Monday, January 30, 2012

Bourbon Law: Bourbon vs. Corn Whiskey

This question comes up from time to time, so I thought I would address it. Bourbon and Corn Whiskey are both made from corn, so what's the difference (other than that bourbon is delicious and corn whiskey is usually rather foul)?

There are three key differences:

1. Barrels. Bourbon, as most of us know, must be stored in new, charred oak barrels (well, technically it doesn't have to be a barrel, but you know what I mean). Corn whiskey does not have to be barrel aged at all, but if it is, it can only be aged in (1) used oak barrels; or (2) new, uncharred oak barrels.

2. Corn Percentage. Bourbon must be made from a mast of at least 51% corn whereas corn whiskey must be made from a mash of at least 80% corn. So you can have a bourbon and corn whiskey that are the exact same mashbill (at least 80% corn), but they must be stored in different types of containers.

3. Taste. Bourbon is good. Corn whiskey sucks. (I actually couldn't find this listed in the regs, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere).


Greg said...

Steve - Corn whiskey CAN suck but not always. JW Corn is aged and is a pretty decent pour. I have some Stillbrook BIB corn whiskey from the 70's that's very good. I would agree for the most part that corn whiskey today is pretty rough but there are selections that taste pretty nice. If memory serves, Old Charter was a high corn mashbill, something like 86%.

sku said...

Fair enough Greg, I haven't tried JW or Stillbrook. We don't get much corn whiskey out here: Georgia Moon, McCormick's and the crafts. I have had Mellow Corn while in the Midwest and it's not bad...for corn whiskey, but I can't imagine ever choosing to drink it.

I think it would be interesting if HH or someone did a well aged corn whiskey, aging it for ten or 15 years just to see what it's like.

Greg said...

Now you're talking. A well aged corn whiskey would be very compelling. I have some craft corn whiskies and it's rough going down. I've used corn whiskey in the past during tastings in order to give the group an idea of the broad spectrum of American whiskey; from corn all the way to rye.

Jason Beatty said...

Aging such a corn whiskey would only be an option if purchased beforehand. The well aged Rittenhouse barrels actually belonged to a fellow who was supposed to purchase them but did not, so they were left with selling them to us.

sam k said...

A friend of mine who has made moonshine for decades, and claims that corn makes "repulsive" whiskey. She uses rye to make something much more palatable (but then again, we're Pennsylvanians), and I find white craft ryes tend to be better than white craft corn whiskey.

I''e even taken corn, rye, and malt crafts (Shine XXX from Philly, Rye Dog from NY, and Silver Coyote from Santa Fe), and tasted them individually with a group, then combined them in a few different proportions to simulate various bourbon mashbills. We all agreed that the sums of the parts were always preferred to any of the singles, with one blend (low-rye) being downright outstanding.

sam k said...

P.S. I'm not a fan of what we know as aged corn whiskey,either, Greg. I usually get a bubble-gummy note that throws it all off for me.

A whiskey-centric friend of mine loves the stuff, though! (You reading this, Ethan?)

James Carragher said...

i think most mainstream bourbon makers use a ratio of 70% corn to 30% small grains or thereabouts. i was taught that this is because corn alone does not convert enough starch to sugar when mashing, but not sure how accurate this is. i know wild turkey straight bourbon is low 70's & maker's mark is about 70 corn/16 wheat/14 malted barley. i don't think many mainstream co.s would drop below the 70% corn mark except for special runs because it wouldn't make sense financially. so even though you're drinking bourbon, it probably only has about 10% less corn in the mash than 'corn whiskey' regardless of what it's aged in. i work in a rum distillery so could be different now though

sku said...

Jason, that's mostly correct, though there are some lower corn mashbills. One of Four Roses two mashbills, for instance, is 60% corn (the "B" mashbill).