Are we mad? Here’s a Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon!

When we first started off on the Whisky research journey with The Whisky Ambassador, it was generally perceived by us and a lot of Scotch Whisky producers we spoke to that Bourbon, the ‘American Whiskey’ was generally a pretty inferior drink to fine Scotch Malt Whisky. Whilst there may be those who would argue that this is still the case, we’ve been tasting some great Bourbons recently, so thought it needed much more investigation. After all, most people sort of know that Bourbon is a type of whiskey from the USA but what is it exactly? If we’re honest, we weren’t entirely sure, so we thought we’d do our homework and produce this quick, beginner’s guide to Bourbon.

The first thing to bear in mind is that Scotch and Bourbon are very different animals.  There’s a heck of a lot we’re not going to be able to cover in a blog, so we expect to be corrected or told we’re over simplifying things (again). After the stick we took from irate Irish whiskey lovers and producers in the last blog, we must be mad, but in the spirit of Drink Less. Drink Better, we are on a mission!

Okay, here goes:

  • Bourbon HAS to be at least 51% corn in the grain it’s made from, there also might be rye and barley in there
  • It’s made in  new, ONLY American, charred Oak Barrels, The strong Unions in USA insisted!
  • It only has to be two years old, although most is about four years old
  • The regulations (a bit like Irish Whiskey) are slightly unclear and change both inside and outside the USA
  • It doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky (although most of it is) it just has to be made in the USA
  • Unlike Scotch Whisky, You can’t add any caramel to Bourbon, all the taste comes from the charred wood

So, quite a lot of differences from Scotch and probably the reason why many have seen it as inferior. It’s generally been produced more quickly using continuous distillation, it’s younger, there’s a few anomalies as to what constitutes ‘American Whiskey’ and without a doubt, it’s not been marketed in the same way as Scotch Whisky.

This is changing though and there are now many parallels with Scotch, in that the ‘Premium’ Bourbons, like fine Malt Whiskies are enjoying a bumper growth curve. The ‘Single Barrel’ and ‘Aged’ Bourbons are enjoying similar growth to good Scotch and in a similar way, they are being marketed as individually branded, crafted, artisan, high-quality products.

Having tasted some of the best Bourbons recently, in spite of the confusing labelling and the differences between UK and USA ‘proof’ systems (USA basically doubles this up, so 100 proof in USA is 50 here) the best of them stand up very well against good Scotch. There are those who would say that as it’s generally warmer and more humid in Kentucky, the Bourbon ages quicker, so a Ten Year Bourbon old is actually much superior to a Ten Year Old Scotch. Hmmm…not so sure about this. Also, as it’s illegal to add anything ‘extra’ to Bourbon, the sticky issue of  Caramel E105 for colouring isn’t something Bourbon has to defend itself against, unlike Scotch Malt Whisky.

Of course, all of the above is very simplified, as USA is producing Whisky in the ‘Scotch Malt’ style, using Pot Stills, there are Rye Whiskies which are dry tasting and very good and, like Scotch Whisky, there’s still quite a lot of really horrible stuff being made. For instance, it’s still a bit woolly as to whether Bourbons have been produced using Pot Still methods or Continuous distilling and there are lots of brands which are definitely hiding behind this. Young, brash, harsh and mass produced but waving a Good Ole’ flag of Kentucky convenience.

To really confuse things further, Jack Daniels the biggest selling and most famous American Whiskey, it isn’t allowed to be called Bourbon! Because it’s filtered in Maple Chips, (which they would argue would give you the unique taste) the USA legislators insist this means they’ve ‘added’ flavour, so it isn’t actually technically a Bourbon, it’s a Whiskey!

Confused? Yup, join the club.

Americans,  Rye and Bourbon lovers, Jack Daniels enthusiasts, we’ve taken cover behind the Mason Dixon line and we await your comments, with interest. Like we say, it’s a constantly moving whisky world and we’re always learning, so do your worst! What we will say is that some American Whiskies are  great drinks and we can learn from American Whiskey. We CONTINUE to be jealous in the way that Jack Daniels and Coke is a drink of choice, whereas a Scotch, like Famous Grouse and Coke would still seem to be very unacceptable, particularly in cool and trendy circles.

Let’s change this! Let’s get MORE people drinking Scotch Whisky in this ‘American’ way, in the hope we can then move them up the food chain, onto fine, Single Malt whisky.


  • Steffen Bräuner

    Hi there ambassador

    Wheat is sometimes used instead of rye (these bourbons are called “wheaters” Maker’s Mark, Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Pappy to name some). Also, there is NO age requirement on bourbons.The 2yo age requirement is on STRAIGHT bourbons

    Bourbons are normally double distilled, first in a column still and finally in a “doubler” or potstill, which might only raise the ABV a few % but cuts are done similar to Scotland. Simplified, they aim for the same end ABV as with malt whisky, they dont want a flavourless spirit like is used for grainwhisky

    Only exception I can think of is Woodford Reserve, they have a three potstill setup similar to Auchentoshan

    Kind regards Steffen

  • JSR

    I do believe that “Bourbon” makers may add all sorts of additives such as Tannins, Oak extract, Gum Arabic,and such “flavorings”, (Similar to their cousins, The US Wine Industry!) unlike the clean and pure Scotch Whiskies. I have not had a response from the “Scottish Whisky Authorities” regarding if a Distillery may in fact do a ph adjustment and/or add supplemental minerals in all waters used to produce Scotch in Scotland. This is more commonly practiced in the US with breweries, but I would not be surprised to see this technique in most beverages, including Bourbons.

  • Thanks Steffen, really interesting footnote that there ISN’T an Age requirement on Bourbon!

  • Steffen Bräuner

    Hi JSR. You are NOT allowed to add colouring or flavouring to bourbon without labeling it. You can find Honey and Cherry flavoured/infused bourbons. This is no real difference that the like of Drambuie, Glayva etc., Orangerie from CB is a very similar example. As such I see bourbon as a cleaner product than scotch, not a big difference, the major difference is the use of E150.


Leave a Comment