Rum vs Bourbon: Island Getaway or Southern Charm?

They’re both sweet. Is there really a difference between bourbon and rum? Yes! Though I can see why you might ask. Obviously there are differences in the history and distillation and especially the ingredients. But lately, more and more Rum has acquired a Bourbon taste. So it can be easy to mix them up.

But I assure you, they are wildly different spirits each with exotic and unique character. Rum is full of tropical notes that will leave you dreaming of the Caribbean. Bourbon is American through and through and will have you riding bulls and herding cattle in no time!

This guide will take you through every nuanced detail of Rum and Bourbon so you’ll be able to tell the difference no matter what’s in your glass. And you’ll know exactly when to buy what!

The Main Differences Between Rum and Bourbon

  • Bourbon is Made from majority Corn; Rum is Made from Sugar Cane
  • Bourbon Rules are consistent; Rum Doesn’t have Rules
  • Bourbon can only be made in the US; Rum can be made anywhere
  • Bourbon has more than one distillate; Rum usually only has a sugar cane base
  • Bourbon has a few flavor varieties; Rum is the most varied liquor on the market

The Main Similarities Between Rum and Bourbon

  • Both have sweeter notes
  • Both are aged in oak
  • Both are distilled spirits
  • Both Bourbon and Rum are comparatively well-priced and affordable
  • Both have several flavor profiles

A Little About Rum

Rum has often been pigeon-holed as “the beach drink.” Which honestly isn’t a bad category at all. Who doesn’t love the beach? But there is far more complexity to Rum than first meets the eye or the palate!

What is Rum?

rum

Rum is a distilled liquor made from sugar cane and its byproducts. These byproducts can include cane sugar, cane juice, syrup, and most commonly, molasses. In essence, the main distillate of Rum is sugar.  For exactly that reason, many people think of Rum as a sweeter, fruitier liquor. Even if it doesn’t directly taste sweet, there is an element of sweetness or sugary note in most bottles.

It’s a staple of many cocktails and essential if you’re filling a home bar. Most bottles are around 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) though there are several that are produced up to 75% ABV (150 proof). You’ll less frequently see people sipping a rum with ice, but there are a few varieties that are worth trying on the rocks.

Unlike many other spirits like scotch, whiskey, and certain types of wine, Rum doesn’t have a set of rules or a protected country of origin that determines how it is made. This means you’ll find many different versions of rum with totally different flavors all calling themselves rum.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! The one thing you can be sure they all have in common is a sugar base.

Where is Rum From?

capt'n jack

We get into some murky territory here.

The history of Rum isn’t specifically recorded and there isn’t a clearly delineated country of origin. But Rum does have the reputation of being a decidedly Caribbean drink. And there is a reason for that. The majority of Rum produced now comes from the Caribbean: Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, and Brazil to name a few regions. There are a few other areas like Britain, The United States, and the French Indies that produce their own kinds of rum as well.

Where exactly Rum first began isn’t obvious. Sugar cane was grown thousands of years ago in East Asia, China, and India. In Marco Polo’s writings, he describes a “wine of sugar” from the Middle East. And we know that Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane from Europe to the Carribbean in 1493.

By the 1640s there were Rum distilleries on Barbados producing crude, raw, and feisty rums. (And there’s the pirate connection you were all waiting for!) Likely due to an overabundance of byproducts from sugar production, the rum industry took off.

Unfortunately, much of Rum’s history is tied up in the slave trade. Some historians believe that the original rum production was made by slaves in the Caribbean Islands who discovered that distilling and fermenting sugar cane led to a delicious drink with some…intoxicating properties.

By the 1660s Rum had moved to the colonies and was being produced in New England in large quantities. At the time, molasses and other skimmings from sugar production were considered waste. It was in The States that all that “waste” we now call molasses was first used in rum distillation. (And cooking, but we’ll leave that aspect alone.)

Rum rapidly became one of the colonies’ first major industries and exports. In fact according to Carlos Batista, author of Rum: Guidance in Mixology, Pairing & Enjoying Life’s Finer Things, Rum from New England was actually considered a legitimate form of currency in Europe for a short time!

And we know that George Washington loved the stuff. He requested Barbados rum for his inauguration in 1789. It’s also in his eggnog recipe.

Some time around the 1780s someone decided to ferment corn. Whiskey making in America took off and Bourbon production soared. Rum was unseated in the popularity contest and production shifted back to the Caribbean. While still produced in minor amounts in the United States and Britain, the Caribbean Islands now create the Rums most of us drink today!

How is Rum Made?

Rum is a distilled liquor so it goes through much the same process as Bourbon, Scotch, Whisky, Rye, and even Brandy.

Harvesting Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane grows in Asia and, most popularly, in the Caribbean. The main product from sugar cane is crystallized sugar we use for baking and sweetening coffee. In order to successfully extract the sugar, sugar cane must be harvested correctly. The canes are normally cut by hand via machete and must be cut as close to the ground as possible. Then each cane must be milled (crushed) quickly to extract the sugar cane juice before it ferments.

Fun Fact: The crushed sugar cane pulp and fiber are often used to actually power the mill itself. So the waste of one harvest powers the milling of the next!

Here is where rum process divides, based on where you are. In the French Indies, the sugar cane juice freshly squeezed out of the cane is fermented and distilled into its own kind of rum. This produces rums with a much stronger vegetable flavor.

Alternatively, this juice can be boiled down and concentrated into a syrup. This syrup is then fermented and distilled. The benefit of using syrup concentrate rather than fresh juice is preservation. These distilleries can operate throughout the year using the syrup as their main distillate instead of just at harvest.

Other Rums are made by continuing the sugar extraction process using the fresh juice which brings us to…

Byproducts

Continuing on to create sugar involves boiling down the juice and leaving it to cure slowly. Liquid drains away and sugar is left behind.  That viscous liquid that leaves the sugar is molasses. (Any bakers reading will be familiar with this thick, dark, sugar liquid and its unique taste.)

Molasses can come in many varieties as well depending on the process: light molasses, black treacle/dark molasses, or blackstrap molasses.

Fermentation

Regardless of which base you use, the next step involves fermentation. Remember, you are fermenting one of the following:

  1. The Fresh Sugar Cane Juice
  2. The Concentrated Sugar Cane Syrup
  3. Molasses

There are also several methods of fermentation. The first is natural fermentation. This just means the fermenting sugar-product sits in open vats exposed to natural local yeast. (Yeast turn sugars into alcohol via the fermentation process.)

The second option is controlled fermentation. Companies that can afford to keep strains of yeast on-hand will only introduced their specific yeast strain to the vat. Which gives them more control over the flavor and helps build consistency from one batch to another.

Companies that use natural fermentation especially will use blending after aging to make sure their bottles have a consistency in flavor and texture. Rather like Single Malt Whisky distillers do for the same reasons

Most companies use a combination of these methods, although there are those that operate at one extreme or another. But fermentation timing is not regulated and can vary between companies.

Distillation

morgan

After fermentation, the mixture must go through distillation to create the alcohol we can drink. The low-wine liquids created from fermentation are placed into stills and run through distillation at least once, on occasion several times. But here, yet again, there are chances for each distillery to make their own choices.

Pot or Column Still

Distillation occurs in stills but the size and shape of each still are incredibly variable. Stills are built and installed by hand, so one still is never like another. Each has its own idiosyncrasies and quirks. This, of course, affects the flavor and output.

Pot stills are generally used for rums that will go on to age so they have the reputation of creating fuller flavored rums. Column stills are generally used for white or light rums.

Some rums go through a second round of distillation to drive the alcohol content even higher. A third distillation produces “blackstrap rum” (made from blackstrap molasses) which is intensely dark and worth sipping on its own just to experience the flavors. This repeated distillation is also how “Overproof” rums can be created.

Aging and Selling

The final step involves aging the rum. Or, in some cases, selling the fresh un-aged rum directly after distillation.

Most Rum is aged in oak wood barrels, usually from American Bourbon distillers. Light or Gold rums can spend 1 to 2 years in oak. Darker Rum varieties can spend 7 to  8 or even 10 years in ex-Bourbon casks. You’ll notice these aging times are far lower than many whiskies. Why?

Climate

The difference between aging rum and aging most other spirits is climate!

Since rum is made in the Caribbean close to the equator, the temperatures in their warehouses are typically much warmer than those for aging Bourbons, Whiskeys or Brandys. Warmer climate means the alcohol takes on the characteristics and flavors of the wood much more quickly.

A bottle aged for 5 years in Barbados might have the same level of oak flavor as a 10 to 12 year aged Bourbon in America! This explains why you probably won’t find too many 20 year aged Rums. That would be overkill in the oak-aging department. Look instead for an 8 or 10 year aged bottle to get a similarly oaky and aged taste.

After all of these potential variations, many rums are blended within their distillery after aging. This blending creates a more consistent batch of bottles for distribution and purchase.

As you’ve probably seen from this process, at each step distillers have a choice. With so many options and so many options for deviation, it’s no surprise that no two rums taste exactly alike. There’s as much variety as you can imagine! The flavors can vary wildly, but there are a few consistencies in almost every bottle of rum you’ll find.

What does Rum Taste Like?

The tropics. I mentioned before that Rum has the reputation of being an “Island drink.” The reason goes beyond the location of distilling.

Just the thought of Rum brings up the notion of pirates, ocean islands, and beaches covered with barrels of rum. And its flavors are rich with tropical fruits and spices.

General Flavor Profile of Rum?

Rum is full of delicious notes of the islands where it made its name. And those flavors combined with the sweet sugar notes that form its base.

  • Bananas
  • Coconut
  • Molasses
  • Caramel
  • Vanilla
  • Raisins

But since we’ve been through all those intricate production steps, let’s look at some of the different types of rum we can buy. And how they differ in flavor!

Sugar Cane vs Molasses

The difference in using sugar cane juice, sugar cane syrup, and molasses as the distillate in rum is noticeable. Those that use sugar cane juice tend to have a much heavier note of plants and a lovely grassy flavor combined with sweet cane notes.

Molasses based rums are much heavier with notes of tropical fruits that most of us associate with rum. In some of the darker rums, you can even taste the molasses itself.

Types of Rum

captain morgans

Because there are no strict rules on Rum production, there are a huge number of rum types, all with slightly different meanings. The good thing? You’re very likely to find something you enjoy drinking!

Light (or White) Rum

White Rum, sometimes known as “silver,” is the most simple iteration. It’s rarely aged and therefore is a clear liquor. (Though if it has been aged, many times it will be filtered to remove any color from the wood.) It tends to have a mostly neutral flavor and is commonly used in cocktails. You’ll still get faint notes of sweetness.

Gold Rum

Gold Rum is aged in wood casks, though only for a year or so. It will be light gold or amber in color and have faint notes of caramel in addition to the tropical sweet rum flavors. Occasionally caramel will be added for color.

Dark (or Premium) Rum

Dark Rum is typically created via large quantities of caramelized molasses and multiple distillations. The darker color comes from aging in wood casks for extended periods, providing strong caramel, oak, and vanilla notes. These aged rums will have very complex flavors and some can be sipped solo. (Yes, sipping rum is now becoming more popular!) While in flavor they are very different from Scotch, you can view them in a similar light. Try a nice one with a cube of ice on a hot summer’s day.

Blackstrap Rum

Blackstrap is a step darker than dark rum. Distilled multiple times from blackstrap molasses (the darkest kind of molasses), this is an incredibly rich rum, very dark, and can be hard to sip alone. Use it in cooking or cocktails.

Spiced Rum

One of my personal favorites is Spiced Rum. (Especially during the holidays!) Quite simply, it is Rum that has gone through the full distillation and aging process, but is then combined with a number of aromatics and spices to infuse their flavor into the rum. Of course the exact flavors in the bottle depend on what spices were used but common notes in spiced rum include:

  • Orange
  • Allspice
  • Anise
  • Pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Vanilla
  • Rosemary
  • Coconut
  • Caramel

You can actually make spiced rum at home! Simply combine some of your favorite whole spices with your favorite dark rum. Seal tightly and let sit for a few days in a dark, temperate place. (Don’t pour ground spices into your rum, it won’t have the same effect and you’ll be left with grainy rum. Use whole berries and actual pieces of herbs or fruit skins.)

Flavored Rum

Flavored Rum is another fairly simple concept. These are typically white rums and are infused with fruit juices and flavors. Any fruit can be used but owing to the tropical reputation banana and coconut are probably the most common. You’ll have heard of Malibu Coconut Rum.

Cuban Rum

Like Cuban cigars, Cuban Rum was long thought to be very exotic and luxurious due to the embargo on Cuban goods. Cuban-style Rum is usually white and light.

Demerara Rum

Contrary to popular belief, these rums are not made from the high quality sugar that bears the same name. Instead, they are named after the Demerara River in Guyana that flows along the banks of this distillery.

Rhum Agricole

Produced strictly from sugar cane juice rather than molasses or byproduct, Rhum tends to have a much grassier and vegetable-like flavor. The sweetness of the sugar cane also comes through for a pleasant combination. Rhum is only produced in the French Caribbean and is made under the most strict rules of any other rum production in the world.

Cachaça

Known as the national beverage of Brazil and only made there, Cachaça is also made using strict national rules. (Though not as strict as Rhum.) The real key is it must be less than 54% ABV and made from sugar cane juice, not molasses. Cachaça is one of the sweetest rums available since Brazil’s sugar cane is exceptionally sugary.

Overproof

Rum that is above 55% ABV is considered overproof and very strong. These rums are generally used for recipes that require flambé and aren’t usually consumed alone. They will occasionally be added as a top or floater in a cocktail.

The Bourbon Barrel Problem

rum barrels

Why is so much new Rum starting to taste like Bourbon?

One final note about flavor. Many of the rums we have now are aged in ex-bourbon casks. Why? Bourbon casks can only be used once. Which means once they’ve been used by the American whiskey industry, they have to be sold for use elsewhere. Logically, now there are a huge number of old bourbon barrels on the market. These barrels are cheap and easy to get in Caribbean Countries.

And as we discussed earlier, the climate increases the infusion level and decreases the time needed to age rum. Consequently a number of rums are all starting to taste like Bourbon. Which is a sad turn of events considering the huge variety that we are used to in our rum options.

There is no solution yet, but hopefully, the influx of Bourbon-Flavored-Rum will convince rum distillers to look elsewhere for at least some of their barrels.

What does Rum Pair with?

Rum is one of the least-typical dinner drinks. It is so full of flavor and so variable it can be difficult to pick exactly what you might want. Since it appears in cocktails so often, it depends on quite a bit on what you are adding to your rum!

  • If you’re sticking with the tropical flavors: Chicken dishes, Shrimp cocktails, BBQ or Grilled foods
  • If you’re adding some citrus to your rum: Fish, Fish tacos, Ceviche, Fish’n’Chips, Asian dishes
  • If you’re getting spicy with your rum: Caribbean dishes, Jerk chicken, Dark Chocolate
  • If you’re drinking dark rum solo: Dark Chocolate, Brownies, Cookies, Pecan Pie

Rum Cocktails

Because of its distinctive taste, Rum is perfect for mixing into vibrant and fruity cocktails.

Its tropical fruit flavors encourage its use in “beach cocktails.” Which furthers its reputation as a tropical island drink. Which increases its use in cocktails…It’s a vicious (but delicious) cycle.

However, let’s not deny those drinks aren’t delicious. Little paper umbrella or no, these drinks are the ones we craved as kids and can’t imagine a vacation without as adults!

The Great Eggnog Debate:

Okay, this is an exaggeration. I don’t think there’s really a National Great Eggnog Debate. (If I’m wrong, please sound off in the comments.) But there’s definitely a debate I have every time I want an eggnog. Do I use Bourbon or Rum?

The truth is, either one works. If I’m in the mood for extra spice, I always add in a lovely spiced rum. If I want to enjoy the flavors of the eggnog itself, I’ll stick to bourbon. If your eggnog has spices already added in or its from your local farmer’s market, I’d stay stick to bourbon. You want to be able to taste the eggnog and not overwhelm yourself with spice.

But if you’re using store-bought eggnog or didn’t add as much spice in, try a spiced rum to jazz things up!

Cooking with Rum

One of my all-time favorite holiday recipes is Chocolate Rum Cake. I look forward to it every year, and I get angry when it doesn’t turn out rum-y enough. (In a real pinch, when flights just aren’t leaving us enough time to make it ourselves, we order this scrumptiously moist Chocolate Rum Cake from Pittman and Davis.)

Rum is an excellent liquor to add to baked goods. It carries such sweet and enticing aromas and often a whole bevy of spices and flavors that can elevate a treat to new heights.

(Also if you are looking for a beautiful Italian Rum Cake, look no further than Ferrara’s Bakery and Café in New York City.)

Some Baking Recipes with Rum:

But despite its signature sweetness, Rum’s spice allows it to be used in other recipes as well. Notes of anise, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon all point rum towards holiday dishes. But it’s typical tropical notes again make it ideal for summer meals mixed with fruits and sweeter, fresher flavors.

Savory Rum Recipes:

How to Pick the Best Rum

rum cocktails

With so many Rum options on the market, it can be hard to choose what you want when you walk into the liquor store. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before you set out to purchase.

  • Before you go, think about what you want to do with your rum: sip, cook, cocktail
  • Decide what flavors you like best: sweet, tropical, spicy
  • Consider other liquors you like: Scotch, Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye

If you are struggling in the shop, don’t be afraid to ask the cashier for some help!

The Best Rums of 2019

Below are a few options to get you started.

A Good White for Cocktails: Clément Première Canne Premium Rum $29.96

Clément Première Canne Premium Rum

From Trinidad, this is a great example of a rum based in fresh sugar can rather than molasses. The notes are strongly grassy, woody, and pleasantly citrusy. You’ll get strong hints of sugar cane on the nose and an enjoyable bouquet of tropical fruit with notes of spicy white pepper. The earthy notes combined with hints of spice and a full rush of the tropics is so perfect for a summer cocktail. Add Clément to your bar and you’ll never be in need of a smooth summery rum again.

For Beginners: Angostura 7 Year Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean Rum $34.99

Angostura 7 Year Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean Rum

A solid choice for someone who wants to try a classically aged rum. Angostura 7 year is a blend of rums that have been aged in bourbon barrels and then filtered. It’s strong on molasses treacle and charred wood, but notes of vanilla and cocoa brighten the bottle. Raisins and bananas are heavy on the nose. And there are even some faint touches of tiramisu. Try in an old fashioned!

If this is too strong for you, try the Angostura 5 Year Gold. It’s been aged less time and will be much lighter!

If You Like Bourbon: Mount Gay Black Barrel $32.69

Mount Gay Black Barrel 1

From the oldest surviving distillery in Barbados, this is an excellent option if you want to ease into rum from Bourbon. It’s been aged in extra-charred ex-bourbon barrels, so the Bourbon is strong in this one. Full of deep cinnamon spices, vanilla, oak, and toasted caramel, you’ll get the best of both Bourbon and Rum in this bottle.

If You Want Spice: Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum $28.99

Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum

This is a surprisingly delicious rum. The spice notes are strong and heavy, but the sweet sugar cane notes make it so easy to sip. Strong classic coconut flavor, but it’s quickly followed by cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, and orange. All these notes make it extremely versatile. It goes down smooth, I can happily sip it over ice…especially when the heat gets too high in my apartment. But it’s also really excellent for cocktails, punches, and eggnog. It is very sweet, so beware adding it to drinks that have other sugars as well.

If You Want Tropical Flavors: Plantation 3 Stars Artisanal Rum

plantation

Many aged and dark rums tend to have tropical flavors as well (look at Angostura on this list for example). But if you are looking for straight tropics, Plantation 3 Stars is the way to go! Integrated Trinidad and Barbados styles full of tropical fruits, mangos, coconuts, bananas. But there is a hint of the signature Jamaican brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla note in the background. Lovely for a pinña colada or a daiquiri.

If You Want to Sip It: Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva $41.99

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva

For the love of all yummy liquors in the world, don’t put this in a cocktail. This is one of those elegant sipping rums that are rising in popularity. And it really is worth a try! Molasses, pot stills, and 12 years in oak can do great things to rum, apparently. It’s sweet, but not unpleasantly so. Toffee, with creamy butter which is uniquely refreshing. Butterscotch follows with chocolate and orange peels. The oak adds a level of smoke behind the toasted caramel that gives it a very scotch-like feel. (Though not a scotch-like taste.)

Best Rum for Cooking Desserts: Meyer’s Dark Jamaican Rum $19.99

Meyer’s Dark Jamaican Rum

While this is a dark rum, I would not personally recommend sipping it. It has a strong and powerful molasses flavor. But it is perfect for hot cocktails or chocolate desserts. Rich, thick, dark and full of notes of coconut, caramel, and raisins, it’s an excellent flavor to add to baked goods. Try it in: hot toddy, hot buttered rum, chocolate rum cake, brownies.

A Little About Bourbon

There no more American dram than Bourbon. The phrase “Kentucky bourbon” brings up images of cowboys, horses, ranches, everything about the American South. But the delicious notes of Bourbon are far more versatile than you think!

What is Bourbon?

Before we dive right into Bourbon, let’s get one thing straight: Bourbon is a specific type of Whiskey. And what is a Whiskey? A distilled liquor made from fermented grain. In Bourbon’s case, that grain is corn.

As with most whiskeys, there are rules that dictate the production of bourbon and which bottles can actually call themselves “bourbon” on their labels. As one of the most strictly regulated spirits in the world, the list can get quite extensive. A Bourbon must:

  • Be made from 51% corn
  • Be made in the United States of America
  • Be aged in new charred American oak barrels only
  • Be distilled at no higher than 160 proof
  • Be bottled at no higher than 125 proof but no less than 80 proof
  • Be stored in government regulated warehouses
  • Be labeled with its youngest age if aged less than 2 years
  • Have no additives other than water

As you can tell, this is very different from our good friend Rum, which really only needs to come from a sugar cane base. All of these rules are used to guarantee consistency and quality. When you buy a bottle of bourbon, you know exactly what you’re getting.

Where is Bourbon From?

Bourbon must be from the United States of America, there’s no way around that. It’s stated in the rules of the spirit! However, there are fewer rules about where exactly it needs to be from. In general bourbon comes from the Southern United States since that is where many of the early distilleries were built.

A Note about Kentucky Bourbon

To this day about 95% of the world’s Bourbon comes from Kentucky. The name “Bourbon” actually comes from an area of Kentucky known as “Old Bourbon.” Today it makes up Bourbon County.

For many years only Bourbon made in Kentucky could carry the label, Kentucky Bourbon, and there are still rules that dictate which bourbons can call themselves Kentucky. In general, the entire process must occur in the state, although some smaller distillers have received allowances to store their bourbon in other state warehouses.

When you buy Kentucky Bourbon, you can be sure it was at least mostly made in Kentucky.

How is Bourbon Made?

Bourbon follows the typical process of harvest, fermentation, distillation, and aging that nearly all distilled spirits do, just like rum. But there are a few notable exceptions like: sour mash and added grains.

Harvest and Fermentation:

A mash of corn and other grains are combined with water and cooked. These are then fermented and left out to sour overnight. The mash bill must contain at least 51% and usually up to 81% corn. The rest of the bill consists of rye, wheat, and barley in varying percentages to add flavor.

Note: Barley is normally added for its fermenting enzymes. Barley is the only grain that can ferment on its own. The mash is cooked to release these enzymes in other grains and barley is added to speed the process along.

A second batch of mash goes through the identical process. It is then combined with the sour mash from the night before to add in acids necessary for yeast fermentation.

Note: Most distilleries keep their own distinctive yeast strain on-site to improve consistency and control over the fermentation.

Distillation

The new mash and the sour mash are combined and run through a two-step distillation process. Step 1: a column still distillation process. These column stills empty into a copper doubler pot. In Step 2: the copper in the pot still causes a number of reactions in the new alcohol that improve the flavor of the whiskey.

Aging

The “white dog” alcohol is retrieved from the copper pots and poured into newly charred white American oak barrels for aging.

What does Bourbon Taste Like?

The key flavors of bourbon are derived from its base grain and necessary aging. Corn is the sweetest of all the fermented grains, so most bourbons are sweeter and heartier than scotch. You won’t find too many delicate drams here!

Oak aging consistently imbues the liquor with wood spice. Oak is an obvious choice but also think of spices like vanilla and caramel from the charred wood. Length of time aging can really change the flavor profile as well and transform a light bourbon into a much heartier version.

Of course the additional grains will add other flavors. Master Distillers work with all of these different properties to create very complex and rich flavored bourbons.

General Flavor Profile of Bourbon:

The corn mash and charred white oak aging always contribute fairly consistent flavors to bourbon. In nearly every bottle you will find:

  • Caramel
  • Vanilla
  • Oak

But add rye to the mash to get spices that can range from hot to warm. You’ll find flavors like:

  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Nutmeg
  • Allspice
  • Pepper

Adding wheat to the mash makes it sweeter and more approachable. Then you’ll get notes of:

  • Oatmeal
  • Cornmeal
  • Toast
  • Wheat flakes
  • Apples/Pears

Adding Barley to the mash creates a much nuttier and fall-seasonal flavor. Barley is normally only added for its enzymes, not its flavor. But there are a few brands out there with heavy barley content. You’ll note hints of:

  • Nuts
  • Ripe Apples
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Sweet Cream
  • Eggnog

If you’re looking for a specific flavor, be sure to take a look at what else is in the mash other than corn. The second most prominent grain can have a major effect on the taste of your bottle.

What does Bourbon Pair with?

Typical rules for pairing involve choosing between complementing flavors or contrasting flavors. To complement bourbon’s sweetness, try pairing with chocolate mousse, toffee pudding, or pecan pie.

To contrast bourbon’s sweetness, try pairing with fried chicken, seared salmon, or roasted beef.

Appetizer: Bacon wrapped persimmons

Entree: Roasted pork chops with cinnamon apples

Side Dish: Cheddar grits and winter squashes

Dessert: Pumpkin Pie

Keep in mind bourbon also pairs wonderfully with foods of the South like BBQ, Burgers, and Collards, especially if it’s a smoky bourbon!

Bourbon Cocktails

kentucky bourbon

Bourbon can fill into many of the same cocktails as whiskey. Just be aware that it is sweeter. Add it in when you’re looking for a touch of sweetness or heartier alcohol than typical whiskey.

Cooking with Bourbon

Bourbon’s sweet notes can easily combine into desserts. The rich baking spices will spice up any wintery dessert for your holiday feasts!

Sweet Treats Made with Bourbon:

But bourbon can also pair very well in sweet-savory recipes. These have the added benefit of being appropriate for any season.

Savory Treats Made with Bourbon:

How to Pick the Best Bourbon

The best way to pick bourbon is to rely on your own palate. Know a few flavors you like and a few you don’t before you purchase. Bourbon has a varied range, though not as varied as Rum. So you’ll want to be prepared with what flavor range you are searching for!

Reading a Bottle:

Here are some common designations you’ll see on a bottle that will help you figure out what exactly you’re looking at before you buy.

  • Kentucky: The bourbon will be from Kentucky. This doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the flavor since bourbon is so tightly regulated for consistency.

  • Straight: Straight Bourbon is a further legal designation. These bourbons are aged for a minimum of 2 years, but must still have their age listed if they are aged less than 4 years. They have strong oak and wood notes.

  • Bottled-in-Bond: Bottled-in-Bond simply means the whole process occurred at a single distillery within a single calendar year. Think of these like the single malt scotches of the bourbon world – a chance for a single distillery to show off their charm. They are also aged for at least 4 years and up to 20 years. These will be pricier.

Since figuring out what bottles are high in which grains and which flavors can be difficult, below are some brand options to get you started. If you look for each bottle’s mash bill, you’ll find which ones are high in which grains. This can help you make a choice as well.

You want a Traditional Bourbon – Stick with classic brands

  • Jim Beam

  • Evan Williams

  • Wild Turkey

You want Hot Spice – Go for a High Rye Content Bourbon

  • Basil Hayden’s

  • Bulleit

  • Old Forester

You want Approachable and Sweet – Go for a High Wheat Content Bourbon

  • Maker’s Mark

  • WL Weller

  • Rebel Yell

You want Fall Spices – Go for Additional Barley Content Bourbon

  • Ezra Brooks

  • Willet

  • Heaven Hill

Of course, there will always be some fun new options that are filtered with mesquite (Wild Turkey Longbranch), finished aging in ex-Port barrels (Angel’s Envy), or added spelled to their mash (Watershed Bourbon.) So if you’re up for something new, do a little research and hunt those down!

The Best Bourbons of 2019

It’s hard to pick just a few bourbons. But if you’re looking for some options, the below will get you started!

A Classic: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey $26.99

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

If you’re hunting for a good classic bourbon that will make you feel like ranching and wrangling cattle, this is your option! Caramel, candied apricot, and something like Rose Petal are always my first thoughts. But the more you sip the more you notice the slight Oak flavors and the keynotes of Vanilla and Spice, especially Nutmeg. Deliciously smooth. It’s classy; it’s classic; and it’s tasty. What’s not to love!

For Beginners: Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey $32.99

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

A staple of the first-timer’s “luxury” bourbon, Knob Creek has a solid reputation and is just a step above the typical Maker’s Mark you probably thought about trying last time you were out. (Though if you start with Maker’s Mark, it is a wheated Bourbon so it will be sweeter and more approachable!)

In Knob Creek, rather than caramel you’ll notice hints of maple sugar and vanilla first. Oak and spice and a hint of toasted caramel or brown sugar follow later. It’s not light, but big on flavor and big on body. You’ll definitely get an idea of what a bourbon is when you try Knob Creek. But if you’re going to take the plunge, this is the way to go!

If You Like Rye: Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey $24.27

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiske

One of the older names in the Bourbon profession, Old Forester has been producing since the 1800s. It is heavy on rye, but the first tastes are sweet caramel and maple syrup. Pine-resin and rye kick set in after a second sip. But you’ll end on a nice sweet note of warm rye biscuits covered in maple syrup.

If You Like Scotch: King’s County Peated Bourbon Private Barrel $49.99

King’s County Peated Bourbon Private Barrel

I had the pleasure of trying this just the other evening. Yes, it is peated. But yes, it is also sweet. Two flavors you wouldn’t normally imagine blending together but the combination was really excellent and smoothly blended. Sea salt and chocolate lead the palate for me with hints of caramel candies, leather, and just a touch of orange. Deliciously complex.

If You Like Sweeter: Wild Turkey 101 American Honey $24.49

Wild Turkey 101 American Honey

A lovely dram for casual sipping, as long as you don’t mind something sweet. There truly is a honey characteristic here, but it blends very well with classic bourbon flavors. It’s an incredibly dangerous bottle, before you know the night is over you’ll have it half-way finished. American Honey is very smooth. Sip it, make a cocktail, or just drizzle it over ice cream. You can’t go wrong here if you’re looking for a sweeter rendition to mix things up.

If You Like Rum: Southern Tier Straight Bourbon Whiskey $35.99

Southern Tier Straight Bourbon Whiskey

White oak barrels are the key to keeping this Bourbon light and allowing its fruit character to shine through! Southern Tier is full of obvious bourbon notes like caramel, butter cookies, straw and vanilla. But behind all of that lies a strong tropical fruit note: bananas, toasted coconut and orange. The final palate is full of delicious baking spices of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The best of both worlds!

So Do I Have to Pick One?

Of course not! I know I can’t. Really all you have to think about is what you plan to do with your bottle. Sip it solo or on the rocks? Go for a bourbon or a dark rum. Add it in a beach cocktail? Rum all the way. Making a classic whisky cocktail? Definitely bourbon.

But don’t feel pigeon-holed into these guidelines. Just like rum is branching out from the beach-drink category, feel free to experiment and mix up your pairing choices. More important than anything else, have fun and try a new bottle!

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Kathryn Loveless

Kathryn Loveless is a freelance writer for hire who delights in all things delectable. You can find her perfecting a roast chicken recipe, hunting down a new bottle of scotch, or hosting a wine and cheese soirée somewhere in New York. My passion for Scotch started in college when my conniving parents gave me their best whisky for my "first taste." Needless to say, the stuff my friends had at school didn't compare. They had a joke "If Kathryn comes to a party, you need a whiskey that's over $40." My first job in NYC was hosting several fine-dining establishments where I learned everything I could from bartenders and mixologists. Now that I work in writing and development full-time, I continue my education in classes around the city and explore the newest whiskeys on the market. (Still trying to find a bottle of Compass Box No Name if you have any leads...) Newest in my collection: Compass Box Peat Monster and Port Charlotte Islay Single Malt (I love peat if you can't tell.) Most interesting thing on the market right now: Japanese whisky! (No "e" since much of the trade was learned in Scotland.)
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