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What is bourbon?  I mean, we know what it is – delicious brown nectar from the Dionysus of Kentucky – but what is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?  The basic answer is that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.  So it’s a special type of whiskey, but what makes it special?  Interestingly, there are actually government regulations defining it as such!

The Code of Federal Regulations Title 27, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, Section 5.22 is titled “The standards of identity.”  It first defines whisky, under Class 2, as:

  • An alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain

  • Produced at less than 190 proof in such a manner that

  • The distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics attributed to whisky,

  • Stored in oak containers (except corn whisky), and

  • Bottled at not less than 80 proof

These are the general constraints that define what can be sold as whisky in the United States.  Other countries might have other constraints, but interestingly, almost all countries specify that to call it “bourbon” it must be produced in the United States – we connoisseurs are patriots!  The same regulation then further defines bourbon, rye, wheat, malt, and rye malt whisky as:

  • Produced at not exceeding 160 proof from fermented mash of

  • Not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and

  • Stored at not more than 125 proof

  • In charred new oak containers

Furthermore, there are even labeling regulations for the adjective “straight”:

  • Whiskies conforming to the standards above

  • Which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed

  • For a period of 2 years or more

This is one way to determine some general aging specs from the bottle – if it says “straight bourbon whisky” it must have been aged at least 2 years.

There are also specific definitions around “light whisky” – produced at more than 160 proof on or after January 26, 1968 and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers, “blended whisky” – a mixture that contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis; if a blended whisky contains 51 percent or more of a straight whisky type, it shall be further designated by that type (i.e. “blended rye whisky”), “blended straight whiskies” – consists entirely of one of the types of straight whisky but not conforming to the standards of straight whisky produced in the same State or by the same proprietor within the same State, and “Scotch whisky”, “Irish whisky”, and “Canadian whisky” – manufactured in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, or Canada, respectively.

Now what defines good whisky and bourbon, that’s a subject for endless discussion within a fun group of those that love the brown water, and I know just where to find that group!  Check out the Calendar page to find the next chapter meeting nearest you and join in the conversation.  We’ll talk about mash bills, barrel locations, blending practices, aging conditions, climates, histories, water sources, personalities, charring, proof, and all manner of everything else under the sun that makes a whisky distinct and special.  And then we’ll taste it, as well!

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