What Is Bourbon?

Buffalo Trace Barrel Warehouse

Whether you’ve just recently begun exploring the bourbon aisle at the liquor store, or you have a bunker stocked deep enough to make it through WWIII, every bourbon drinking comes to ask this question at some point. And sooner or later, you’ll run into a well-meaning bartender who tries to explain that Jack Daniels isn’t bourbon because it’s made in Tennessee rather than Kentucky. The fact is “Bourbon” is a federally regulated term defined by the US Congress, and there is a specific set of criteria products must meet in order to be labeled as bourbon.

According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5), bourbon must be:

  • Produced in the United States.
  • Made with a mash bill that consists of at least 51% Corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof
  • Bottled at no less than 80 proof

That’s it – if you follow those guidelines, you can legally call your product bourbon. And despite these six specific rules, there’s still quite a bit of freedom in the bourbon-making process. So what’s not regulated?

First, one of the most common misconceptions is that bourbon must be made in Kentucky. While around 95% of bourbon is made in the Bluegrass State, bourbon can legally be produced anywhere in the US. And yes, despite attempts to distance themselves from the unofficial state drink of KY, Jack Daniels is by the letter of the law bourbon.

Additionally, federal standards do not require bourbon to be aged in barrels. While I’m not aware of anyone making bourbon in anything other than barrels, you could technically use anything you want provided it’s made of oak, charred, and has not been used before.

Federal standards only dictate that the mash bill be 51% corn, although most bourbons use a mash bill of closer to 70-75% corn. The rest is typically made up of either rye or wheat, and malted barley, but it’s important to note that the other 49% can be made up of any grain. Corsair Distillery showcases a bourbon made with nine different grains (including quinoa) among their portfolio of outside-of-the-box products.

Many new bourbon drinkers are surprised to find that bourbon does not have a minimum age requirement. Whiskey that sits in a barrel for 30 seconds is legally just as much of a bourbon as whiskey that spends 10 years there. Bourbon aged less than four years, however, must include an age statement on the label. Any age statement must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

While there isn’t a minimum age requirement for bourbon, there are a couple of terms that do have specific age requirements, among other additional requirements:

Straight Bourbon – Must meet all of the above requirements and:

  • Have been aged for at least two years.
  • Contain no additional flavoring or coloring.


  • Must be the product of one distillation season and one distiller at one distillery
  • Must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least 4 years
  • Must be bottled at 100 proof
  • Label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled

At the end of the day, all of these rules and regulations are just words. Although there is a incredible amount of history and pride in carrying the name “Bourbon,” the only thing that really matters is whether or not you enjoy drinking what’s in the glass.

(Image via Buffalo Trace website)

4 thoughts on “What Is Bourbon?

  1. “. . . the only thing that really matters is whether or not you enjoy drinking what’s in the glass.”

    Aye, that is right. Great article. We like Evan Williams, but also have enjoyed Ancient Age from time to time.

  2. Pingback: NEAT: The Story of Bourbon | Bourbon And Brews

  3. Pingback: Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey Review | Bourbon And Brews

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