Celebrating National Bourbon Day: What Makes Bourbon “Bourbon”?

It’s that time of year again! Yes, that’s right –National Bourbon Day is today, June 14.

America loves its bourbon -- so much so that in addition to a national day, we dedicated a month to it.

And this tragically unsung holiday gives us all an opportunity to revere America’s oldest whiskey in all its glory. Ask yourself, how much do you know about bourbon?

Before you pour that celebratory glass of fine amber elixir, make sure you honor the spirit of the day. Know what makes bourbon actually bourbon.


Short History of Bourbon

The history of bourbon is almost mythical, and its story is steeped in all the best elements of early American folk tales. Bourbon’s story begins with settlers in the mid-1700s, specifically Irish and Scottish immigrants. They settled in Virginia and Kentucky and began making whiskey using the same processes their ancestors used. However, they didn’t have access to the malted barley that primarily makes up Scotch and Irish whiskeys. Instead, these settlers used the only grain they had largely available: Corn.

Thus, a new whiskey was born.

Bourbon got its name from a Kentucky district called Bourbon County. It began to grow in popularity throughout the region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Dozens, if not hundreds, of small distilleries based on farms took their surplus corn and distilled it into whiskey. It was first sold locally, then regionally, and then eventually loaded into boats and sold nationally.

This early period saw bourbon legends like Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Jacob Beam emerge on the scene. These pioneers tested and refined the bourbon standards that are still used today.

But what are those basic standards? What truly makes bourbon “bourbon”?


Basic Requirements

Let’s say you love bourbon. Let’s say you love it so much that you want to make it. Not hard to imagine. But you can’t just ferment some corn, run it through a still, lay it on the shelf at the nearest liquor store, and call it bourbon.

There are very specific requirements for bourbon.

1. American Made

First, to be called bourbon, a whiskey has to be made in the United States. Some are even more strict than that. Some purists claim that to be called bourbon, whiskey must be made in the American South. They even go so far as to say there is no real bourbon made outside of Kentucky. However, the national requirement only specifies that bourbon is made in America.

2. Higher than 80 proof, Lower than 160 proof

To be a bourbon, a whiskey must lie in a specific range of alcohol by volume or ABV. A bottle of bourbon must be between 80 and 160 proof. Anything else, it is not bourbon.

3. Corn is the primary grain

That means bourbon is always at least 51 percent corn. If there is one thing that has been true of bourbon since the beginning, it is this rule. Bourbon has corn.

4. Stored at 125 proof or less

Another rule that makes bourbon “bourbon” is that the whiskey is barreled at 125 proof or less. That means that when the whiskey begins to mature in a wooden cask, it must be 125 proof or less.

5. Aged in charred, new oak

But what is the whiskey barreled in as it ages? Always charred, new oak casks. Different whiskeys, like Scotch or Irish whiskey, are barreled and aged in different types of casks. However, bourbon whiskey is always aged in charred, new oak casks.

6. No additives but water

Bourbon has no coloring or flavoring added. The only thing that distillers can add to bourbon is water. Otherwise, it is not bourbon and distillers have to call it something else.


But what do the other labels mean?

Yet, you may ask, if bourbon is so strictly regulated, what does everything else mean on my favorite whiskey’s label?

Lately, there have been a lot of different terms that distilleries can put on their labels. Single barrel? Small batch? And what is cask strength?

If you are a little confused, here are some of the most common terms defined.

1. Single Barrel

Now that you know how bourbon is aged (remember, only charred, new oak casks), you may be able to figure this one out on your own. Does your favorite bottle of bourbon read “Single Barrel”? If so, you have a bourbon that was bottled from a single barrel of bourbon whiskey. Some distillers fill bottles with bourbon mixed from different barrels. Not so with single barrel: the bourbon you get is all from the same barrel, distilled and aged at the exact same time.

2. Small Batch

This is a popular addition to many labels lately. If you see a bottle of bourbon with this label, it means that the bourbon was made in small quantities, typically from a limited-edition recipe. Many of the largest distilleries have small batch bourbons – notably Jim Beam’s small batch Baker’s Bourbon. But this label is not limited to the big boys. Craft distilleries across America specialize in small batch, limited quantity bourbon. It’s just another iteration of the latest trends of locally produced, artisanal products.

3. Cask Strength

When a bottle of bourbon says “Cask Strength,” read “Straight from the Barrel.” Essentially, this label means that the bourbon in the bottle was the bourbon in the barrel after it finished aging. Typically, to get it to the proof they are looking for, distillers add water to the bourbon after it is finished aging and before it is bottled. But with “Cask Strength,” the bourbon goes directly from the barrel into the bottle – nothing in between and no water added. Yes, just as the name implies, it is stronger than your average bottle of bourbon. So, beware.


Top Three Bourbons to Try

Looking for some bourbon recommendations to celebrate National Bourbon Day? Don’t worry, we have you covered.  

1. Baker’s Bourbon Whiskey

Baker’s Bourbon Whiskey is part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection, along with Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek. This small-batch bourbon is a high-proof spirit that goes great in one of our premium glasses

Named after Baker Beam, the grand-nephew of Jim Beam, Baker’s was once called Baker’s Small Batch Bourbon. However, in late 2019, Baker’s Bourbon was re-released as Baker’s Bourbon Single Barrel and at $60 a bottle, touting a 107 proof and 7-year age statement. The difference between the small batch and single barrel lies in the distiller’s insistence that the whiskey come from a single barrel. Since it’s not blended from multiple barrels as it was before, the whiskey is as distinctive as it is smooth.

Not only that, but the new Baker’s comes in two choices: the 7 Year Single Barrel and the limited 13 Year Single Barrel. Each has its own qualities, but the age is the difference, with the older bourbon having a deeper flavor.

Though this whiskey may be the lesser known of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection, it is one of the best the distillery has to offer.

2. Booker’s Bourbon Whiskey

Booker’s needs no introduction. This legendary bourbon whiskey is one of the most sought-after bourbons in the industry.

Part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, Booker’s bourbon was created by legendary Jim Beam Master Distiller Frederick Booker Noe.

Released in 1992, this small batch bourbon began as a private stash Noe kept for himself and his family. After his retirement, the distillery released the bourbon to the general public to honor its creator and his decades-long service as a pioneer in the bourbon industry.

The recipe is modeled after early bourbon whiskeys, with its strong upfront alcohol burn and bold notes. Highest in Jim Beam’s small batch collection, Booker’s ranges in proof from 121 to 131 and is aged between six and eight years. Each bottle remains undiluted and unfiltered, taken straight from the barrel and bottled.

3. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon Whiskey 

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is one of those rare bottles: simultaneously unique and familiar. This whiskey is a must-try for any whiskey fan looking for a rich and rewarding experience.

The award-winning Woodford Reserve Distillery churns out some of the best whiskey on the market. This Woodford County-based distillery carries a deep history, being a National Historic Landmark. Notably, while the distillery was under a different name, it was home to the sour mash wizard James C. Crow. He worked to improve and codify key bourbon-making processes in the mid-19th century. The Woodford Reserve brand emerged on the American whiskey scene in 1996. It has since released its signature Woodford Reserve Bourbon, as well as its Straight Rye, Malt Whiskey, and Wheat Whiskey.

But its Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is a whole other animal in terms of flavor and drinking experience.

What sets the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked apart from Woodford’s other whiskey is its maturation process. It’s similar to the Old Forester 1910 and Old Forester 1920 we have tried and reviewed before. The whiskey begins its life just like the Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon. But it is matured in heavily toasted and lightly charred barrels, and finished in virgin charred oak casks, giving it the “double oaked” name. This process makes Woodford Reserve Double Oaked stand out when it comes to flavor.

Now You Know

Now you’re all set to celebrate National Bourbon Day, with a little knowledge and a few personal recommendations from us. Cheers!