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What is Bourbon? A Short Guide for the New Whiskey Lover

What is bourbon? If you’ve been into whiskey for a while, it might seem like a silly question, but don’t roll your eyes: there was a time when you didn’t know what bourbon was, either.

Bourbon is, without a doubt, the most famous American contribution to the world of whiskey. So, fittingly, it must be made in the United States. However, despite the best efforts of its various publicists to convince you otherwise, bourbon can be made in any state, not just Kentucky. Thats right – Kentucky does not have exclusivity to this spirit across the US.

Buffalo Trace bourbon
Buffalo Trace bourbon ages in new charred American oak casks. (image via Buffalo Trace)

But bourbon’s story certainly began in the American south, where corn whiskey well-aged in barrels became commonplace after river freight down the Mississippi began to take off in the 1800s. It may even have gotten its name from Bourbon County, the county in Kentucky that gave its name to the spirit but, until recently, hadn’t been home to a distillery since Prohibition. For an in-depth recounting of bourbon’s origin story, check out this article from Michael Veach.

There are two other major things that make bourbon special. The grain it’s made from (its “mash bill”) must be at least 51% corn (and usually it’s more, somewhere around 70% or 80%). The remainder can be made up of any grain at all, although the favored combination is either wheat or rye as well as a bit of malted barley to contribute enzymes that turn starch into sugar.

Bourbon also must be aged in a brand-new, charred oak barrel, giving it a lot of sweetness and oak character. Whether this requirement stems from an effort to temper corn whiskey’s famously funky character, or is the result of vigorous lobbying from the cooper’s industry, remains up for debate. Regardless, the bourbon industry may be the world’s largest consumer of barrels, and has become the main supplier for a huge range of other drinks producers, from breweries and scotch distilleries to tequila and cachaça producers.

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is the former managing editor of Edible Portland, as well as a cofounder and former managing editor of The Whiskey Wash. In 2017, Margarett won the Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year award. She received a fellowship for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2017 and 2019.

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