The many faces of American whiskey and stuff they put on their labels

Recently I had the extraordinary privilege to receive a private lesson about Bourbon by Mr. Henry Joe of Heaven Hill Distilleries, who machine-gunned me the full 60 minutes with the history, process, differences, label terms and tastes of Bourbon and American whiskeys. Conclusion: there’s a lot to know…and a lot to taste. All this happened thanks to Mr. Timon Salomez from The Nectar, so take your hat off for Mr. Salomez when you see him.
Disclaimer: The following is purely my personal opinion and not necessarily that of other people mentioned here.

 Elijah Craig Review - The Bourbon Intelligencer

I vehemently refused to title this article “X things you should know about Bourbon”. There’s not 10 or 15, but rather a billion things to know about Bourbon and American whiskey in general and I don’t know them all. The people who write articles like “10 or 15 things to know about…” only name it that way, because they fear they will lose the reader’s attention if they would have add 5 more. You know, they keep it short. I only keep it short, because my ice is melting and starting to dilute my Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey.

Most of the average bar guests in Europe don’t know a lot about American Whiskey. They can name Jack Daniels and Four Roses, end of story. Some can add Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Bulleit or Woodford Reserve and know it has something to do with corn. Well, Mr. Henry Joe introduced me to Mr. Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Rittenhouse and Mr. Bernheim and a lot more. And it was quite a pleasure to meet them.

Mr. Henry Joe, the Bourbon Encyclopaedia of Heaven Hill Distilleries
Mr. Henry Joe, the Bourbon Encyclopaedia of Heaven Hill Distilleries
Mr. Salomez from The Nectar. You see, he lifts!
Mr. Salomez from The Nectar. You see, he lifts!

What is Bourbon exactly?

Bourbon is American whiskey distilled from a mixture of grains of which no less than 51% must be corn. Hence its often smooth, sweet taste. Unlike some other distilled spirits and many of the world’s other types of whiskeys which can add ingredients to overcome possible “shortcomings” in the production process, straight Bourbon whiskey can have no flavouring, colouring or blending agents added and comes out as it went into the barrel. This barrel must be a new white oak barrel which is charred on the inside and thus gives the Bourbon its nice copper color. Bourbon is distilled to a maximum of 80%, it goes into the barrel at no more than 62.5% and it is bottled at no less than 40%.

Bourbon has no minimum duration for ageing, except for Straight Bourbon which has to be aged for a minimum of 2 years in the barrel. And any Bourbon aged up to 4 years must state its age on the bottle, yet anything older than 4 years doesn’t have to.

It is named after Bourbon County, a part of Kentucky named after the French noble house of Bourbon who helped the Americans in the Revolutionary War. They even got a city named Versailles, but they pronounce it ‘for sales’.

Some say it is a lesser product than Scotch Whisky. I disagree, I tasted some excellent Bourbons, Ryes and other American whiskeys. But hey, that’s just taste is it, or not?


So, that’s it?

No, but I told you, my ice is melting. There’s also straight wheat whiskey, straight rye whiskey, corn whiskey and wheated bourbon whiskey.

Straight Wheat Whiskey is distilled from at least 51% soft winter wheat.

Straight Rye Whiskey is distilled from at least 51% rye. The Rittenhouse Rye, for instance, left quite an impression, sweet , spicy and a lot of character.

Corn Whiskey differs from Bourbon in the fact that it has to have at least 80% in its mash. And it is not legally bound to be aged.

Wheated Bourbon Whiskey is made from at least 51% corn, then they add barley like in Bourbon too, but in stead of rye they add wheat. It’s less spicy and more rounder.

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Then there’s the label.

Now here’s a thing or two whilst you’re sipping your dram. I hate this sh*t they have to put on the labels. They’re bound by law, I know. It’s regulations. I understand where it comes from and why in a certain way it is necessary, but in the end it doesn’t solve much, I think personally. I could be wrong of course. I understand you have to stop people from distilling cattle food and selling it for whiskey. I understand you want to guard the quality of a national product. And you should, but can you do that by making the most complicated label in whiskey history? The label is an arcane code which you have to decipher to get a hint whether you’re drinking cat’s piss or the finest Bourbon you’ve met. I don’t think it needs a label for that, just take a sip. But hey, we’re protecting the customer here right? Well, if the average customer reads a label, it’s probably the price label. A knowledge happily abused by some. Somebody’s bound to find a loop in the system and then they probably force you to put another thing on your label, repeat until thirsty. If they regulate it even further, all Bourbons will eventually taste the same, won’t you think?

Also, when some of the cipher is cracked by the average customer and the knowledge is spread, marketing strikes down like vultures to use it and sell you more (of that label). Bizarre myths start to spread, like in the case with Scotch whisky, single malts are better than blends. Why? That’s just a matter of taste is it not? I’ve tasted blends which surpass many a single malt now on the common market. The more stuff you put on the label, the more it confuses the customer, I think. But, the more stuff on it, the better it is, or is it not?

"Sir, 14 of our analists confirm it is bottled-in-bond. Also, we need another bottle."
“Sir, 5 of our analists confirm it is bottled-in-bond, straight, properly aged, in the right barrel, perfectly charred, distilled at good ABV, went into the barrel at correct ABV, was bottled at a decent ABV, contains no traces of panda and the mash was probably sour. Also, we need another bottle.”


In case of Bourbon, in order to have a decent product apparently, it has to say Bonded or Bottled-In-Bond, meaning that it must be bottled at exactly 100 proof, aged for a minimum of four years, be a product of one distillery, and distilled during a single season. These days, that means January through December. Also, the the DSP numbers of both the production and bottling facilities must be stated on each bottle.

Well, thank God they invented a word for all that: bonded. The result of these laws makes ‘Bonded’ the most restricted of all Bourbon types. Bonded is better, say it forth.

The same goes for ‘straight’. Straight Bourbon Whiskeys must conform to the standards prescribed in the definitions of whiskey and bourbon. Those which have been stored in new, charred white oak barrels, prescribed for a period of two years or more shall be further designated as ‘straight’. So if it doesn’t say straight, it can be something else than bourbon, it can be distilled sugar beet, aged in grandma’s dusty wardrobe, for instance? I don’t know, but straight is better, say it forth.

Much more clear is the statement on the label that says: ‘sour mash’. This just means what it says, the mash used for the Bourbon is sour. This is because they use a small part of spent mash to speed up the fermentation process, because it contains live yeast, if I remember correctly. Is sour mash better? I don’t know, but say it forth anyway.

The best bit is, all these label regulations apply only to Bourbon for the American market. So “Bourbon” meant for the European market could be anything from fermented moose droppings to distilled buffalo tears.

Catch the drift? Just taste & try… and try several. You will soon start to notice the difference between a good product and a bad one. And in the end it is your taste that matters, not marketing or labels.

A good product is in most cases a product made by the heart. A bad product is more than often made for the money.

I tasted good products that day!








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