A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Bourbon

Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.

Photo Credit: Shannon Graham

Bourbon is America's native whiskey and it is a tightly regulated product that has some distinct characteristics. It is, by far, the most popular style of American whiskey and is in the top world rankings right alongside Scotch.

The world of bourbon is complex and the brands are numerous. If you are new to whiskey or the bourbon style, here are a few important things that you should know:


By law, bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new oak barrels. These barrels must be charred on the inside (most distilleries use a number 4 "alligator" char on their barrels).

Bourbon aged at least two years may use "straight bourbon" on the label as long as the age of the whiskey is specified.

Bourbon aged at least four years does not need to list an age statement on "straight bourbon." If you see a bottle labeled "straight bourbon" without an age indication, it is at least four years old.


Bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51% corn. In reality, most bourbons are made with 70%+ corn content, with grains like barley, wheat, or rye making up the rest of the mashbill. Rye provides a spicy note to bourbon whereas wheat provides a softer, sweeter note.

Distillation and Proof

Traditionally, bourbon is double distilled to ensure smoothness and quality. Bourbon cannot initially be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% ABV).

It must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.6% ABV), so if the distillate is higher than that, it must be diluted with water prior to being put in a barrel. At bottling, bourbon may not be bottled at lower than 80 proof (40% ABV). 

Flavor Profile

By law, no flavorings or color additives may be added to bourbon. Bourbon's general flavor profile can be characterized as having big vanilla, oak, and caramel notes. This makes it a perfect whiskey for mixing into cocktails as well as enjoying straight or on the rocks.

Bourbons containing rye in the mashbill such as Bulleit Bourbon will have a spicy note. Bourbons containing wheat in the mashbill like Makers Mark are softer, sweeter and have a lighter mouthfeel.

Popular Bourbon Cocktails

Bourbon is a popular base for many classic and modern cocktails and it can be used in almost any cocktail that does not call for a specific style of whiskey. As an introduction to it, you might want to begin with these favorites.

Popular Brands of Bourbon

  • Buffalo Trace
  • Four Roses
  • Jim Beam
  • Makers Mark
  • Old Forester
  • Woodford Reserve