I’ve discussed Bourbon with friends, family, and acquaintances more times than I can count. It would be fair to think that, by now, I’d have an answer to some questions that seem basic. Questions like “what makes a good bourbon” or even “what makes this bourbon better than that one?” can be answered easily, but at the expense of clarity.
As an example I could simply reply “This one tastes better to me, so it’s technically better.” and I would be telling the truth, but it would feel like a cop out. My opinion is exactly that–my opinion. A bourbon (or vehicle, or cut of meat, etc.) is not objectively better because I think it is, and there begins the unraveling of the initial question. How could one bourbon actually be better than another? Spoiler: most of the time…it can’t.
As with any type of analysis, there are factors that must be considered when making comparisons. When it comes to bourbon there are some rules that dictate exactly how our nation’s native spirit can be created–and these help us create some definitions that are both tangible and intangible.
- Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no higher than 80% ABV (160 proof)
- Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak containers.
- Bourbon must go into the container at no more than 62.5% ABV (125 proof)
- Bourbon must be bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) or higher
The regulations let us know that (among other stipulations) bourbon must be made with more corn than any other grain. This alone tells us that the overall profile will carry flavors from that particular grain, so if corn-based whiskey isn’t something a particular whiskey drinker enjoys, they aren’t as likely to enjoy bourbon. Knowing the broader profile of bourbon helps provide a basic understanding as to what flavors a whiskey drinker may encounter.