Three Canonical Bourbon Brands, Deconstructed

Have you ever wondered what makes up the mash bill of your favorite bourbon brands? Or why you might prefer Maker’s Mark to Bulleit Bourbon? Well, let’s find out.

The most basic requirement for bourbon is that it must contain a minimum 51% corn in the mash bill. Traditional bourbons (Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, and Jim Beam, for example) are made up of 70-80% corn, with the balance being a combination of rye and barley.

The three general mash bills used for making bourbon are traditional, high rye, and high wheat. A high rye bourbon will contain 18% or more rye. Basil Hayden’s, Four Roses, and Old Grandad are high rye bourbons. They contain about double the amount of rye as traditional bourbon. Rye gives a spicier flavor to the whiskey,  with notes of black or white pepper and baking spice, such as cinnamon or nutmeg.

Maker's Mark bourbon, one of several bourbon brands
image via Sam Howzit/flickr

Wheat gives a sweetness to the whiskey, but is not as sweet as corn. A wheat bourbon will be about 70-80% corn, with wheat added instead of rye. This produces a softer, sweeter whiskey. Maker’s Mark, Old Fitzgerald, and Larceny are examples of this style. Barley, by comparison, gives malty, chocolatey flavors. The usual amount of barley in bourbon is anywhere from 5-14%.

Let’s take a closer look at some classic bourbons:

Knob Creek: This traditional bourbon is copper to medium amber in color with aromas of sweet corn, toasted nuts, and oak. The flavor is rich, sweet, woody, and full bodied with a long satisfying finish. For about $50 this is a great everyday bourbon.

Four Roses: This iconic bourbon is considered a high rye bourbon. Four Roses is light amber in color with floral aromas and flavors of honey and spice. A great starter bourbon, it finishes soft and smooth. For about $33, it is a great entry level dram.

Maker’s Mark: A wheated bourbon, Maker’s Mark is medium amber in color. Maker’s has aromas of corn and vanilla with hints of cherry. On the palate there are flavors of creamed corn and vanilla with a warm finish. Definitely a sweeter bourbon, it is around $40 on the shelf.

So, armed with this information, go out and get some different types of bourbon and do your own taste test! Then you can decide which style you like best. Cheers!

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