a good idea to understand the difference between bourbon and some of its very similar cousins. Read through this article to get a good grasp on all of this and more.
Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Yes—but it is not a whisky. Confusing, right? Before we go any further, it’s important to note that whiskey, with an ‘e’ in the spelling, comes from the United States. On the other hand, whisky with no ‘e’ comes from Scotland and can only be Scotch Whisky. Bourbon is a type of United States whiskey, but it is not and never can be a type of Scottish whisky.
Bourbon is made the same way whiskey is made, with a mash including at least 51% corn as an ingredient. It contains 80% alcohol, which is the same as whiskey, too. However, from there, bourbon is distilled in specific oak barrels that have been charred for flavor and color. This distillation process is how bourbon gets the color it’s so well-known and recognized for.
Although any alcohol that is made this way can call itself bourbon, only bourbon made in Kentucky can call itself Kentucky Bourbon. This is an important distinction, specifically among bourbon drinkers who understand the subtle differences and nuances between Kentucky Bourbon and other types of bourbon.
Bourbon, Whiskey, and Scotch
Now that you understand a little bit about what bourbon is, you may be wondering how it differs from whiskey. We’ve already gone over the difference between whiskey and whisky, but remember that bourbon is a type of whiskey. They aren’t that different, but the oak barrel aging process is what makes bourbon stand out as a separate drink from whiskey.
bourbon is made from corn—always—but Scotch, on the other hand, is distilled from malted barley. This is the biggest difference between the two and is a very important distinction to keep in mind, as these main ingredients change the flavor and experience considerably.
After getting a grasp on the differences between bourbon, whiskey, whisky, and Scotch, it’s now important to understand the different types of bourbon. These are terms you’re likely to see on the labels when you go to the store to purchase bourbon. Keep an eye out for these different types, and try to determine which one is more likely to cater to your preferences and needs, too. Don’t be afraid to purchase more than one style and give them a try the next time you want to branch out in your bourbon drinking experience.
• Traditional: This type of bourbon contains 70% or more corn mash as the main ingredient. The rest of the mash is made of barley and rye. Most of the common name brands of bourbon on the market fall into this category, whether they are from Kentucky or not.
• Rye: This type of bourbon contains less corn than traditional and double the rye. There is a little bit of barley, but usually just to make up the difference between these two other ingredients. Rye bourbon is very sharp and strong, so it’s not recommended for newcomers or for those who don’t like an overpowering flavor in their alcoholic beverages.
• Wheat: This type of bourbon is made the same way as traditional bourbon, but instead of barley and rye, it contains barley and wheat. The wheat ingredient changes the flavor of the bourbon and makes it lighter, less spicy, and sweeter overall. This type of bourbon is ideal for newcomers who are looking to get into drinking bourbon and whiskey.
• Single Barrel: Every step of the process with this bourbon takes place in the same barrel. For this reason, different releases may taste different, as the barrel changes throughout months, seasons, or years.
• Unfiltered: Just like it sounds, unfiltered bourbon (and whiskey) has not been filtered. This means it contains the full flavor of the drink with nothing removed at all. These bourbons are much hazier and cloudier than their filtered counterparts, so they may look quite different in a glass. Many bourbon fans enjoy them the most.
• Small Batch: “Small Batch” bourbon may not be exactly what it sounds like. There is no rule dictating what constitutes a “small batch,” but for the most part, these bourbons are made in fewer than one hundred barrels. They are often seasonal or short-term offerings from distilleries. Most of the time, a small batch style bourbon is actually a blend made of several different remainders of small batches. For this reason, some small batches may taste great while others are a little less enjoyable. However, most bourbon drinkers have a lot of fun trying out small batches and looking for surprising new hits from their favorite distillers.
• Blended: There aren’t a lot of types of blended bourbon on the market, but there are still some. Any blended bourbon must contain at least 51% bourbon to be considered as such. Other ingredients may then be added to improve the flavor and the color. These are often lower quality bourbons, but not always.
Now that you have a better knowledge of the basics when it comes to shopping for and choosing the right bourbon, it’s time to pick the type you’re most interested in and give it a try. You may find you discover something new to love and enjoy when you branch out and sample some of the different bourbon variants and relatives out there. Remember that there are different ways to enjoy some of these different types of bourbon, so don’t forget to read up on the proper way to sip and sniff your drinks before you buy, too!