One of the beautiful things about the world of whiskey (or whisky if you’re Scottish!) is the sheer range of styles and flavors available. There is a whiskey out there to suit any palate; it’s just a matter of trial and error until you find it. You can break whiskey down into geographical styles that share standard distilling processes but can vary wildly in taste. One of the most distinctive whiskey styles around is bourbon, essentially American whiskey.
While most bourbon has strong, sweet characteristics from the corn mash and American oak barrels, there is definitely an underlying bitterness to the drink. How you respond to this bitterness will depend on your palette.
In this article, we’ll talk about some of the bitterness associated with bourbon.
Why is bourbon considered bitter?
Ideally, the bitter flavor in a bourbon should balance out and cut through some of the sticky sweetness from the corn in the mash. Strong, sweet notes characterize bourbon. As a result, many bourbon cocktails also contain bitters such as Peychaud and Angostura to add balance to the drink and add greater complexity.
Essentially, the majority of the bitter notes in a bourbon stem from the use of new oak barrels. The wood’s tannins leach into the bourbon and add depth, color, and flavor to the drink. However, they also add the bitterness some associate with the alcohol. The longer a bourbon ages in the barrel, the more tannins it absorbs and the stronger the flavors (and bitterness) are.
Other whiskey producing countries don’t have the same requirement for brand new barrels. In fact, most distilleries purchase the used bourbon barrels and then utilize them to age their whiskey. Bourbon barrels impart a distinct flavor profile and a definite sweetness to whiskey and are a desirable commodity.
Bitterness differences between bourbon and other whiskey
While traditional Whisky such as Scotch and Irish Whisky is not known for bitterness, they are also not considered sweet as bourbon. As mentioned above, whiskey distillers other than Bourbon distillers can age their whiskey in used barrels. The level of tannins left in the wood is much lower, so fewer bitter characteristics leach into the spirit. Jack Daniel’s avoids the bitter undertones by filtering the distillate through charcoal before aging.
The use of new versus old barrels isn’t the only difference between Bourbon and whiskey. Every country has slightly different production methods and recipes, which yield different results. Generally, when it comes to flavor, bourbon is considered to be sweeter than traditional whiskey. It is often darker in color and has the underlying bitterness tones too.
While it would take too long to compare bourbon to every different whiskey style, it’s still interesting to compare at least one. When comparing Bourbon to Scotch, there are some significant differences in the production process that produce two very different end products.
Key Differences Between Bourbon and Scotch
- Type of still – Bourbon often uses a column still and then a doubler or thumper. Scotch uses a pot still.
- Mash recipe – Bourbon must be a minimum of 51% corn; the main ingredient in Whisky is malted barley.
- Aged barrels – Bourbon must age in new American oak barrels; Scotch can age in any barrel type.
- Length of aging – Scotch must spend at least 3 years in the barrel to be called Scotch. Bourbon has no minimum legal aging requirement.
Flavor Profiles of Bourbon
Bourbon is synonymous with the sweet caramel and vanilla flavors that come from the corn in the mash. The other ingredients incorporated into the mash add complexity and alter the taste of the end product.
Three key factors create bourbon’s distinctive taste, but the mash’s composition also influences the end product.
Bourbon Flavor Factors
- American Oak: use of American oak adds vanilla, coconut, and spice tones to bourbon while it ages in the barrel.
- Wood Charring: Charring of the imparts additional flavor and aroma such as vanilla, smoke, and clove.
- Corn: A grain with high sugar content. It produces a soft and sweet whiskey with a creamy feel and fruity tones.
Bourbon can be categorized into three different groups based on the mash recipe.
Classic Bourbon Mash Recipe
- Typically: 60-79% corn / 10-15% rye / 10-15% malted barley
- High Corn Content: Enhances the sweet, soft, creamy, and fruity tones.
- Rye: Adds flavors of spice and pepper. It also helps to dry the whiskey.
- Malted Barley: Adds subtle notes of toffee, malt, and toast.
- Classic Example: Wild Turkey
High Rye Mash Recipe
- Typically: 51-65% corn / 20-35% rye / 10-15% malted barley
- High Rye: Higher Rye content adds more flavor and complexity. There will be intense flavors of spice and pepper and as well as earthy and grassy aromas.
- Corn: Imparts sweetness and fruit flavors.
- Malted Barley: Adds subtle notes of toffee, malt, and toast.
- Classic Example: Bulleit Bourbon
Wheated Bourbon Mash Recipe
- Typically: 60-79% corn / 10-20% wheat / 10-15% malted barley
- Wheat: The use of wheat produces a milder, softer spirit. It enhances the sweeter caramel and vanilla tones of the corn in the mash and the charred oak barrels.
- Corn: Creates the sweet platform of caramel and vanilla for wheat to enhance.
- Malted Barley: Adds subtle notes of toffee, malt and toast.
- Classic Example: Old Fitzgerald
What makes a good bourbon, and how to drink it?
A good bourbon should be smooth and balanced with plenty of depth and complexity. Don’t be fooled. Just because a bourbon is older doesn’t mean it’s better. There are plenty of young, well-balanced bourbons that will outshine their older counterparts for a fraction of the price.
As with all alcoholic drinks, personal palate and taste perception play a key role in your enjoyment of a drink. Your best buddy might rave about Bulleit, but you might find it a little too spicy and overbearing. You may prefer the soft, sweet flavor of Van Winkle but your friend finds it bland. There is no right or wrong to either of your preferences; it’s just how your taste buds interpret the flavors on offer.
There are many different ways you can enjoy bourbon. Still, to appreciate the drink’s flavor profile and nuances, it’s best consumed without a mixer.
The traditional way to drink any bourbon or whiskey is neat, with just a few drops of water to release the oils and enhance the aroma. The more water you add, the more diluted the drink becomes. The bourbon will lose many of its harsher qualities but also lots of its flavor. Even so, that’s why many people enjoy whiskey on the rocks.
When drinking bourbon, you also need to consider the alcohol content when deciding how to drink it. Generally, 80 proof is sufficient with only a little water. Still, when you start getting into bottled-in-bond bourbon, it jumps up to 100 proof, and you’ll need more water.
Whichever way you choose to drink your bourbon, it’s best to sip it and savor all the subtleties. It’s definitely not a drink you should knockback as a shot!
What To Eat With Bourbon (and changing bitterness)
When you drink bourbon, and what you drink it with, it is entirely up to you. Just be aware that food and beverage choices will affect how you experience bourbon flavors.
Sweet foods will highlight the bitter elements of the drink, whereas savory foods will accentuate the sweetness. You’ll find cheese works well as an accompaniment, and more surprisingly, so does dark chocolate. It needs to be a minimum of 70% dark cocoa chocolate; otherwise, the chocolate is too sweet and spoils the bourbon’s taste.
What is Bourbon?
Now that you’re learned about bitterness and subtle yet distinct flavor profiles in bourbon and whiskey, here’s more info on bourbon and its history.
Bourbon is a heavily regulated whiskey that must meet strict criteria to use the name bourbon. You’ve no doubt heard the old adage, “all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.” The majority of bourbon is made in Kentucky, but this is not a requirement to be called bourbon.
To qualify as bourbon, whiskey must:
- be made from between 51% and 79% corn
- distilled to 160 proof
- enter cask at 125 proof
- bottled at 80 proof
- All bourbon must be aged in new charred American oak barrels.
- You cannot add any additional flavorings or colorings.
Many believe Jack Daniel’s doesn’t qualify as bourbon because it is produced in Tennessee. However, it’s actually because Jack Daniel’s is charcoal filtered before entering the cask. Charcoal filtration is not an acceptable practice for making bourbon.
Bourbon has a long history, and there are some enduring distillers such as Makers Mark and Jim Beam. The name bourbon became official in 1840. Before this, it was known as Bourbon County Whiskey or Old Bourbon County Whiskey. Prohibition in 1920 effectively shut down the industry. Many distilleries closed and never reopened. In 1964, bourbon was officially recognized as “America’s Native Spirit,” and the rules around what whiskey can be called bourbon were introduced.
So is bitter bad? Bitter flavors are not something that we tend to incorporate into our diet in Western culture. It is a flavor associated with medicine and old-fashion herbal remedies. In fact, Angostura Bitters and Peychaud were both originally sold as health tonics.
Angostura even managed to avoid shutdown during Prohibition, arguing it was a medicinal treatment for stomach ulcers! The enduring popularity of bitters indicates it adds something to our consumption of alcohol. It must bring some pleasure, or we wouldn’t drink it.
Aside from bitters and bourbon, other drinks also have underlying bitter tones. Perhaps the most infamous is Absinthe. The bitter flavor comes from the tannins in wormwood.
Bitter notes aren’t typically associated with Tequila, Vodka or Gin. That’s not to say there are not examples of those drinks with bitter tones, but rather bitterness is not a component associated with them.