When answering, 'what is bourbon whisky', it is best to start with the origins. Bourbon whisky can only be made in the United States of America (US). The name is governed by law, and it cannot be produced in another country. You can find a similar whisky made in other countries, but it can't be called bourbon; the closest approximation is corn whisky.
Bourbon is often mistaken as only being made in the US state of Kentucky, but this is not true. Despite the fact that over 90% of the world's bourbon comes from Kentucky, the whisky can be made in any state of the US. The popularity of boutique distilleries has led to the production of excellent bourbon whiskies.
While all bourbon whisky needs to be made in the US, not all US whiskies are bourbon. For a whisky to be labelled as bourbon, some specific rules need to be applied. To make bourbon, the mash used needs to be at least 51% corn, and it needs to be distilled at 80% ABV (or 160 proof). When bourbon goes through the maturation process, it must be stored in charred new oak barrels, and it cannot contain any additives other than water.
Although bourbon requires to be matured in charred new oak barrels, there isn't any age requirement. Officially, as soon as the whisky hits the wood, it can be poured out and called bourbon. Realistically, you wouldn't find any distillery doing this, though! All bourbon that is matured for less than four years will need to have an age marked on the label, and whisky can only be sold as 'straight bourbon' after it has spent at least two years in oak barrels.
As bourbon has some reasonably strict rules for its creation, there is still a remarkable amount of variance in the different distilleries. The flavour of most bourbon whisky comes directly from the wood barrels, which can be altered based on how the barrels are made and where the oak wood is sourced.
What is bourbon whisky, and how is it different?
The main difference between bourbon and other whiskies is that it requires to be made in the US, made predominantly (over 51%) from corn, and matured in new oak barrels. The reason that new oak barrels are used is to help maintain quality control. When whisky was first being produced in Kentucky, they used the Mississippi River and other waterways to transport the casks. As the river moved slowly, it gave the bourbon a chance to further mature, and on arrival, it was bottled and sold.
The river provided the distillery with a cheap method of transport; the only downside is it was expensive to have the barrels returned. As the barrels were cheaper to build new, thanks mainly to abundant local wood, this was their solution. Although today, transporting barrels can be completed efficiently and cheaply, the method of using new barrels is about maintaining a consistent flavour. The precise flavour of whisky is often unique to the region it is distilled. Protecting this is essential for most countries; after all, the whisky produced represents your country on the world stage.
While US bourbon whisky is matured in new barrels, these are often shipped to Scotland, Ireland, and other European countries, to be used again to mature their whisky. There are some US distilleries that are challenging the need to use new barrels, and they are experimenting with new techniques to keep within the defined guidelines. After their bourbon is aged in a new barrel, it is then transferred to another older barrel for the finishing process. Barrels used in this process are often Mexican or Caribbean that were used to mature rum and wine. For their finishing process, some distilleries will also use new barrels made of other wood types, including cherry, maple, and ash. Using a second barrel for finishing is often an experimental process, but the results can be outstanding when it pays off.
What food goes well with bourbon whisky?
Bourbon whisky is considered sweeter than most other whiskies, especially compared to any single malt whisky. Therefore, it is well suited to pair bourbon with sweet dishes; desserts work particularly well. Most bourbon has flavours that include vanilla, and some older styles will include notes of tropical fruit.
Bourbon can be the ideal accompaniment if you're serving a lightly flavoured meal, such as seafood and roasted chicken (or turkey). It is during the dessert course where bourbon truly shines, and it'll pair wonderfully with any dish containing lemons. If you serve a sweet lemon meringue with bourbon, your guests will be simply delighted and amazed at how these two play off each other.
Where to buy the best bourbon whisky?
Bourbon is a product of the US, and it needs to be imported for sale in Australia. However, as it is very popular, you can find these in most retail liquor stores. However, ordering from an online store is the best place to get them as you'll have access to a greater variety. If you like the flavour of bourbon, but you'd like to compare it to an Australian whisky, we'd suggest buying one of our whisky tasting sets. In these whisky sets, you'll get a chance to sample our top-shelf whisky. You'll find that a spicy whisky compares well against straight bourbon whisky. If you want to compare bourbon against a Scottish style whisky, our smokey whisky is perfect!