Bourbon has never been more popular. Enthusiasts geek out over rare bottles, local bars like Butcher and the Rye stock hundreds of varieties, and sought-after bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle can command thousands of dollars on the bourbon black market. After decades languishing in the shadow of vodka, bourbon is cool again.
First, a quick overview. In order to qualify as bourbon, the whiskey must be at least 51 percent corn and be aged in new, charred white oak barrels. Though bourbon is strongly associated with Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the United States. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the bourbon we know and love does come from the Bluegrass State, produced by a handful of large corporations like Beam Suntory and Heaven Hill.
Bourbon’s boom in popularity has brought many new bottles to shelves as established producers add brands and new craft distilleries enter the market. Though a trip to the liquor store may feel overwhelming, here are a few terms to help navigate the sea of labels.
An age statement is required on any bourbon younger than four years old. The age on the bottle refers to the youngest whiskey in the blend. Though barrel aging is a key step in bourbon production, older isn’t necessarily better.
Straight is a term you may find on any American whiskey. It simply means that the whiskey is at least two years old and does not contain any added colors or flavors.
Bottled-in-bond is a designation created in 1897 as a way to combat adulteration in the whiskey industry. Bonded bourbon must be at least four years old and be aged in a federally inspected warehouse, among other requirements. It must also be bottled at 100 proof, meaning some extra oomph in your Old Fashioned (most bourbon is bottled between 80 and 90 proof).
High-rye bourbons are those that use rye as the second major ingredient (after corn), bringing a spicy sting to the whiskey. Bulleit, Four Roses, and Old Grand-Dad are common examples.
Wheated bourbons are ones that use wheat as the second major ingredient, making for a softer and sweeter spirit. Maker’s Mark is the best-known example.
Single barrel bourbon comes from one barrel, rather than the more common blend of many barrels. While this doesn’t necessarily mean a better bourbon, it does mean you’ll be drinking something unique.
Cask-strength bourbon is not diluted after coming out of the barrel, meaning it’s bottled at a much higher proof than your average spirit. Some drinkers prefer the fuller, richer flavors offered by these stronger whiskeys.