Your Bourbon Label is Telling You a Story


There is a lot of misinformation about bourbon. The first and most important to address is that bourbon must come from Bourbon County, Kentucky.

The truth is there is no bourbon being made in Bourbon County, and there hasn’t been since around prohibition. Largely due to the redrawing of county lines, there are just no distilleries there.

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, and there are strict laws governing its labeling.

I also frequently hear that bourbon must be aged in unused charred white oak barrels for at least two years. That’s not entirely true either. The first part is true, but the last part is conflated with something else.

The problem is many people confuse the rules for straight bourbon with the general rules for bourbon. This means you could easily assume you’re sipping a naturally-colored, two-year old spirit when you’re actually enjoying a grain spirit colored with caramel that touched a barrel once for ten minutes!

When you know the rules, you have the key to decode the bottle and understand what kind of bourbon is inside.

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To separate fact from hearsay, I went to the source: Legal regulations.

The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 5 and Tennessee Public Chapter No. 341, house bill 1084

This is what I learned:

  • Bourbon
    • Must be made in the United States
    • Bottled 80 proof or higher
    • Distilled 160 proof or lower
    • Distilled from 51% corn mash or higher
    • Aged in White Oak Barrels
      • Barrels must be
        • new
        • charred inside
      • Spirit must be 125 proof or lower during aging
    • Mixtures of bourbons may be labeled “bourbon”

 

  • Tennessee Whiskey
    • All of the requirements for bourbon, plus:
      • Manufactured and aged in Tennessee
      • Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging (the so-called “Lincoln County Process”)
        • Through incredibly convoluted legal language, Prichard’s Distillery (the only distillery in Lincoln County) has a grandfathering exemption from this rule, and can sell “Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey” without filtering through maple charcoal prior to aging.

 

  • Straight bourbon
    • All of the requirements for bourbon, plus:
      • Aged two years or more
      • If aged between two and four years, the label must contain an age statement*
      • Can be blended with
        • other straight bourbons from the same state
        • nothing else
      • Can’t have added color or flavor
      • Can’t be overly filtered (Jim Beam “Jacob’s Ghost,” for example, is not a straight bourbon).

 

  • Bonded bourbon
    • The entire bottle:
      • Distilled in one distilling season by one company at one distillery
      • Aged at least four years
      • Unaltered except by physical treatments such as filtration or chill proofing which must not add any new substance (such as artificial color).
      • Pure water can be added to adjust proof, but nothing else
      • Bottled at precisely 100 proof

*All age statements, required or optional, are based on the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

Because these are the rules, you know what you’re looking at when you look at a label.

For example, if you look at this label:

 

You know that it was distilled to 160 proof or lower with a mash of at least 51% corn, that it was aged at 125 proof or lower in new, charred white oak barrels, and that it was made in the United States. You do not know whether it contains artificial coloring, or whether it all came from the same distillery or even the same state. You don’t know whether it was aged two months or ten years.
LuckyBugLabelBourbon

But on this label:

 

LuckyBugLabelStraightBourbon

You know all the things from the other label, plus:

It was aged at least 4 years (this is after you looked all over the bottle and found no age statement), that it was all made in the state of North Carolina, and that all its coloring comes from barrel aging, and not caramel.

Citations:  Click to view

The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 5 and Tennessee Public Chapter No. 341, house bill 1084

  • Bourbon
    • 27 CFR 5.22(l) Must be made in the United States
    • 27 CFR 5.22(b) Bottled 80 proof or higher
    • 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) Distilled 160 proof or lower
    • 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) Distilled from 51% corn mash or higher
    • 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) Aged in White Oak Barrels
      • Barrels must be
        • new
        • charred inside
      • Spirit must be 125 proof or lower during aging
    • 27 CFR 5.22(b)(2) Mixtures of bourbons may be labeled “bourbon”
  • Tennessee Whiskey   Tennessee Public Chapter No. 341, house bill 1084
    • All of the requirements for bourbon, plus:
      • Manufactured and aged in Tennessee
      • Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging (the so-called “Lincoln County Process”)
        • Through incredibly convoluted legal language, Prichard’s Distillery (the only distillery in Lincoln County) has a grandfathering exemption from this rule, and can sell “Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey” without filtering through maple charcoal prior to aging.
  • Straight bourbon
    • All of the requirements for bourbon, plus:
      • 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(iii) Aged two years or more
      • 27 CFR 5.40(a) If aged between two and four years, the label must contain an age statement
      • 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(iii) Can be blended with
        • other straight bourbons from the same state
        • nothing else
      • 27 CFR 5.23(a)(3)(iii) Can’t have added color or flavor
      • 27 CFR 5.23(b) May not be filtered to the point of
        • removing more than 15% of “fixed acids, volatile acids, ester, soluble solids, or higher alcohols”
        • removing more than 25% of “soluble color”
  • Bonded bourbon
    • 27 CFR 5.42(b)(3) The entire bottle:
      • Distilled in one distilling season by one company at one distillery
      • Aged at least four years
      • Unaltered except by physical treatments such as filtration or chill proofing which must not add any new substance (such as artificial color).
      • Pure water can be added to adjust proof, but nothing else
      • Bottled at precisely 100 proof

What else should people know about to be a more informed consumer? Let us know in the comments below.

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