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What is Bourbon?

With all the tastings and events I host, there are many folks who want to fully understand all the rules around bourbon. Kentucky has done a phenomenal job at marketing their whiskey to be known as the only true bourbon in the America and I'm sure their approach is being studied in college marketing classes somewhere, along with Tito's "gluten free" vodka slogan. Brillant marketing but it can confuse a consumer in understanding what they are drinking. I get asked all the time how Minnesota can make bourbon if it's not from Kentucky so I thought a quick note around the rules of bourbon could be helpful, enjoy!

Here's The Deal

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. To be considered bourbon, it must also meet the following criteria:

  1. Made in the United States: Bourbon must be made in the United States, anywhere in the country from Maine to Alaska.

  2. Mash Bill: The mash bill (the mix of grains used to make the whiskey) must contain at least 51% corn. The other grains used can include but not limited to barley, wheat, or rye.

  3. Distillation: Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (ABV), or 160 proof off the still.

  4. Aging: Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak. The barrels can be made from any type of oak, but they must be new and charred on the inside. Minnesota is known for its outstanding quality of tight grain oak.

  5. Once distilled, the bourbon must be entered into the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV, or 125 proof.

  6. Alcohol content: Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 40% ABV, or 80 proof.

  7. The label must display an age statement if any of the whiskey is under 4 years old. If a bourbon is labeled as "straight bourbon," it must be aged for at least two years. If multiple ages of whiskey are mingled in a bottling, the age statement must reflect the youngest bourbon in the mix.

  8. No added flavors or color: Bourbon cannot have any added flavors or colors. Any additional flavoring must come from the charred oak barrels during the aging process.

These are the basic rules that define bourbon, although there are additional regulations that apply to specific types of bourbons, such as Bottled in Bond bourbons. Bottled in Bond is a labeling term that indicates a specific type of bourbon whiskey that is distilled and aged under specific requirements set by the United States government. To be labeled as Bottled in Bond, a bourbon must meet the following criteria:

  • It must be the product of one distillation season and one distiller at a single distillery.

  • It must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years.

  • It must be bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV).

  • The label on the bottle must identify the distillery where it was distilled and bottled, as well as the season and year of distillation.

Bottled in Bond was classified in the United States in order to establish legal standards for the production and labeling of this specific type of whiskey. The classification and regulation of bourbon began in the late 1800s, as a response to concerns about the quality and safety of the whiskey being produced at that time.

The classification of bourbon also had important economic implications. The legal standards for bourbon helped to create a distinct market for this type of whiskey, which in turn helped to promote the growth of the American whiskey industry. By setting standards that ensured the quality and authenticity of bourbon, the U.S. government helped to establish bourbon as a unique and desirable product that was valued both within the United States and around the world. Cheers!


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