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Four bourbon bottles in a row

Introduction to bourbon

Published: February 17, 2022 at 3:03 pm
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This popular American whiskey has enjoyed a surge in popularity, particularly in cocktails. Here's what you need to know

Read our introduction to bourbon then explore our other whisky guides, including rye whiskey, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky and Scotch whisky.

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What is bourbon?

Like Scotch whisky, bourbon is governed by strict legal requirements (otherwise it can't be called bourbon). It must be made within the US with at least 51% corn in the mash bill (the blend of grains that is cooked, fermented and distilled into bourbon), distilled to a maximum of 160 proof, aged in new charred oak barrels and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. The vast majority of bourbon is made in Kentucky but you can find distilleries across the country.

Ageing and labelling

Unlike Scotch whisky, bourbon doesn't have a minimum ageing requirement, but if a bottle is labelled as 'straight bourbon' then it will have been aged for at least two years. If a bourbon has been aged for less than four years it must have an age statement on the bottle. Other terms you may come across are 'small batch' – which tend to be bourbons blended from a carefully curated, relatively small selection of barrels – while 'single barrel' is bourbon from just one barrel. 'Cask strength' is where bourbons are bottled without dilution so these will be stronger and more alcoholic.

What does bourbon taste like?

Because of its high corn content, bourbon usually tastes sweet in character, with other factors such as barrel-ageing giving flavours and aromas of vanilla, caramel, baking spice, maple, toasted oak, nuttiness and cocoa. As well the 51% corn requirement the mash bill can be made up of varying amounts of other grains such as rye, malted barley and wheat and this will impact how the bourbon tastes. High-wheat bourbons will be soft and sweet in character, while high-rye bourbons are spicier.

What is Tennessee whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon – it’s made in almost exactly the same way with many of the same legal requirements governing the production process. The key differences are that it can only be made in the state of Tennessee and the spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal after distillation, called the Lincoln County Process. This results in a smooth, mellow end result, and it's why bourbons tend to be a little more bold and robust in character. Tennessee whiskey will be labelled as such on the bottle (Jack Daniels being the most famous example).

How to drink bourbon

It's delicious sipped neat, although higher-ABV spirits may benefit from a tiny splash of water – this will dilute the spirit but also softens the kick of the alcohol which can numb the tastebuds. It also helps to open up the spirit. Bourbon is brilliant in cocktails, and many classic recipes call for it. Try it in an old fashioned, mint julep, boulevardier or highballs.


5 bourbons to try

Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, £40.99/70cl, The Bottle Club

An impressive single-barrel bourbon, smooth, rounded and complex with butterscotch, fragrant wood and cocoa aromas, delicate cherry flavours on the palate and lovely length.

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Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon, £49.95/70cl, SPIRIT.ED

This, from California, has classic bourbon aromas of vanilla, oak and caramel moving into deep flavours of roasted nuts, toasted oak and peppery spice on the palate.

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Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey, £53.90/70cl, The Whisky World

An African-American-owned Tennessee whisky brand, this was created to honour the legacy of Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, the first African-American master distiller and a pioneer in American whiskey (he taught his distilling techniques to Jack Daniels). This blend was created by Green’s great-great granddaughter, Victoria Eady Butler, and is a soft and delicate whisky, easy to drink, with vanilla, brown sugar, oak and baking spice notes.

1884 Bottle shot

Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon, £29/70cl, Ocado

A great-value straight bourbon, this is an easy-going affair with familiar flavours: big, mellow butterscotch and vanilla, with hints of chocolate, and a soft, smooth texture. Try it in cocktails.

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Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, £52/70cl, Ocado

A blend of four- and seven-year-old bourbons, this has creamy vanilla and caramel, hints of peppery spice and subtle smokiness.

Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon

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