STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT BOURBON

Walk into any of your favorite shopping sites for bourbon and you’ll see a dizzying array of words on a label.  Here are some of the most common words you may see:

ABV:  Abbreviation for alcohol by volume.  An ABV of 40 indicates that the bottle you’re holding contains 40% alcohol.  Multiply this by two (80%), and you will get the proof that most of typically seek.  

Barrel Proof: Bourbon that is bottled at the proof it attained while aging in the barrel.  Sometimes referred to as cask strength.  You’ll often see a higher proof on these products, such as 115 or even higher.  While many distillers lower the proof of their aged barrels by adding water when they are dumped and bottled, barrel proof products introduce no additional water.

Blended:  A bourbon that is produced by blending barrels distilled at different locations, of different age, or from different mash bills.  Four Roses Yellow Label is a classic blended product, blending 10 different recipes from 2 mash bills and 5 different yeast strains.

Bottled in Bond: A bourbon that has been aged and bottled according to the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. The bourbon must be the product of one distillation season, by a single distiller, at a single location. It must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least 4 years and bottled at 100 proof. The label must identify the distillery where it was distilled. Only spirits produced in the U.S. may be bonded.

Cask Finish:  A bourbon that has been finished in a barrel other than a white oak.  Typically, the product will begin an an American oak barrel, and then be dumped and aged in a second barrel to impart additional flavors.  Typical finishes include barrels that have aged sherry, port or rum, or even contain woods of different locations, such as a French oak.

Grain Neutral Spirits: the bane of any bourbon drinker.  Think vodka; think everclear. This is an industrial product typically produced from any number of sources, including corn, sugar cane and beets. Read labels carefully, especially on bottom-shelf finds.  Some of these may contain only 50% bourbon, with the remainder comprising grain neutral spirits.

Kentucky Straight Bourbon:  A straight bourbon (see below) distilled, aged, and bottled in Kentucky.

Private Barrels: Bottles that have been produced from private, selected barrels.  These may be barrels selected by the purchaser and the distiller. I’ve seen a fair number of these at regional liquor stores or large chain of grocers.  These can be good values with unique taste profiles.

Proof:  A measure of the amount of alcohol contained in the spirit.  In America, that means twice the ABV. A bottle labeled as 100 proof is 50% ABV – meaning it contains 50% alcohol.  

Single Barrel: Bourbon produced from a single barrel (approximately 55 gallons).  Bottles sourced from a single barrel typically list the barrel number on the label.  Taste will vary from barrel to barrel, but similar taste consistency is the ultimate test for Master Distillers.

Small Batch: A bourbon produced through a small number of selected barrels.  These may range from ten to as many as 100 barrels.

Sour Mash: Think sourdough bread. While many brands carry this on their label as a unique statement – almost like a flavor profile – it’s actually a very common part of the distillation process.   A portion of the previous distillation mash is reserved (sometimes called backset or setback) and is added to the next distillation mash.  This allows more consistency in the finished product and inhibits the introduction of any foreign bacteria into the mash.  

Straight Bourbon:  A bourbon made from a mash containing at least 51 percent corn, distilled to a maximum of 160° proof, aged at no more than 125° proof for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. If the bourbon is aged for less than four years, its age must be stated on the bottle. No coloring or flavoring may be added to any straight whiskey.

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