Now, most people know that Bourbon is different than Scotch, Japanese Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey and all other types. Some of you may actually even know the differences between each. What most people do not know is that there are actually multiple types of bourbon. To tell me that you like or dislike bourbon, you must know the 3 well.
First, the basics:
Bourbon, legally, must be a grain mixture made of at least 51 percent corn(after that the sky is the limit), produced in the United States, and distilled to no more than 160 proof, with nothing other than water added to the mixture (aside from yeast). It must also be aged in new, charred-oak barrels, among other requirements. The term “straight” bourbon designates whiskey that has been aged at least two years.
A 51% corn mashbill leaves a lot of room for experimentation. So, bourbon breaks down into these three main categories. High Corn(Traditional), High Rye and High Wheat. Most mashbills contain corn, barley and rye. Try at least one of each type, before ruling out or thinking you have discovered your favorite bourbon. You will find that there is a wide range of flavor between them.
Corn – Is what gives Bourbon it’s signature flavor and is considered the “engine” that provides the highest yield of alcohol per bushel of all the grains. Corn’s flavor is more prominent the newer the bourbon is. As the bourbon ages, corn becomes neutral, and lends mostly in the over all sweetness to the finished product.
Barley – Prized mainly for it’s enzymes for converting starches to sugar for the fermentation process so the yeast can feed on the sugars. Where corn is the “engine”, malted barley is considered the “work horse” that delivers these enzymes. Barley provides some flavor with the underlying malty notes along with some dryness. Usually only around 5% – 14% of any grain bill to drive the bourbon together.
Rye & Wheat – contribute most significantly to the flavor of mature bourbon. They are referred to as the “flavoring grains”. Any grains can be used like oats, or rice, but these two are only ones used, with Rye being the dominant flavoring grain with distillers.
Rye– brings a range of spice notes including pepper, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon which are all intensified during the aging process. Rye gives bourbon that wonderful flavorful “bite” that it is known for and I love.
Wheat – Wheat results in a sweeter tasting bourbon, but not because the grain is sweeter. Wheat is not as rich as rye so it allows more of the sweetness of the corn and vanilla to show through, compared to rye.
The Three Categories:
Traditional Bourbons carry about 8-10% rye, 5-14% barley, 65-80% corn. These bourbons will be a nice balance of sweet and spicy. To me, this is the perfect place to start. See the mid ground(Traditional mash, 45% alcohol, neat), know what you like and dislike about each flavor within this whiskey. Then, if you want something a bit sweeter or a bit spicier you can move on to other types. Or, if you want something with a bit more bite or oak you can move to a barrel strength or higher aged bourbon. We can get into that later.
18% of more rye. Rye is the back of the tongue, spicy flavor. I love a good kick to my drink, something that coats every part of the tongue.
Old Grand Dad
Very Old Barton
70-80% corn and similar to traditional, except replace the rye with wheat. Wheat will bring out the sweetness of the corn and a lot more of the sugars. It will also be a bit smoother as it no longer has the spice of rye. To me, its a bit sweet for my taste. The only way to balance that sweetness is with high alcohol or 10+ years aging. But, hell, what do I know, that’s just my taste.