What is Bourbon Made From? The Ultimate Guide to Bourbon




What is Bourbon Made From?

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What is Bourbon Made From? As someone fascinated by whiskey for years, I’ve always wondered about the ingredients and process behind this classic American spirit. Hi there, I’m Pasito Tola, and my love for whiskey led me to create Best Whiskey Guide. I’m here to share my knowledge and insights with fellow whiskey enthusiasts of all levels.

Whether you’re a seasoned connoisseur or just starting to explore the world of bourbon, join me as we dive into what makes this drink so special. We’ll explore the unique combination of grains, the intricate distillation process, and the art of ageing that gives bourbon its distinctive flavour and character.

So come along on this whiskey adventure as we uncover the secrets behind your favourite bourbons and discover new ones to savour. Let’s raise a glass, learn something new, and celebrate this timeless spirit together!

What is Bourbon Made From?

Understanding Bourbon: More than Just Whiskey

Bourbon is not just another whiskey – it’s a distinctive product with a rich history and legal requirements that set it apart. To be called bourbon, a whiskey must meet these criteria:

Grain MixtureMust be made from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn
BarrelMust be aged in new, charred oak containers
Distillation ProofMust be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV)
Barrel Entry ProofMust enter barrels for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
Bottling ProofMust be bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or more
AgeStraight bourbon must be aged at least 2 years

Mash Bills: The DNA of Bourbon

While corn forms the majority of a bourbon mashbill, the remaining grains play a crucial role in defining its flavour profile.[^1] The two main styles are:

  1. High-Rye Bourbon: With a rye content of 10-35%, these bourbons have a spicier, more robust character. Examples include Bulleit (28% rye, bold and peppery), Four Roses Small Batch (35% rye, fruity and full-bodied), and Old Grand-Dad (27% rye, rich and firm).
  2. Wheated Bourbon: Using wheat instead of rye, these bourbons are softer and sweeter. Standouts are Maker’s Mark (16% wheat, caramel and vanilla-forward), Larceny Small Batch (20% wheat, buttery and easy-sipping), and the coveted Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year (wheat percentage undisclosed, silky and complex).

The Science of Bourbon Making

Distillation: From Mash to White Dog

After the mash is fermented into “distiller’s beer,” it’s time for distillation. Most distilleries use a combination of column stills and pot stills to create a clear, high-proof spirit known as “white dog.”[^2]

On a recent visit to Buffalo Trace, I had the opportunity to taste white dogs straight off the still. The raw, corn-forward flavour was a stark contrast to the rich, nuanced bourbon it would eventually become after years in oak.

Barrel Aging: Where the Magic Happens

Ageing in new, charred oak barrels is what transforms white dogs into bourbon. The charring process caramelizes the wood sugars, imparting signature notes of vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak.[^3] Factors like rickhouse placement and seasonal temperature changes also impact the final product.

What is Bourbon Made From?

I’ll never forget my first time walking through the barrel warehouses at Heaven Hill. The aroma of ageing whiskey, known as the “angel’s share,” was intoxicating. It’s a sensory experience every bourbon lover should have.

Tasting Like a Pro: Bourbon Flavor Profiles

As you sip bourbon, you’ll encounter a symphony of flavours:[^4]

  • Sweet: Caramel, vanilla, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar
  • Spice: Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, black pepper
  • Fruit: Apple, cherry, orange, lemon peel
  • Floral: Rose, jasmine, lavender, orange blossom
  • Wood: Oak, cedar, pecan, walnut, coffee, cocoa
  • Grain: Corn, rye bread, malted barley, toasted wheat

Test Your Taste: Which flavour notes do you gravitate towards in bourbon? Share your preferences in our poll!

Enjoying Bourbon: Neat, Rocks, and Cocktails

One of the joys of bourbon is its versatility. While purists may insist on drinking it neat, adding a splash of water or an ice cube can open up new dimensions. And of course, bourbon is the star of countless classic cocktails. Here are a few to try:

  • Old Fashioned: Bourbon, sugar, bitters, and an orange twist. Simple perfection.
  • Manhattan: Bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. Elegant and timeless.
  • Mint Julep: Bourbon, mint, and sugar over crushed ice. It is the ultimate Southern refresher.
  • Whiskey Sour: Bourbon, lemon juice, and sugar. Tart, sweet, and dangerously drinkable.

Get more bourbon cocktail inspiration from our partners at The Bourbon Review.

Why Bourbon Belongs in the Kitchen

Bourbon isn’t just for drinking – it’s an incredible culinary ingredient. Its bold flavours can elevate sweet and savoury dishes alike. Some ideas to try:

  • Glaze for grilled meats
  • Flavour enhancer for pecan pie or bread pudding
  • Spiked whipped cream or ice cream
  • Salted caramel-bourbon sauce
  • Deglazing liquid for pan sauces
What is Bourbon Made From?

Get recipe inspiration in our expanded Bourbon in the Kitchen section below!

Hidden Gems: Craft Distilleries Worth Discovering

While big names dominate the bourbon landscape, craft distilleries produce exceptional whiskeys with unique character. A few standouts:

  • New Riff Distilling: This Newport, Kentucky distillery is known for its high-rye (30%+) and 100% malted rye bourbon offerings. Their single-barrel selections are not to be missed.
  • Wilderness Trail Distillery: Located in Danville, Kentucky, Wilderness Trail uses sweet mash instead of sour mash for a distinctive flavour. Their rye-forward Small Batch and Bottled-in-Bond expressions are top-notch.
  • Peerless Distilling Co.: Reviving a pre-prohibition family label, this Louisville distillery crafts well-aged bourbons with a signature rye-heavy style. The 10-Year Single Barrel Cask Strength is a revelation.

Explore more craft bourbon recommendations from the American Craft Spirits Association.

A Taste of Bourbon Country: Planning Your Trip

To truly immerse yourself in the world of bourbon, you need to visit the heart of bourbon country: Kentucky. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail winds through picturesque bluegrass hills, connecting some of the most iconic distilleries in the world. A few must-visit spots:

  • Buffalo Trace: Home to brands like Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton’s, and E.H. Taylor. Don’t miss the Bourbon Pompeii exhibit on 19th-century distilling.
  • Maker’s Mark: Known for its signature red wax-dipped bottles and stunning campus. Dip your bottle in the gift shop!
  • Woodford Reserve: A National Historic Landmark nestled in the heart of horse country. Take the Corn-to-Cork Tour for an in-depth look at production.
  • Four Roses: Spanish Mission-style architecture and a range of acclaimed bourbons. Taste through their 10 unique recipes.

As you explore, remember to drink responsibly and designate a driver. And don’t forget to bring home a bottle (or three) to savour your memories.

What is Bourbon Made From?

Bourbon Basics for Beginners

New to bourbon? Start your journey with these accessible, affordable options under £30:

  • Evan Williams Black Label: Balanced, easy-sipping, and a fantastic value. Notes of caramel, oak, and a touch of spice.
  • Wild Turkey 101: Bold, spicy, and packs a punch at 50.5% ABV. Great in cocktails with hints of vanilla, toffee, and rye.
  • Elijah Craig Small Batch: Rich, smooth, and a touch above entry-level. Flavours of toasted oak, maple, and nutmeg.
  • Four Roses Yellow Label: Fruity, floral, and very approachable. Soft notes of fresh pear, honey, and gentle spice.

For more experienced bourbon lovers looking for a splurge, track down limited editions like George T. Stagg (bold, complex, high-proof), William Larue Weller (wheat, rich, velvety), or Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year (balanced, sophisticated, sought-after).

Quiz: Find Your Bourbon Style! Answer a few quick questions to get personalized bourbon recommendations.

The Future of Bourbon

As bourbon continues to boom, distilleries are innovating with unique mash bills, barrel finishes, and blending techniques. Some exciting trends to watch:

  • Secondary Barrel Finishes: Aging bourbon in barrels previously used for wine, beer, or other spirits.
  • Toasted Barrel Finishes: Use barrels that are toasted rather than charred for a more delicate oak influence.
  • Bottled-in-Bond: A resurgence of this 19th-century designation promising at least 4 years of age and 100 proof.[^5]
  • Single Barrel & Small Batch: Prized for their unique, nuanced flavours that vary from barrel to barrel.

With its rich history, artisanal production methods, and unparalleled flavour, bourbon has earned its place as America’s native spirit. Whether you’re a curious novice or a seasoned connoisseur, there’s always something new to discover in the world of bourbon. So pour a glass, savour every sip, and join me on this exciting journey. Cheers!

Please remember to drink responsibly and in moderation. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse, seek help from a qualified professional or organization.

Bourbon Glossary

  • Angel’s Share: The portion of bourbon that evaporates from the barrel during ageing.
  • Barrel Proof: Bourbon bottled at the proof it is when dumped from the barrel, without dilution.
  • Bottled-in-Bond: Bourbon that is at least 4 years old, 100 proof, and from a single distillery in a single season.
  • Char: The level of charring on the inside of a new oak barrel, ranging from 1 (light toast) to 4 (alligator char).
  • Mash Bill: The mix of grains used to make a bourbon, always at least 51% corn.
  • Sour Mash: Using spent mash from a previous distillation to start fermentation in a new batch, providing consistency.

Bourbon in the Kitchen: Recipes & Pairings

Elevate your cooking with the rich, complex flavours of bourbon! Here are some of our favourite ways to incorporate it:

Bourbon & Brown Sugar Glazed Ham

Perfect for holiday gatherings! The bourbon adds depth and warmth to the sticky-sweet glaze.


  • 1 (8-10 lb) fully cooked, bone-in ham
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves


  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Place ham in a roasting pan.
  2. In a saucepan, combine brown sugar, bourbon, honey, mustard, and cloves. Simmer until syrupy, about 10 minutes.
  3. Brush half of the glaze over the ham. Bake for 1 hour, brushing with remaining glaze every 20 minutes.
  4. Remove from oven and let rest 20 minutes before slicing.

View the full recipe and nutritional info at Bon Appétit.

Bourbon Chocolate Truffles

Spike your chocolate truffles with a splash of bourbon for an adults-only treat. Experiment with different bourbon styles for flavour variations.

Bourbon Barrel-Aged Maple Syrup

Drizzle it on pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, or yoghurt for breakfast with a grown-up twist. Divine on vanilla ice cream too!

Get our complete collection of bourbon-infused recipes.

Bourbon Pairing Guide:

  • Spicy Bourbons (high-rye): Pair with fatty, rich foods like duck, ribeye, or aged cheeses.
  • Sweet Bourbons (wheated): Enjoy with desserts like pecan pie, crème brûlée, or milk chocolate.
  • Balanced Bourbons: Versatile with a range of foods, especially grilled meats and BBQ.

Interview with a Master Distiller

We sat down with Brent Elliott, Master Distiller at Four Roses, to discuss his bourbon journey and philosophy.

Q: What drew you to the world of bourbon?
A: Growing up in Kentucky, bourbon was always present. But it wasn’t until I studied chemical engineering that I saw how to apply my knowledge to this craft. The blend of science, art, and tradition is what hooked me.

Q: Four Roses is known for its 10 distinct bourbon recipes. Can you explain the thought process behind this approach?
A: Having multiple mash bills and yeast strains allows us to create a wide flavour palette. It’s like painting with more colours. We can blend these recipes to achieve specific flavour profiles or let them shine individually in our single-barrel offerings.

Q: What excites you most about the future of bourbon?
A: I’m thrilled to see the growing diversity in the bourbon world. Not just in terms of distilleries and products, but also the people behind them and the folks enjoying bourbon. It’s no longer a “grandfather’s drink.” Bourbon is for everyone, and there’s never been a better time to explore it.

Bourbon on the Global Stage

While bourbon is quintessentially American, its popularity has spread far beyond U.S. borders.

What is Bourbon Made From? FAQ’s

What makes an official bourbon?

To be considered an official bourbon, the spirit must be made in the United States, distilled from at least 51% corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Why is Jack Daniels not a bourbon?

Jack Daniels is not a bourbon because it is a Tennessee whiskey, which undergoes an additional charcoal filtration process not required for bourbon.

What is the dominant ingredient in bourbon?

The dominant ingredient in bourbon is corn, which must make up at least 51% of the mash bill.

What are the 5 rules of bourbon?

  1. Made in the USA
  2. Distilled from at least 51% corn
  3. Aged in new, charred oak barrels
  4. Bottled at a minimum of 80 proof
  5. No additives allowed

What are the three main ingredients of bourbon?

The three main ingredients in bourbon are corn, rye, and malted barley.

About the author

3 responses to “What is Bourbon Made From? The Ultimate Guide to Bourbon”

  1. […] Try: Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky […]

  2. […] Made from a grain mixture (mash bill) that is at least 51% corn […]

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