Alcohol 101: An Introduction To Bourbon Whiskey

introduction to bourbon whiskey
Written by Mark Kaelin

Kentucky native Mark Kaelin provides the ultimate introduction to bourbon whiskey. Tasty.

introduction to bourbon whiskeyaNewDomain — Bourbon whiskey is the king of booze these days. Over the last five years, domestic whiskey sales have increased by 40 percent, according to reports. And international exports are rising past $1 billion.

Everyone seems to love tasty, versatile bourbon whiskey. But how much do you really know about that amber liquor?

As a native Kentuckian, I’ve decided to bring you the ultimate introduction to bourbon whiskey. Check it out.

What Exactly Is Bourbon Whiskey?

Bourbon whiskey isn’t a generic term. It’s actually quite specific — the method of distillation and individual ingredients have been codified in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations by the U.S. government. A distilled spirit has to meet these conditions to qualify as bourbon whiskey:

  • Must come from a mixture of grain that contains at least 51 percent corn
  • Must be made in the United States
  • Must be distilled to no more than 160 proof by U.S. standards, which is 80 percent alcohol by volume
  • Must be bottled at 80 proof or more by U.S. standards, which is 40 percent alcohol by volume
  • Must begin the aging process in a barrel at no more than 125 proof, which is 62.5 percent alcohol by volume
  • Must be aged in charred oak barrels that are new

The most important points of that list are the first two, and what truly sets bourbon whiskey apart is the high level of corn used. The corn combined with the new charred oak barrels, then left to age, is when the bourbon attains its unique flavor.

boubon whiskey barrels

The Aging Process

As you might guess, there are more specifics that make bourbon whiskey what it is. The aging process is paramount to a good (and legitimate) bourbon, and here are some of the distinctions.

“Straight bourbon” is identified as a distilled spirit that has been aged in a new charred oak barrel for no less than two years. Over the course of those years the char interacts with the spirits, which pull alcohol soluble compounds out of the wood. The time is necessary because it is during this process that the robust and complex flavor is developed, as well as the traditional caramel color.

A lot goes into how one bourbon maker tells their liquor from a competitor’s, but aging is the first and most obvious sign. The more time a bourbon ages, the richer and more complex the flavor. Aging is the key to making a good bourbon, along with some other distilling magic.

Aging is also the main determining factor in a bourbon’s price. A popular (and personal favorite) bourbon whiskey like Maker’s Mark is aged six years. Thus the medium price tag. While two years of aging is the minimum for a real bourbon, four to eight is most common. Pappy Van Winkle, on the other hand, is a high-end bourbon that is aged up to 23 years. It costs around $2,300 per bottle, if you can find it. The longer the bourbon is aged, the more complex the flavor and, you can bet, the higher the price.

Walking That Bourbon Trail

Bourbon production is much more than what I’ve said above — this is an introductory article at best. You could pull up webpages and head to the library to learn more about the distillation process, but you can also just sign up for a trail. A bourbon trail, that is.

According to legend, Reverend Elijah Craig is the creator of bourbon whiskey. That makes Kentucky its official birthplace, an honor the Bluegrass State is proud to take up.  Bourbon is a loved part of Kentucky’s culture so we, in good conscience, created The Bourbon Trail to educate all those who are interested. The website has good information, no question. But it can’t beat the the physical trail, which in my opinion is the best way to really get the goods on the good stuff.  Why not plan a trip out to Kentucky and experience it for yourself? That’s what I did.

bourbon whiskey flight


I was born and bred in Kentucky, which means bourbon whiskey is ingrained in my life. My father owned a bar for years in Louisville and he ran a package liquor store, too.

Bourbon whiskey only has become wildly popular recently, but I’ve known the pleasures of it long before this craze. It’s a uniquely American product with a rich history, and I believe it deserves its current status.

If you haven’t already tried bourbon whiskey, now is the time.

Personally, I’m a Bourbon on the Rocks kind of guy. But if Pappy Van Winkle was on the table, I’d drink it neat.

For aNewDomain, I’m

Cover image: Tim Downs exclusively for aNewDomain

First Image: Woodford Reserve Distillery by Ken Thomas, WMCC.

Second Image: Bourbon Flight by Shannon via Flickr