What Is Corn Whiskey aka Bourbon?

Learn about corn whiskey, better known as bourbon, from the experts at NYC's Rye House in this Howcast video.

Bourbon.

Bourbon is an American liquor. It’s made from at least 51 percent corn. It has a wide variety of different legal controls on the manufacturing process.

Bourbon is the classic American spirit. It takes the things that we’re best at, like growing corn and shipping things, and turns it into booze. It’s made mostly from corn. None of them make it 100% from corn because that’s terribly nasty. Everything moderates a little bit with wheat, rye, barley.

And you get a variety of different small manufacturers, artisan distilleries, and big industrial monoliths that run stills continuously then barrel age and put them into rickhouses and all those fun things. It’s like an industrial cooperative. There are a handful of very large stills and then a few very small producers.

They do most of the distillation all in one place in one general area of Kentucky. Then people will buy the juice, barrel age it themselves, and put it through different legal definitions in order to make different things. You have bourbon, which comes directly from the still to the barrel, sits there for two years, has given proof requirements which is to say how much alcohol is in it. Then at the end it can be watered down to proof or barrel aged cask strength.

There are two different qualifications for bourbon. There is straight bourbon, which is the two year, and there’s Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey which means that it is distilled, and barreled, and bottled in Kentucky, although sometimes they age it in Indiana just because the real estate’s cheaper. It’s an art of blending, because when you take them off the still, depending on where in the warehouse you put your bourbon barrels, they’re going to evaporate at different rates. Higher up it’s hotter. You’ll lose more of the alcohol. Lower down it’s cooler, but you won’t get as much of the barrel flavor because you won’t have the same expansions and contractions of the wood. So, it really takes a master distiller’s hand to blend them together and get a consistently excellent product.

Some bourbons, whether they’re Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, some are doing more interesting things these days. Once it’s legally qualified to be Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, for instance, this one’s finished in port barrels afterwards to give an extra nuance of flavor to the ending, mitigate a little bit of the heat of the alcohol.

An interesting thing about the bourbon barrels is they can only be used once. Legally it has to be new charred American oak. It started as something to protect the coopers union, not the one downtown, the coopers union in the southeast that actually makes the barrels. Once a barrel’s been used for bourbon it can’t be reused to legally make bourbon. They ship them off to a lot of other places around the world to use as barrel aging. Generally not for wine because it’s been charred and it tastes oaky and burned on the inside. But a lot of liquors around the world are made with used bourbon barrels.

Bourbon is a wide style. It’s a good one for people who are just trying to get into drinking new liquors and trying new things, because you can tell a good bourbon from a bad bourbon real quick. But, in the end there really is no such thing as bad bourbon. My favorite bourbon is generally the one in front of me, or all of them in front of me in fact.

And that’s a quick summary of bourbon, corn whiskey.