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What is Bourbon?

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We at Colonel Bourbon consider our t-shirts to be the best bourbon and whiskey t-shirts around. You won't get better designs and better quality from anybody else. Grab your favorite pour and browse our tees.

But this blog brings you up to speed on the basics -- what is bourbon?

If you need a good answer to that question and some good trivia you can wow your friends with, you've come to the right place.

You may have heard this saying:

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

We'll add another point to get you started:

To be called bourbon, it has to be made in the United States

History, myth, and legend

America grew up on whiskey: it was drink, it was medicine, and it was money. Turning grains into liquor was a great way for farmers to preserve excess crops and turn it into a product. 

What is Bourbon?

(Nineteenth century bourbon, Gettysburg National Military Park, Wikipedia Creative Commons.)

Farmers and distillers would distill their "white dog" or  "white lighting" so-called because it was an unaged clear-colored brew and age them in wooden barrels, to add flavor. If you go back far enough, you would find spirits flavored with all manner of things, fruits and spices, even tobacco, to achieve an amber color.

When distillers from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere came to America, they adapted to the new world. In North America, corn was more plentiful than the grains used in Scotch, Irish whiskey (both of which are primarily made of barley). Corn was plentiful in America. And the rule today is that bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn.

Bottled in Bond

The name bourbon was first used in the 1820s but the name didn't become common place for the whiskey until the 1850s. But even then there were no standardized requirements. In 1897, Edmund Taylor (E.H. Taylor and Sons) helped pass the Bottled in Bond Act. This legislation basically made the U.S. government the guarantor of whiskey quality, and the law is still used today.

Here are the Bottled-in-Bond rules:

  • Has to be from one master distiller, in one distillery, from one season.
  • Aged in a federally-bonded warehouse for at least four years.
  • Bottled in glass at 100 proof

In 1964, Congress passed a law that required all bourbon had to be made in the United States. This affected international trade agreement, similar to a sparkling wine has to be made in the Champagne region of France to be called Champagne.

Despite a common belief, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. Only somewhere in the U.S. Recently, for the first time since Prohibition, a distillery opened up in Manhattan. But Kentucky's climate make it a very good place to make bourbon and most of it comes from there. The corn, the wood, the water from limestone rivers... the harshness of cold winters and hot summers, collapsing expanding the oak barrel, aging the bourbon to perfection.

Here are the rules that make it bourbon.

  • Must be made in the USA. In 1964, Congress mandated that bourbon had to be made in America to be called bourbon. It doesn't have to be in Kentucky, but it has to be in the US.
  • Has to be aged in new charred white oak barrels. This is what gives the juice its caramel, vanilla notes, and other flavors.
  • At least 51% corn
  • Not higher than 160 proof. The higher the proof, the more the flavors are removed. Think of vodka at 190; no flavor.
  • 125 proof into the barrel
  • 80 proof or higher into a glass bottle
  • Genuine, no additives or flavors.

Approximately 3% evaporate while aging each year. This is called the angel's share. So after 10 years, 30% has been given to the angels.

From our Bourbon Steward t-shirt page: "The keepers of the barrels know there are honey spots in a warehouse, where the perfect circumstances exist. These honey barrels are where you get "single barrels" or a "Small batch" (or barrels) offering, which help revive the drink in the late 20th century, kicking the the butt of vodka and other spirits. Today people want to know where their food and drinks come from. And bourbon, more than many if not most pours, has a story to tell. The soil, the history, the myth."

Our Bourbon Steward tee

Here's some Irish folks, who also spell their spirit with an "e," trying America's bourbon:


Not too long ago, bourbon was being unloved in America. In the late 60s, 1970s and 1980s, vodka and other spirits were the in-thing. Legendary distilleries lay in ruins, their histories forgotten. Bourbon was your grandfather's drink -- Mad Men's Don Draper was the past. 

But everything old is new again and Old Granddad bourbon is flying off the shelves. A Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year costs about $1000 right now.

Our t-shirts are a fraction of that of course, and they will probably last you a lot longer than any tasty bottle of bourbon, America's whiskey.

P.S. You will see two different spellings of whiskey, with and without the "e". Some media use the term whisk(e)y. The whiskey spelling is used for bourbon, rye, and Irish whiskey. The whisky spelling is used for Scotch, Canadian, and Japanese whisky. But of course rules are made to be broken so Maker's Mark calls its bourbon "whisky"

The plural of whiskey is whiskeys; the plural of whisky is whiskies.


Maker's Mark uses the term "whisky" instead of "whiskey," which is the standard spelling for bourbon.

(Maker's Mark spelling their bourbon without the "e". Wikipedia Creative Commons)

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