Technically speaking, bourbon is a type of whiskey. However, it’s unlike any other type of whiskey out there, with plenty of unique characteristics to set it apart. Bourbon fans can instantly tell the difference between their favorite drink and other distilled spirits, including other similar styles of whiskey. Even so, there’s also a great deal of variety between different bourbons, which is another reason this quintessentially American spirit is as popular as it is.
So, with all that variety, what does bourbon taste like, really? What makes bourbon, bourbon? What sets it apart from other types of whiskey? What do all the varied bourbons out there have in common? We’ll try to answer all of these questions down below.
So, What Is Bourbon, Really?
A common misconception about bourbon is that it’s only produced in Kentucky. While it’s true that this is indeed where the majority of famous bourbons are made, legally speaking, the drink can be produced anywhere within the United States. Even so, bourbon is most commonly thought of as a Southern drink, and it’s become heavily associated with the rich foods and humid climate of that region of the country.
There are a few rules that govern what makes a spirit a bourbon and not something else entirely. First, it has to be made primarily from corn—at least 51%—and aged in charred oak containers. The rules governing these oak containers are strict: they must not have been used to produce any other liquor beforehand. This means that if you see a drink advertised as “bourbon aged in sherry casks,” it must have first been produced in a new barrel or it actually isn’t bourbon at all.
The rules of bourbon also apply to the distillation and bottling process. It must be distilled to 160 proof or less. This means it must be no more than 80% alcohol, or once again, it is not technically bourbon. When it’s bottled, it must be at least 80 proof, or 40% alcohol, although a higher proof is also acceptable.
Beyond these rules, distillers have a great deal of freedom to produce bourbon how they see fit. They can blend it with other whiskeys, utilize other grains, as long as the spirit is still made from 51% corn, and finish it in barrels other than new charred oak. This is what leads to the great variety between the various types of bourbon that exist.
The Taste Test
When answering the question of what does bourbon taste like, discerning drinkers have learned to look out for a few specific things. Since bourbon is primarily made from corn, notes of corn will always be there, no matter what else has been done to produce the drink along the way. As the bourbon ages, the taste of corn evolves into something more akin to notes of caramel and vanilla. This means that every bourbon, no matter where it’s from or how it’s aged, will have prominent notes of caramel, vanilla, and to some extent, corn.
Bourbon is also generally sweeter than other varieties of whiskey. This unique property is mostly due to the charred oak barrels it’s required to be produced in. When the wood—usually white oak—is charred, more caramel notes are produced that are then imparted into the bourbon as it ages. It’s this charred wood that renders bourbon a little sweeter than scotch or other varieties of whiskey.
Beyond these details, there can be a great deal of variety in the different types of bourbon. Nevertheless, they’ll still have a few things in common that savvy drinkers can pick up on. They’re usually somewhat spice forwards: common tasting notes can include cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar. Well-made bourbons can also be incredibly smooth to drink, with a creamy mouthfeel that other spirits just can’t replicate.
Try It for Yourself
If you’re looking to get started in the world of bourbon, it’s not enough to simply head to your nearest bar and order one of the basic entry-level options on the menu. You’ll want to expand your horizons when answering the question of what does bourbon taste like. This means heading to a place like Bourbon & Bones, which specializes in bourbon and boasts an extensive menu. Sampling a few different types of bourbon will allow you to refine your palette while also getting an idea of what your personal preferences are.
If You Like Fruit: Cream of Kentucky
One of the oldest bourbons that you can sample at your favorite bourbon restaurant, Cream of Kentucky has existed in some form since 1888. It’s highly recommended that you add this one to your list if you enjoy spirits that will present a bouquet of fruit with your bourbon.
One challenge that distillers run into is attempting to balance the sweetness and the oakiness. Done right, the two flavors can complement each other. However, go too heavy on one flavor and it will overpower the other and ruin the bourbon. This is what sets Cream of Kentucky apart. It does an amazing job with the balance, while also presenting those delightful notes of fruit along with the standard notes of caramel and vanilla.
For Easy Drinking: Four Roses
One of the more famous bourbons on our list, Four Roses is famed for its drinkability without sacrificing the traditional bourbon flavors. Smooth enough to sip, Four Roses brings with it plenty of warmth, making it perfect for drinking on a cold winter’s night. Notes of butter and apples make this beverage feel like a real treat, perfect for a casual night in or a party with friends.
For Bold Flavors: Knob Creek
If you really want a bourbon with a bold flavor profile, try another famed entry on our list: Knob Creek. An example that really brings those notes of caramel to the forefront, Knob Creek also has the notes of vanilla that help to differentiate a great bourbon. Vanilla sweetness, peppercorn, and a light oakiness make this a favorite among bourbon fans.