Knowing what makes whiskey a bourbon is helpful. Knowing the straight bourbon whiskey rules provides even more certainty…you know what you’re getting!

Rules of the road

The Kentucky Derby was held last weekend, and while the outcome of the race was controversial, the fact that much bourbon was drunk in the stands (and a dram, or two, at my house) was undisputed. It got me to thinking about the relationship between the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky bourbon…then bourbon in general…then straight bourbon whiskey (it was on the bottle I was sipping)…then the race started and I went back to watching. However, the question remained with me…what exactly is straight bourbon whiskey? Well, Grasshopper, pull up a toadstool (or whatever grasshoppers sit on) as we take a (somewhat) deep dive into the definition of bourbon and straight bourbon whiskey rules.

(oh, no…not another nerdy lecture!)


straight bourbon whiskey, Bowman Brothers, Jefferson’s Reserve, Joseph Magnus, Uncle Nearest, Old Scout, Kentucky Derby
Running for the roses (photo credit: New York Post)

Bourbon 101

Ok, not too deep a dive, I promise. I just wanted to understand the definition of bourbon in general, and the straight bourbon rules in particular. I found a nice, concise article from CNBC that gave a summary of the five bourbon rules:

  1. Must be made in the United States (not necessarily in Kentucky, although the vast majority is from there)
  2. Must be aged in New American Oak barrels (the barrel lobby loves that one)
  3. Mash must be at least 51% corn (which is why bourbons are generally sweeter than other types of whiskey)
  4. Can only enter the barrel at 125 proof (62.5%ABV) or lower, and only enter the bottle at 80 proof (40%ABV) or higher
  5. Only water may be added to bourbon, and only to reduce the proof (no colors or flavors)

Some other requirements: there’s no minimum duration for aging bourbon (except for bottled-in-bond bourbons), and if the spirit is aged a minimum of two years it can be called Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Aha…there it is!). Any bourbon that’s aged less than four years must contain an age statement of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Finally, blended bourbon “may contain added coloring, flavoring, and other spirits, such as un-aged neutral grain spirits, but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon” (this last bit came from that go-to-repository-of-knowledge, Wikipedia). I think I’ll stick with straight bourbons given the chance.

I think that’s enough of a knowledge dump for now. (Whew!)

Regarding the tasting lineup

It was coincidental that the tasting I went to at Gordon’s DTX a couple of weeks ago was all about bourbon (or maybe not). All the bourbons were straight bourbon whiskies, with one exception…the Uncle Nearest 1856 was a “Premium Whiskey,” and while I’m not sure what that term means, it was there and damn fine. ‘Nuff said…let’s get to the tasting! (Finally!)


straight bourbon whiskey, Bowman Brothers, Jefferson’s Reserve, Joseph Magnus, Uncle Nearest, Smooth Ambler, Kentucky Derby
All Straight Bourbon Whiskey (‘cept one)

Straight Bourbon Whiskey (and one outlier)

At Gordon’s DTX, April 25, 2019

Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit

45%ABV, Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey

  • Nose: maple, caramel, vanilla fudge
  • Taste: cinnamon, cardamom, caramel toffee
  • Finish: fades to mocha, caramel candy, baking spices
  • Comments: lots of layered flavors, similar to Buffalo Trace


straight bourbon whiskey, Bowman Brothers, Kentucky Derby

Isaac Bowman Pioneer Spirit

46%ABV, Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Port finished

  • Nose: very light nose, subdued, some toffee
  • Taste: strong entry, mocha, dark brown sugar, cardamom, green grassy notes rise
  • Finish: brown sugar and cloves
  • Comments: the port finish is so light as to not be noticeable


straight bourbon whiskey, Bowman Brothers, Kentucky Derby


Jefferson’s Reserve

45.1%ABV, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Old Rum cask finish

  • Nose: herbs, toffee, light vanilla, lightly oranges
  • Taste: oranges, light basil, then caramel fudge
  • Finish: mocha fudge and brown sugar
  • Comments: rich, sweet brown sugar syrup flavors, then goes dark; really nice


straight bourbon whiskey, Jefferson’s Reserve, Kentucky Derby



Joseph Magnus Triple Cask Finished

50%ABV, Straight Bourbon Whiskey, finished in sherry & cognac

  • Nose: herbal, light brown sugar, pine
  • Taste: light body, pine, light brown sugar, medicinal
  • Finish: fades to pine, light cloves, gets bitter
  • Comments: on the bitter side


straight bourbon whiskey, Joseph Magnus, Kentucky Derby


Uncle Nearest 1856

50%ABV, Premium Whiskey, Tennessee

  • Nose: light caramel toffee, oak, lemon rind
  • Taste: thick body, cedar, vanilla, caramel
  • Finish: fades to pine and cloves
  • Comments: really interesting, not overly sweet as much as layered


straight bourbon whiskey, Uncle Nearest, Kentucky Derby


Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel Select

48.2%ABV, Straight Bourbon Whiskey

  • Nose: brown sugar, roses, orange peel
  • Taste: thick body, caramel fudge, potpourri
  • Finish: fades to rich salted caramel sauce with touches of wood
  • Comments: the floral quality really adds a level of complexity, almost oaky; excellent!


straight bourbon whiskey, Smooth Ambler, Kentucky Derby


There are so many factors that go into a winning bourbon…mash composition, water, aging time, and finishing casks (if any). Knowing the straight bourbon whiskey rules provides a level of certainty…it’s not just any ol’ whiskey. Just like with racing and that Kentucky Derby…following the rules leads to a clean result. ‘Nuff said!

Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!


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