Reasons for definition of bourbon

A distiller can make any type of distilled spirit that they wish, and whiskey is one of the most popular types of distilled spirits in the world.

June 2017 shelf
June 2017

In America, the most popular distilled spirit is bourbon whiskey – and to have that magic word – bourbon – on the label, the spirit must strictly meet these legal definitions:

Produced in the United States of America
Made from a mash bill of cereal grains that is at least 51% corn
Aged in new, charred oak containers
Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% abv)
Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% abv)
Bottled at 80 proof (40% abv) or higher

For a complete list of American labs defining whiskeys see Distilled Spirits homepage and TTB.Gov Distilled Spirits FAQs.

Question: Why these specific rules? Why can’t we make whiskey the way we want to, and sell it as bourbon? The answer becomes apparent if we ask similar questions:

Why can’t we make whiskey the way that they want to, and sell it as rye?
Why can’t we make whiskey the way that they want to, and sell it as Scotch?
Why can’t we make brandy the way that they want to, and sell it as Cognac?

Clearly, if someone wishes to buy something, they should be able to get what they’re looking for. Imagine trying to purchase Cognac, from France, but inside the bottle is a fruit brandy from Mexico.  Or trying to purchase Scotch whisky from Scotland, but what is inside the bottle is a a pure rye whiskey (not allowed according to Scotch whisky rules) or a barley whiskey from Canada (not made in Scotland.) The point of regulations is hopefully so that we have clear definitions of words, and a way to get the product that we’re looking for.

Many products have a geographical indicator, or GI.  The French name for geographical indicators is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC. Other countries have their own legally protected names for products.  Examples include

  • America: bourbon whiskey, a type of corn whiskey aged in new oak barrels.
  • France: Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Champagne, and many others.
  • Martinique (French) AOC for rhums made on the island of Martinique
  • Brazil: Cachaça

A geographical indicator doesn’t change what something is (bourbon is a type of corn whiskey; Cognac is a type of brandy.)  Rather, rules

protect those producers from outside interlopers making an inferior product and passing it off as something that cannot compare to the original. Would you feel duped by a Canadian-made rum labeled as Jamaican rum? Or Brazilian-made “bourbon”? The AOC and GIs are the government-enforced regulations that prevent such travesties from hitting the store shelves and the wallets of unsuspecting consumers.

  • M. Pietrek, The French Connection – A Cheat Sheet for French Caribbean Rhums and the AOC

That explains the geographical part of rules, but what about all the other rules?

* Why can Bourbon only be made with a single mash bill?

The result of making a single mash bill whiskey, vs blending together several different whiskeys, gives different results

Steve Porter, founder and head distiller at Woodshed Spirits Distillery, writes:

Unless you’ve distilled 1 batch from a single mash and compared it side by side as a blend of 4 single grain mashes, there is no way to be definitively sure they taste the same. When I’ve done it, there were definitely differences between the blend of single grains and my standard mash. I mashed 15 individual 5 gallon test batches of various malts (gambrinus honey, victory, wheat etc) & individual whole grains with the same distiller’s malt to see which profiles I liked. Picked a couple malts, made 50 gallon 3 and 4 grain test batches and resulting clear was noticeably different.

When I questioned a few other distillers and a chemical engineer, the answers were all the same. Enzymes and yeasts reacted differently in a different environment. Minor changes in available sugars, aminos that were present, anaerobic digestion rates…. Regardless, when I ran this experiment just over the winter, the single batch tasted and nosed differently from the blended batches.

* Why does whiskey have to come off of the still at less than 80% abv? Why not allow it to be made at over 90% abv, like Canadian whiskey?

When one distills whiskey to a very high alcohol concentration one loses most of the organic molecules that give the spirit its distinctive taste. The result would be closer to grain neutral spirits, like vodka. This retains more of the grain’s organic molecules, which impart its characteristic taste.

* Why not 75%? Why 80% exactly?

There’s no specific reason for this. The number indeed is somewhat arbitrary. It could have 78% or 82%, in general there probably wouldn’t have been that much difference.

* Why require new charred barrels?

A combination of tradition and chemistry. Newly made barrels, once charred, have distinctive layers, each with certain chemicals, as shown below:

Influence of Oak on Maturation Hyde Whiskey
Influence of Oak on Maturation. Hyde Whiskey. Hibernia Distillers Ltd.

Once the barrels are used to age bourbon (or any kind of whiskey) many of the chemicals in these have – by design – left the barrel and entered the whiskey.  Also, some chemical changes occur in the wood.  As a result, after the barrel is used, it is noticeably chemically different than what we had started with. So if the barrel is used again it would have a different effect. There’s nothing wrong with it having this difference; we’re just noting that it wouldn’t be the same.

* Why not refresh and re-use these barrels?

That’s a great question, and the idea has some sound science: Take the used, charred barrel, and put it in a machine to scrape out the inside, removing much of the charred layers.  The re-char or re-toast the barrel, which will have an effect on the deeper layers of wood. As a result the barrel would be somewhat refreshed, and would have an aging effect similar to a new barrel. In fact, this is what Chatham does when making their US*1  Michter’s American Whiskey, and indeed, it does taste very similar to their bourbon.

In the past there was a movement to allow the use of similarly refreshed barrels to be used in the production of bourbon. That attempt didn’t gain any traction, and until the rules are changed, one must still use new, charred oak barrels for bourbon making.

pointing finger

Here you can check out our reviews of  bourbonScotch,  Irish whiskey,  Canadian whiskey,  ryes or flavored whiskys. We have articles on science & health, and a plethora of other topics. Feel free to learn more about me, Distilled Sunshine.

Articles on related topics:

Bourbon mash bill explained What Is It About Oak That Produces Such a Magnificent Flavor in Bourbon?  Bourbon a brief history Around the Barrel #4: Better Aging Through Science and a Beam Small Batch Tasting Foolproof formula for bourbon How Warehouses Affect Whiskey  The History Of Filtration Of Bourbon  Master Distillers  Flavor drift Bourbon: An American Whiskey

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