The Only Thing That Really Matters When Buying Bourbon

published May 13, 2017
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

If you walk into a liquor store and feel overwhelmed by the variety of bourbons on the shelf, it’s no surprise. It seems everybody’s getting on the bandwagon, and there’s a dizzying array. Equally dizzying are the terms on the label. What on earth is a Bottled-in-Bond, Single-Barrel, 10-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, anyway?

Trust me — there’s a method to the mad libs. Here’s what you need to know.

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

First: What is bourbon?

Before we get into the lingo, let’s talk about bourbon. You may see more brands crowding the shelves as makers jump on the whiskey train, but you can’t just throw any brown liquor in a bottle and slap a bourbon label on it. An actual act of Congress (well, technically a concurrent resolution) defined this spirit, and there are a few hard-and-fast rules the drink must follow to be a legit bourbon.

  • It has to be produced in the United States (not necessarily Kentucky, although the vast majority does come from this hallowed land of limestone-filtered water).
  • It can’t have anything other than water added to it — no caramel E150 here, my friends!
  • The mash bill, or grain recipe, must be at least 51 percent corn. (The rest can be wheat, rye, or, heck, even quinoa).
  • It has to be aged in a new, charred oak vessel (nobody said it has to be a barrel, per se, but that’s the tradition).

Interestingly, there’s no time requirement for bourbon. Spend much time in the bourbon world and you’ll hear lots of lore — one of my favorites is a quote attributed to Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller, who says you can fill a new, charred oak bucket and carry it to the bottling line and have bourbon. Of course then it wouldn’t be Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and it would have to carry an age statement. (We’re getting to that.)

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

A Guide to Understanding Your Bourbon Bottle Label

On that note, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how to decipher that bourbon label. There are a few things legally required to be on the label: brand name, class and type (i.e., bourbon whiskey), net content, ABV or proof, the government health warning, and the name of the producer. We’ll talk about some of these and also some of the more fun (or confusing, depending on how you see it) terminology. Ready? Here we go.

What does proof mean, and should you care?

Pretty straightforward, proof is just alcohol by volume (ABV) times two. This number can run the gamut from 80 proof (or 40% ABV) to well over 100 proof (or more than 50% ABV).

So, should you care? Yes — and no. The higher the proof, the more alcohol, but try not to make any other assumptions based on proof. Higher proof doesn’t necessarily mean better and it doesn’t necessarily mean harsher; it just means more alcohol.

Here’s the thing: Someone (or a panel of someones) with a great palate has chosen that proof as the best possible expression of that bourbon. When you see a bourbon that’s 94.2, that’s because the flavor profile is at its absolute best there — not at 94, and not 95.

Why do some bourbons have an age statement (and others don’t)?

Like some of us, bourbon doesn’t always want to come right out and say how old it is. And, like us, it doesn’t have to — unless it’s aged for under four years. Then, an age statement is legally required.

This shyness about age didn’t used to be the case. It used to be that ages were proclaimed loud and clear. Then came the bourbon boom, and suddenly distillers couldn’t keep up with demand. To appease the crowds clamoring for More Bourbon Right Now, they began to roll out younger bourbons, or mingle (we never say blend — that’s for Canadian whiskey) different ages.

Here’s where things get interesting: According to law, you can only claim the age of the youngest bourbon in the mix, and because — fairly or not — many consumers associate greater age with greater quality, distillers started to quietly drop age statements. Or in a clever marketing attempt to make the bourbon seem older (or not so clever, as these endeavors sometimes resulted in lawsuits), they’d drop the statement but keep the number. Eight-year-old Old Charter, for instance, became a younger Old Charter 8 with no age statement but a very similar label.

The takeaway? That prominent number on the label may have nothing to do with the age of the bourbon in the bottle.

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

What is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey?

Here we’re combining a few different legal definitions: Straight whiskey is at least two years old, says federal law. Kentucky bourbon, per Kentucky law, is made in state and aged at least one year in Kentucky. (This is a holdover from the days when distilleries might age across the river to save on those pesky taxes).

So put it all together and what do you have? Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is bourbon made in Kentucky and aged for at least two years, at least one in Kentucky.

What’s the deal with Bottled-in-Bond?

Another holdover from those wild early days of whiskey making, this official-sounding term originated as a way to protect consumers from whiskey fraud. When you’d fill your jug at a store or buy it by the barrel, there was no way to know if it had been tampered with (turpentine, anyone?), or whether you could trust an unscrupulous distiller. Enter: the government.

According to the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, the Bottled-in-Bond designation means that the bourbon is made and bottled in a single distillery in a single distilling season. It’s also aged at least four years in a government bonded warehouse (formerly overseen by a government employee who served as the keeper of the key when it was locked up at the end of the day) and is exactly 100 proof.

So, is it really all that? Just like with age, Bottled-in-Bond is not a guarantee you’re going to like it. In fact, Colin Blake, the creative director at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter told me, “Putting BIB is one way to sell a four-year product and make it cool and exciting — otherwise it’s just a super-young whiskey.”

On the other hand, Bottled-in-Bond does guarantee a certain level of quality — and it tells you for sure who’s making the juice, which isn’t always crystal clear.

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

Who’s making the bourbon and how can you tell?

Ever wonder about that new craft distillery that starts selling eight-year-old bourbon straight away? Chances are they’re buying their distillate — or “juice” — from someone else.

Now, this might sound shady, but consider this: Starting a distillery takes megabucks, and most people don’t have the funds to sit around waiting years before they bottle their first drop. Selling “moonshine” (unaged new make) is only going to get them so far, so the solution is simply to buy from another brand or, more likely, a supplier whose sole purpose is to make whiskey for other people. (The most famous example of this is MGP, a mammoth distillery in Indiana that may well be behind your favorite whiskey.)

There’s no shame in sourcing, many folks in the bourbon world say, so long as the brand is honest. Willett is often given as the model in transparency. But when a brand conjures up a fable and misrepresents what they’re selling, all hell breaks loose. (For a good time google “Templeton Rye lawsuit” and pour yourself a drink).

How can you tell who’s making the juice? If you’re curious, look for the telltale “distilled by” or “bottled by” in the small print on the label. Not naming names, I’ve got two bottles in front of me. One reads “Distilled & Bottled by [xyx] at Louisville Kentucky.” So we know it was made here. The other refers to distilling, aging, and tradition on the front of the bottle, but flip it over and I see “bottled by [xyz] in Louisville, Kentucky.” Read between the lines and you can guess it was distilled elsewhere.

So, what should you pay attention to — really?

Here’s the thing: Everyone I’ve ever talked with in the industry agrees that you should drink what you like. Old or young, blistering high-proof or easygoing 80 proof, bonded or not, sourced in Indiana or distilled in the heart of bourbon country — at the end of the day it’s not what’s on the label that matters, it’s what’s you make of what’s in the bottle. And the only way to find out what’s in the bottle is to open it up.

Here are a few bottles, all in the $20 and under category, to get you started.

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What do you look for in a bourbon? Do you like an easy-going 80-proof bottle or do you go for cast-strength?