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Bourbon Requirements: Rules & Qualifications Answered (2022)

Last Updated on August 22, 2022 by Lydia Martin

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Wait, did that confuse you?

Well, fret not. Consider this article your ultimate guide on the legal definition of the bourbon industry, including bourbon requirements and how to tell what is inside your bottle. 

6 Bourbon Rules You Need To Know

6 Bourbon Rules You Need To Know

1. Geographic Origin 

Bourbon Whiskeys from U.S on desk

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon whiskey. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be made in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, although 95 percent of the world’s bourbon supply is. 

Most bourbons are made in Kentucky because of the limestone-rich soil, which imparts unique flavors and minerals to the grain and water [1]. 

2. Age Requirement 

Age Requirement 

Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years before it may be called straight bourbon.

Bourbon aged less than four years has to state the duration of its aging on its label clearly, and for blends, the age statement on the label must be of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. 

Aging plays a huge part in the final taste of bourbon. Bourbon aged for a minimum of two years will probably still have the original flavor of the cereal grains.

On the other hand, those aged in new, charred oak barrels longer will take on much of that smoky, bourbon-y goodness from the wood. 

3. Barrel Type

New Charred Oak Containers on table

The bourbon industry requires bourbon to be aged inside a specific barrel. The bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak containers, unlike other distilled spirits that can be aged using used barrels. 

Since bourbon cannot be infused with artificial colorings or flavorings, the bourbon barrels are the ones that contribute to better aging and color. 

4. Mash Bill

Mash Bill

You might’ve noticed that bourbon has a sweeter profile than Scotch, which is slightly more bitter and sour. This is because bourbon must be made with a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn, which is already naturally sweet.

Scotch is primarily made with malted barley, which also aids in the fermentation process. 

Other grains like malted barley, wheat, and rye are added to translate to a more nuanced palate. On the other hand, you will find some bourbons that use only one type of grain. 

5. Proof

Barrel

Bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof and put inside the barrel to age at no higher than 125 proof. Water may be added to lessen the proof of the distilled whiskeys if necessary, but other flavorings are prohibited. 

Bottling

Bourbon must have at least 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume, upon bottling. You can get most bourbons at this strength. 

6. Additives, Colorings & Flavorings

Additives, Colorings & Flavorings

As mentioned earlier, additives, colorings, and flavorings are prohibited in straight bourbon production. 

However, you might pick up a bottle labeled “flavored whiskey” or “blended whiskey,” which allows additives and flavorings.

The bourbon industry categorizes these additives under HCFBM, which stands for harmless coloring/flavoring/blending materials. 

Bourbon Types & Their Requirements 

Bottled In Bond Bourbon

  • Geographic Origin: Made in the United States, but it must be made during a single distilled season at one distillery by one distiller
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least four years, and inside a federally-bonded warehouse/distillery
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: 100

High-Rye & Wheated Bourbon

  • Geographic Origin: Anywhere in the United States
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Standard Bourbon Whiskey

  • Geographic Origin: Anywhere in the United States
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Small-Batch & Single-Barrel Bourbon

  • Geographic Origin: Anywhere in the United States
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey

  • Geographic Origin: Kentucky
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Straight Bourbon Whiskey

  • Geographic Origin: Kentucky
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Sour Mash Bourbon

  • Geographic Origin: Kentucky
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Blended Bourbon Whiskey

  • Geographic Origin: Kentucky
  • Minimum Age Requirement: At least two years
  • Mash Bill: At least 51% corn
  • Proof: At least 80

Is Tennessee Whiskey Considered A Bourbon?

Is Tennessee Whiskey Considered A Bourbon? 

No, Tennessee whiskey isn’t considered a bourbon, although they are nearly identical. 

The bourbon industry defines Tennessee whiskey as having to be made exclusively in Tennessee, whereas bourbon can be made anywhere in the country. 

Tennessee whiskey follows most of the production methods used for bourbon, such as using no less than 51 percent corn in the grain mixture, aged in new, charred oak barrels, distilled at no more than 160 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

However, the main difference in Tennessee whiskey lies in the distillation step, wherein the spirit is required to undergo the Lincoln County Process. [2] 

The Lincoln County Process requires the spirit to through sugar maple charcoal filtering. This eliminates most of its harsh edges. As a result, this bourbon variation is smoother and has a more mellow profile than bourbon. 

FAQs 

Can you call it bourbon if it’s not made in Kentucky?

Yes, the spirit can be called bourbon even though it isn’t made in Kentucky. The spirit only has to be made within the United States.

Fun fact: bourbon whiskeys are actually made in every state except Hawaii. 

How many times can you use one new barrel for making bourbon?

As per the regulations, you can only use new barrels for making bourbon once. Bourbon must be aged inside new, charred oak containers, so you are prohibited from using them again for bourbon production.

However, outside of the country, other whiskeys allow the use of previously-used casks (like Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and Canadian whiskey). 

Key Takeaways  

Bourbon is a distinctive product of the United States with its fair share of strict regulations. 

First and foremost, only whiskey produced within the United States can be called bourbon. Contrary to belief, though, bourbons aren’t made exclusively within Kentucky, although 95 percent of the world’s bourbon production comes from the state. 

Bourbon must be aged for at least two years inside new, charred oak barrels and made with a grain mixture of at least 51 percent corn before it can be called straight bourbon.

Brands are required to disclose the age if the distilled spirits have spent less than four years aging. In blends, the bourbon must state the age of the youngest whiskey. 

Furthermore, bourbon must be distilled at no more than 160 proof, put inside the containers to age at no higher than 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (or 40 percent alcohol by volume). 

References: 

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/limestone-soils
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190331192545.htm

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