Bourbon, whiskey's sweeter road less travelled

Too much of a good whiskey is barely enough for Mark Twain. American whiskey that is, and that’s Bourbon.

Quick Guide


What is it?

An American distilled whiskey, usually made from corn mash and usually aged in oak barrels to give it a distinctly red colour and smokey aroma.

Where's it from?

Originating in the United States in the 1700s, it’s primarily attributed to the deep south – Kentucky or Louisiana states. Whilst it’s now made all over the world, traditional bourbon is American Bourbon. Or so your friendly local Yank will tell you.

What does it taste like?

Made primarily from a sweet grain – corn – bourbon is often described as having ‘toffee’ notes and smoky flavours, often attributed to the charred oak barrels in which it’s aged.


Whilst most ‘high-end’ Bourbons are aged for six or more years, there is no minimum ageing period required; if it’s aged for less than four years its manufacture date must be specified, and it must be aged for a minimum of two years to claim to be “straight” bourbon. The longer the ageing, the richer the colour, flavour and sweetness.


Distilling spirits from grain had been taking place for centuries by the time European settlers started making bourbon in a youthful 1700s America. But the primary grain used to make Scotch whisky was barley, whereas the most plentiful grain in America was (and still is) corn. Rather than paying for expensive whisky or cognac imports (or incurring the distilled spirits tax of 1791), settlers opted to make use of local materials, developing a corn mash and ageing the resulting spirit in charred oak barrels.
How bourbon came to be called bourbon is another matter altogether, with much debate (and legendary stake-claiming) regarding the whiskey’s namesake. The two front-runner candidates for naming credibility are the county of Bourbon (Kentucky) – an enormous swathe of land in the 1700s subsequently divided but where many distilleries began, and Bourbon Street, New Orleans, a trading port where vast quantities of the whiskey were sold.
Either way, like France’s stranglehold on the term champagne, bourbon is only bourbon if manufactured to strict guidelines in the US.


Popular Bourbon Brands in Australia

Just to complicate matters, bourbon is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Tenessee Whiskey – they both follow similar production methods, but Tenessee Whiskey is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal. It’s a little bit of in-fighting over the bourbon trademark, but because there’s an ‘additive’, it can’t officially be called bourbon. The most well known brands you might be familiar with could include Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey – which accurately call themselves bourbon, whilst Jack Daniel’s is actually Tennessee Whiskey.



Whilst it’s possible to make bourbon anywhere in the US (and it is), most production takes place in Kentucky. As you’ll likely have seen from many a bourbon advert, the ‘iron-free’ water (filtered through unique local limestone) is believed to deliver a signature flavour – a bit like peat levels in Scotch whisky. The grain mixture (a minimum of 51% corn but with additives including barley, rye or wheat – all of which influence the final flavour) is fermented with yeast and often the ‘mash’ from a previous distillation.
“High Rye” bourbon (with more than 10% rye) is considered to have spicier, bolder flavours and is represented by brands such as Four Roses Single Barrel, Bulleit, Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden and Old Grand Dad. “High Corn” bourbon (with more than the mandatory 51% corn) is usually sweeter. High Corn brands include Old Charter and Baby Bourbon. Finally, “Wheaters” are bourbons with wheat instead of barley resulting in a spirit that is softly caramel or vanilla flavoured. Try Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle and Rebel Yell wheater bourbons.
But arguably the most influential flavour for the finished product comes during the ageing process. The charred wood from the oak barrels used deliver caramalised sugar and smoky flavours, which, combined with the naturally higher sugar levels of the corn, create a sweeter (although not exactly sweet) spirit.


Food Matching

As with many distilled spirits, bourbon can be drunk neat, with ice or water, or with mixers to create long drinks or cocktails. So, depending on your function, your mood and what else is in your pantry you can create any number of beverage sensations, each of which will work with different foods and environments. Classy cocktail snacks + a manhattan, après ski + a hot toddy, or a footy afternoon + bourbon & coke all = quality time. But if you’re brave enough to sip a spirit with your meal, US chef and author Edward Lee suggests pairing bourbon with fatty meats, particularly BBQs (grilled ribs anyone?).
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