If you order whiskey at a bar, thinking you’ll get bourbon, well, maybe you will — but it’s not guaranteed. That’s like ordering fish at a restaurant and expecting salmon every time. There are many types of whiskey, and bourbon is just one of them (in other words, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon). While all whiskeys are made from a fermented mash of grains, bourbon is predominantly made from corn (more on that later). And within the category of bourbon, you have lots of producers to choose from. If you’re a bourbon lover looking for specific bottle recommendations to mix into classic cocktails or drink straight, we’ve got you! Check out our list of 20 best whiskey brands, which includes our favorite affordable bourbons, ryes, Scotches and more.
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What is bourbon exactly?
Bourbon is a type of whiskey and, as with most spirits, there are rules to how it must be made. Bourbon must be produced in the U.S. and contain at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill (that’s distiller lingo for “mix of grains”); the rest can be other grains, such as rye, wheat and/or malted barley. It also must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, according to the Department of the Treasury Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau. When the bourbon goes in the barrel, it must be no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume or ABV) then bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV). Why the discrepancy? Producers will often dilute the barrel-proof bourbon with water to make it more palatable straight out of the bottle.
Luckily, there are no rules for how to enjoy bourbon. You can drink it neat (without ice), on the rocks, or in classic cocktails like an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan. Heck, shoot it with a pickle brine chaser — you do you! Just like the Wild West saloons where bourbon was a staple, it’s no holds barred when it comes to this all-American spirit.
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Does bourbon taste different from other whiskeys?
Yes, it does taste different from other whiskeys and that’s why you want to specify bourbon if that’s your spirit of choice. Thanks to the abundance of corn in the mash bill, bourbon has a sweeter profile than its whiskey cousins (such as rye, which has a spicy bite). New oak barrels used for aging give bourbon its signature vanilla notes. Charring the oak caramelizes those compounds so you’ll often find hints of toffee, honey or brown sugar. These flavors are what make bourbon so delicious in drinks with complementary ingredients, like maple syrup in a Maple Whiskey Sour or apple cider in an Apple Cider Cocktail.
Does bourbon need to come from Kentucky?
No, bourbon can be made in any of the 50 states. While many are made in Kentucky, you can find excellent bourbon from Texas, Colorado, New York and beyond. However, if you’re making a Mint Julep, then you’d best honor the tradition with a true Kentucky bourbon.
Susan (she/her) is the recipe editor at Good Housekeeping, where she pitches ideas, parses words, and produces food content. In the Test Kitchen, she cooks (and samples!) recipes, working with developers to deliver the best written versions possible. A graduate of Brown University and a collaborator on several cookbooks, her previous experience includes stints at Food & Wine, Food Network, three meal kit companies, a wine shop in Brooklyn, and Chez Panisse, the pioneering restaurant in Berkeley, California. She enjoys playing tennis, natural wines, and reality competition shows.