What is a bourbon expression?

Answered by Randy McIntyre

A bourbon expression refers to the various iterations or variations of a specific bourbon whiskey recipe. These expressions can arise from modifying different aspects of the spirit, such as its ingredients, the distillation process, the aging period, the level of char on the barrels, or any other minor changes that do not significantly deviate from the original recipe.

One important aspect of bourbon expressions is the influence of ingredients. While bourbon must be made primarily from corn, the secondary grains used in the mash bill can be altered to create different expressions. For example, a bourbon with a higher proportion of rye in the mash bill will have a spicier and more robust flavor profile compared to one with a higher wheat content, which tends to be smoother and sweeter. These variations in grain composition can lead to distinct expressions within the bourbon category.

The distillation process itself can also contribute to the creation of different bourbon expressions. Factors such as the type of still used (pot still or column still) and the number of distillations can influence the spirit’s character. Pot stills, for instance, are known for producing a more flavorful and complex spirit due to their batch distillation method, while column stills are often used for larger-scale production and can yield a lighter and more neutral flavor profile.

Aging is a crucial element in bourbon production, and the duration of maturation can greatly impact the final expression. Bourbon must, by law, be aged in new charred oak barrels, and the length of time the spirit spends in these barrels can range from a few years to several decades. Longer aging periods tend to result in deeper and more nuanced flavors as the bourbon interacts with the wood, extracting desirable compounds like vanillin and tannins. Distilleries may release different expressions by offering bourbons of varying ages, allowing consumers to explore the flavor evolution that occurs over time.

The level of char on the barrels used for aging also plays a role in bourbon expressions. Barrels can be charred to different degrees, ranging from light to heavy char. The charring process caramelizes the wood sugars and imparts distinct flavors and aromas into the aging bourbon. A heavier char, for example, can bring out more smoky and robust characteristics, while a lighter char may lend a subtler influence. By experimenting with different levels of char, distillers can create unique expressions within their bourbon lineup.

It’s worth noting that while bourbon expressions may differ in certain aspects, they should still maintain the fundamental characteristics of bourbon. These include being made primarily from corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, aged in new charred oak barrels, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. By adhering to these guidelines, distillers can create a diverse range of bourbon expressions while ensuring the spirit remains true to its category.

A bourbon expression refers to the variations within a specific bourbon whiskey recipe, resulting from changes in ingredients, distillation techniques, aging periods, barrel char levels, or other minor adjustments. These variations offer consumers the opportunity to explore different flavor profiles and experiences while staying within the defined boundaries of bourbon production.