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  • Barrell Craft Spirits



It’s one of the most common questions from budding whiskey enthusiasts. What’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

With advance apologies for any unwanted SAT flashbacks, bourbon is to whiskey as tigers are to cats, or hoagies are to sandwiches. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Whiskey is a broad category of distilled spirit made from grain and aged in oak barrels. But every whiskey-making country has its own rules, regulations, norms, traditions, and styles. They use different ingredients, different types of stills, different distillation and aging regimes--even different types of casks.

Still, the one thing every type of whiskey shares--from Irish whiskey to American bourbon to Taiwanese single malt--is that it’s distilled from grain and aged for some length of time in oak barrels.


So what makes bourbon so special? First, it has to be made from a very specific kind of grain. The mash bill (a distilling term for grain recipe) for bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn. The remainder can be made of any grain, but in practice it usually consists of malted barley, and either wheat or rye.

After fermentation, bourbon must be distilled to no higher than 160 proof, which makes sure the final spirit retains plenty of grain flavor. Distillers often reduce the proof before the new make spirit is barreled for aging, and most bourbon actually goes into the barrel at 125 proof or lower.

Famously, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels. That fresh, deep char gives bourbon the dark amber color and intense, sweet, spicy flavor every bourbon drinker loves. In fact, it’s the only flavoring that’s allowed. True bourbon can’t contain any colorings, flavorings, or other chicanery--not even finishing casks.

Lest you worry about the potential waste of single-use barrels, know that used bourbon barrels are hot commodities in the spirits world. Producers of other brown liquors--think Scotch whisky, anejo tequila, and rum--are under no such obligation to use brand-new barrels. Most contract with bourbon producers to buy their once-used barrels, giving them a delicious encore career.

Different sub-categories of bourbon (yes, there are sub-categories of sub-categories) have different aging requirements. Straight bourbon has to be aged at least two years, and if it’s aged longer than four, producers don’t have to disclose the age on the bottle. Bottled-in-bond bourbon must be aged at least four years, plus meet other proof and origin requirements.

Finally, bourbon is America’s native spirit. It has to be distilled, aged, and bottled (at no less than 80 proof) in the United States. You can follow every other rule, but if you’re doing it in Calgary or Toronto, you’ve still made Canadian whisky--not bourbon.

Of course, there are loads of other styles of American whiskey: rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, American single malt, corn whiskey, and many, many more. Still, it’s bourbon that’s captured the American imagination and never let go.


At Barrell Craft Spirits, we love bourbon. Living in Louisville, how could we not? Bourbon fans will find plenty to love in our extensive collection of Small Batch, Single Barrel, Barrell Craft Spirits, and Private Release bourbons.

Our Small Batch Bourbon series consists of limited edition blends of carefully sourced casks of bourbon, often varying in age and distillery of origin, and always bottled at cask strength. In our quest for complexity and nuance, we often mix bourbons of different ages and differing provenance. Case in point: Our New Year 2021 bourbon, which is a blend of 5, 9, 10, and 11-year-old straight bourbon whiskeys from Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, New York, Texas, Wyoming, and Colorado.

Barrell’s Single Barrel Bourbon is just what it sounds like--single barrels of exceptional flavor. Find them through whiskey clubs, and at your best local liquor stores (or online every now and then). Just don’t snooze on snagging a bottle, since only a few hundred of each batch get made.

Barrell’s Private Release Bourbons push the envelope by experimenting with blending ratios, illuminating the unlimited possibilities that can arise even from a relatively small selection of casks. The latest batch experiments with the vast array of flavor profiles that can be made from 5, 9, 10, and 15-year-old bourbons from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana.

Finally, our Barrell Craft Spirits line--BCS for short--showcases some of our favorite exceptional older bourbons. The first batch of our 15-year-old Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon was named Best American Whiskey of 2018 by bourbon expert Fred Minnick--and we think the current release is just as good. Want to judge for yourself? Pick up your very own bottle right here.


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