Last time, we talked about where bourbon comes from and we went over some of the terminology associated with our favorite spirit. This time, we’re going to see how much we’ve learned. I dug up a few whiskey bottles that you might encounter at your local liquor store. We’re going to take a look at them and see what they have to tell us about their delicious contents.
First, lets have a look at our friend Jim Beam:
No doubt your eyes went straight to those magic words: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Based on that, you know that this bottle – by law – contains no added colors or flavors. You also know that the bourbon was aged for at least four years in previously unused charred oak barrels. Finally, you know the contents are at least 80 proof, otherwise the bottle would have to say “diluted”. And there on the left it says “Sour Mash”. Now those words don’t have any laws to back them up, but they do indicate that you’re going to get a pretty consistent experience from one bottle of Jim Beam to the next.
Now let’s have a look at this bottle of Blanton’s:
Now that’s a fancy bottle! It’s all round and stuff. If we look down on the bottom left of the label, we’ll see the all-important phrase (KSBW). So no added color or flavor, minimum 80 proof, and guaranteed aged for at least four years. Looking at the rest of the label, you’ll notice that we’ve got the date it was dumped, the barrel number, and even the warehouse letter and rick number. This is a single barrel bourbon. What this means to you is that unless you can find a few bottles from the same barrel, every bottle is going to be a little different. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It’s a bit hard to read, but the KSBW is right there under Evan Williams right in the middle of the label. And we’re a little over the minimum alcohol content at 86.6 proof. Like the Blanton’s, this is a single barrel whiskey, so you’ll see variations from bottle to bottle (especially if they were barreled in different years). The packaging on this one will tell you that it was aged for 10 years. Now you know that they’re only allowed to put the age of the youngest bourbon they used on the bottle, but since it’s a single barrel, there is no older or younger whiskey whose ages you need to be wondering about. My first bottle of this stuff was a 1994 vintage, but that’s a story for another time.
There’s the KSBW wrapping around the side. And if you had the bottle in hand, you’d see that we’ve moved on to some stronger stuff at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume… this stuff will burn, literally, you can set it on fire). We know that the youngest bourbon in this bottle was aged for 9 years and, since it’s not single barrel, it could contain some older whiskey. I’m sure everyone also noticed the words “Small Batch” sitting there near the bottom of the label. Remember, it’s up to the distiller to determine what constitutes a small batch, there’s no legal definition of “small batch”.
These guys like to concentrate all the info in a tiny label at the bottom of the bottle. But there it is in all capital letters: KSBW, 90.4 proof. They put the batch number and the bottle number on the label, implying that it’s a small batch bourbon without shouting about it. And they mention that the barrels were specially selected by the Master Distiller. This label doesn’t give you a whole lot to go on, but flask shape is classic and the contents…well, this isn’t a post about what’s inside the bottle.
Take your time. Really look at the label. Do you see where it says “Straight Bourbon Whiskey”? Or even just “Bourbon”? Nope? That’s because Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon. It is a sour mash whiskey that’s filtered through charcoal rather than aged in charred barrels. The net result is a very similar product, but if I ever catch you calling Jack Daniel’s Tennesse Whiskey “bourbon”, I will be forced to block you from my blog. Seriously.
Right there, center stage, are the words we’ve come to know and love: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisk…y? Why “whisky” instead of “whiskey”? Are they trying to get around the laws and sneak in some coloring or flavoring? Did they not age it properly? Is it just a typo? None of the above. It’s just that Scottish folks spell it without the E and Irish folks spell it with the E. Clear as mud? Outside of the interesting spelling, you’ll notice that Maker’s weighs in at 90 proof. Beyond that, this is a standard bottle of bourbon with a label full of ad copy.
I promise, next time I’ll get back to talking about what’s inside the bottles instead of what’s on the outside.