The Five Biggest Bourbon Myths

Bourbon is undeniably on a major roll. Over the last few years, sales of the whiskey have shot up around the world. While we love that bars and stores now boast big selections of the spirit, we still hear plenty of misinformation about the liquor. So to set the record straight, we’ve debunked some of the most common bourbon myths. Cheers!

Jack Daniel’s is bourbon.

An easy bar bet to win is to ask your friends to find the word “bourbon” on a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. You’ll stump them every time, since the spirit is a Tennessee whiskey, not a bourbon. What’s the difference? Jack Daniel’s goes through a special charcoal-filtering process before it’s put into barrels.

All bourbon is made in Kentucky.

While most bourbon comes from the Bluegrass State (according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, 95 percent of the planet’s supply is born there), by law the alcohol can be distilled anywhere in the United States. And we’ve tasted bourbons from across the country, like those from Upstate New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits and Chicago’s Few Spirits.

Older bourbon is better.

Nearly every week, we’re asked about super-premium and super-old bourbons such as Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Years Old and Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old. Though these bottlings are beloved by bartenders and drinkers, they are really the exception and not the norm. Older bourbon isn’t necessarily better: If the spirit spends too long in a barrel, all you’ll taste is the wood.

You can’t add ice & mixers.

Don’t let anybody tell you how to drink your whiskey. You should enjoy it any way you want. And in fact, a bit of water helps open up the bourbon just as it does Scotch. If you want to add ice, use a jumbo cube that chills thoroughly but melts slowly. Bourbon is also, of course, delicious in cocktails. We particularly like it in a simple and refreshing Presbyterian and the classic Mint Julep.

Bourbon is made from a secret recipe.

While there are many bourbons on store shelves, there are just three basic formulas for making the liquor. Knowing which ones your favorites employ will help you discover new brands that you’ll also like. Check out our list of recipes and corresponding whiskies, which we compiled with bourbon expert Bernie Lubbers.

Learn more about bourbon and get lots more cocktail recipes in our bourbon guide.

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Comments

  1. Sebastian says

    I would like to point out that Tennessee whiskey IS a straigh bourbon manufactured in Tennessee, and therefor JD is undoubtedly bourbon.

    • Yep, got to agree with Sebastian here. Tennessee whiskey has to be made to the same standards as bourbon but can only be made in Tennessee. All Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, not all bourbon is Tennessee whiskey.

    • I agree, JD meets all the requirements of a bourbon. JD doesn’t use the word bourbon as a marketing technique to make it seem more unique, in a class by itself, but it is definitely a bourbon nonetheless.

    • I agree, there was a very long discussion regarding this on the chowhound spirits board but the final word was that since the TTB does not consider the Lincoln County process an additive process, it is technically still a bourbon.

    • Jack Daniels is NOT bourbon. Under Federal law passed in 1964, Bourbon is required to have a minimum of 51% and a maximum of 79% of corn in its mash. Jack Daniels as well as George Dickel don’t meet that requirement and are charcoal filtered using charcoal made from sugar maple.

      • Karl – I hadn’t seen the 79% figure mentioned before, and wasn’t aware that TN whiskies’ corn content was that high – it would appear you are right, I stand corrected.

      • So, what exactly is the mashbill for Jack Daniel’s and for Gerorge Dickel? I don’t see how the regulations you mention mean that neither JD nor GD are bourbons. If the corn content is anything is anything between 51 and79 per cent, then surely it’s still a bourbon, even if it doesn’t say so: a Grand Cru Burgundy wine is still a burgundy wine even though the appellation is the name of the cru and not Burgundy, and I don’t see why Tennessee Whiskey should be any different… To cite another example, Rémy Martin is still a brandy, even if only says Cognac on the label and not Cognac Brandy or somethin similar to that effect.

        • Nick – I have found several citations online of the TN whiskeys’ mashbills being 84% corn, but according to JMF there is no longer an upper limit on the corn content so the point is probably moot.
          (I meant to say in my reply to karl “as long as that 79% limit is still valid” but I hit enter too quickly.)

      • oknazevad says

        Actually, there is NO upper limit on the amount of corn a bourbon can contain (well, other than the obvious fact that it can’t be more than 100%). While its true that a corn whiskey must contain at least 80% corn, that is not a ceiling for bourbon, as corn whiskey must also be either unaged or aged in used barrels. The second it’s aged in new barrels, it’s bourbon, even if it has 80% corn. And either way, JD and Dickel both are in the range. I don’t know what Karl thinks JD is made from, but it is definitely a bourbon mash, and is defined as straight bourbon made in Tennessee in international trade agreements.

      • Karl- I think we would like to see a link, or direct quote with source, for your comment, “Under Federal law passed in 1964, Bourbon is required to have a minimum of 51% and a maximum of 79% of corn in its mash.”

        I have read several versions of the regulations over the years. 150+ pages of mind numbingly detailed reading, and haven’t run across that info. I do know that at present there is no maximum corn content for bourbon.

      • I have also never heard of an upper limit on corn content for the definition of bourbon, and I believe the reason is that the claim is erroneous.

        On the other hand, the definition of Tennessee Whiskey is as follows: “[Tennessee whiskey] Must be distilled from a minimum of 51% corn, with a maximum of 79%. The primary difference in Tennessee whiskey over bourbon is a filtration process where the whiskey is allowed to slowly drip through 10 feet of sugar-maple charcoal, a process that can take up to 2 weeks for one batch. The whiskey is transferred to a charred barrel for aging, a minimum of two years.”

        JD is a bourbon regardless if they choose not to report it that way on the label.

        If I take MGP bourbon and pass it over agate crystals housed in a pyramidal casing blessed by Shirley MacLaine I may call it “Harmonically Attuned Spirits”, but at the end of the day it would still meet the minimum requirements to be defined as a bourbon.

  2. what Karl said.

  3. Jack Daniels is NOT a bourbon. It is eliminated from the distiction by the charcoal filtering. No bourbon, clasified as a real bourbon undergoes this process.

    I am an Ambassador for Makers Mark and do all of their shows here in Dallas. I am from Kentucky and know everything there is to know about bourbon.

    -JD

    • Ambassador JoltinJoe Annunziata says

      Yes.I also was a paid ambassador for the great Makers Mark family headed up by Mr.Bill Samuels../we had a five year program and I know we got the ball rolling to make “Makers” a million case brand…great product..now Bill Samujels neighbor..the Jim Beam family own the brand…I think Bills son Robb..is with Global…Jim Beam..keep up the good work…

      • The thing to consider is that the legal definition of bourbon does not exclude Tennessee whiskies. As per my example if I convince lawyers, politicians, and regulators that dripping bourbon over a pyramid creates a new class of whiskey it doesn’t magically cease to be bourbon.

        Here’s a straightforward question to illustrate my point, if JD tomorrow decided to start labelling their whiskey as a bourbon would they be breaking any laws?

        So in the end JD is a bourbon in the general sense as it meets the minimum requirements for this definition, but most specifically it is a “Harmonically Attuned Spirit”, whoops I mean a “Tennessee Whiskey” because it interacts with charcoal chips prior to being barreled.

        This whole distinction started back in 1941 when the JD distillery requested the IRS to make a distinction of “Tennessee Whiskey” from bourbon based on the Lincoln County Process, but there is no such legal definition in the U.S. Federal regulations that define the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits.

        In actuality the only legal definition of the term Tennessee Whiskey in U.S. federally recognized legislation occurs in NAFTA, which states only that Tennessee whiskey is “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee, and yet it doesn’t even require the use of Lincoln County Process.

        To illustrate just how arbitrary and capricious the definition is, in 2013, the governor of Tennessee signed House Bill 1084, requiring the Lincoln County process to be used for products produced in the state labeling themselves as “Tennessee Whiskey” and yet specifically exempted Benjamin Prichard’s because they don’t use the process; nonetheless this was tacked onto, guess what, the existing legal requirements for bourbon production.

        Distillers use various materials to treat their product to remove congeners and still fit within the definition of their respective base spirits, the difference with JD is that they have solicited politicians to create a unique definition for themselves within the bourbon category to increase their profitability.

        I prefer not to play such semantics games, so JD is a bourbon with a history of politically influenced marketeering strategies.

    • If I take MGP bourbon and pass it over agate crystals housed in a pyramidal casing blessed by Shirley MacLaine I may call it “Harmonically Attuned Spirits”, but at the end of the day it would still meet the minimum requirements to be defined as a bourbon.

  4. Lets keep in mind that JD is one of two Tennessee whiskies. Also, by international standards it is considered an America bourbon. These specific qualities are really only specified in the US

    • As far as we can tell, there has never been a whiskey that is dripped through charcoal before barrel-aging (AKA the Lincoln County process) that has been legally labeled a bourbon. The fact is that the TTB has never issued a ruling on whether the Lincoln County process is allowed in bourbon production or not. And as long as Jack Daniel’s does not apply and get approval to call its product a bourbon (which we sincerely doubt it will), Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon.

  5. Hey Guys let’s stop and get the facts correct!
    If JD wants to be a bourbon then open a distillery in another state than Tennessee. Land is available all over the country
    What is Bourbon?

    Bourbon is kinda like whiskey’s “sweet spot.” Why? Well, first, because corn is a sweet grain. The more corn, the sweeter the whiskey. Also, it’s tougher to make bourbon than whiskey. In fact, the government actually has standards for “Straight Bourbon Whiskey.”

    By law, bourbon must be:

    Produced in the USA
    Made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn
    Distilled at less than 160 proof (80% ABV)
    No additives allowed (except water to reduce proof where necessary)
    Aged in new, charred white oak barrels
    Aged for a minimum of two years*
    * To be called “Straight” bourbon

    40 years in the industry and proud to know the difference

    • So in other words, JD is without a doubt a bourbon by definition, but they choose to call it by a fictional marketing name known as “Tennessee Whiskey.”

      By the way, I don’t see anywhere in the law that prohibits additives in bourbons, which is why some people claim that JD is not a bourbon, because somehow the charcoal thing counts as an additive. Can you point out where in the law additives are prohibited?

      http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp=&SID=129ab81938e10a49edb093f94f6c9aa5&r=SECTION&n=27y1.0.1.1.3.3.25.2

      • Additives are not forbidden exactly, but according to federal rules (http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter7.pdf), any additives must be included in the spirit’s name on the label (as in “straight bourbon whiskey with [whatever] added”), unless they are “harmless,” which has a strict and complicated definition. We’re not sure what, if any, additives are considered “harmless” for bourbon, but any spirit’s formula, ingredients, production process and label must be specifically approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau before it can be sold. And to our knowledge, the TTB has never issued a ruling on whether charcoal-filtering is allowed for bourbon, as no brand has ever tried to label a charcoal-filtered whiskey as bourbon.

  6. Well…..
    I hope this Conversation has come to an end I think the answer is clear.
    Good work Guys – Have another dozen bourbons and get to work!
    Tom Kitchens (Tom@Kitchens.de)

  7. PS, I’m in Tullahoma, TN And from Tulsa, Oklahoma – which is DRY!!!!

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