Spirits to try

Get To Know Bourbon

What exactly is bourbon? Is it the same as American whiskey and, more importantly, what are some great bourbons to enjoy?

Words by Nikki Birrell


First thing’s first – all bourbon is American whiskey, but not all American whiskey is bourbon. Confused? There’s no need to be. What that largely boils down to is corn, literally. For a whiskey to be legally classified as “bourbon” it has to be created in America from a mixture of fermentable grain (known as mash) that is at least 51 per cent corn – the rest is usually a mixture of barley, rye or wheat. There are a few other criteria too: it has to be aged in new American oak barrels; go into said barrels at no more than 125 proof (this is a measure of alcohol content – the proof amount is double the alcohol percentage); and it can’t be bottled at anything less than 80 proof. Lastly, to make the bourbon grade, nothing but water can be added. (Below: Bourbon Street in New Orleans?, image – shutterstock)


The name bourbon is said to be derived from a dynasty of French royals – the House of Bourbon, but the whiskey itself is likely to have been named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, where much of this robust nectar was first distilled. When the Scots, Irish and other Europeans settled and farmed the American South during the late 1700s and early 1800s, they brought with them their distilling knowledge. The area was known for its reliable corn crops, so their old-world techniques were put to use on this new-world crop and voila, bourbon was born. (Below: Bottles of single barrel bourbon being filled at a Kentucky distillery; image – gettyimages)


New charred oak is predominant in the production of most American whiskies and it is this that lends this cherished spirit its stunning distinctive sweet flavours – ranging from vanilla to caramel and spice. Neat or in a classic cocktail like a Manhattan or Mint Julep (recipes below), this delicious golden nectar, so beloved in its home country, deserves a prime spot on Kiwi shelves too.


Jack Daniel’s

A Tennessee whiskey that needs no intro. Uniquely mellowed through sugar maple charcoal, it has tastes of sweet vanilla, caramel and oak. (RRP $59.99, 1 litre)

Jefferson’s Reserve

A complex and sophisticated offering from this Kentucky bourbon maker, with toffee and vanilla on the mid-palate and a long, deep finish. As the bottle says, it’s made in very small batches. (RRP $104.99, 700ml)

Maker’s Mark

A bourbon with a distinctive hand-dipped red wax seal. You’ll smell woody oak and wheat before tasting caramel, vanilla and fruit essences. A smooth and subtle drop. (RRP $51.99, 700ml)

Jim Beam

Jim Beam Operated for 200 years by seven generations of one family. A bourbon with oaky vanilla spice aromas, hints of caramel and vanilla. (RRP $42.99, 1 litre)

Woodford Reserve

A gorgeous honey amber colour, this bourbon is complex showing everything from mint and oranges through to cinnamon and cocoa. Smooth with a warm finish. (RRP $65.99, 700ml)

Wild Turkey

Guarded by the world’s longest tenured master distiller and his son, you'll find sweet vanilla, pear and cinnamon with oakiness and spice. (RRP $56.99, 1 litre)


An affordable genuine Kentucky bourbon distilled with American grains and limestone-filtered water, aged in charred oak barrels. (RRP $41.99, 1 litre)

Booker’s Bourbon

A rare barrel-strength bourbon – uncut, unfiltered and no water added. Dark, deep and complex with a long and full finish. (RRP $126.99, 750ml)

Mint julep

Mint julep



The Classic Manhattan

The Classic Manhattan

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