The Best “Bourbons” That Break The Rules

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The word bourbon has built a great reputation for American whiskey, and for good reason, but it may be time to consider outsiders and do away with labels.

To use the word bourbon you have to play by the rules, and there are three big ones every distiller has to keep in mind if they want to put the big "B" on the bottle. First, bourbon has to be made in the U.S., so even if a spirit made in Scotland fit every other criteria, it would be out of luck. Second, the mash bill, or grain recipe, must contain at least 51 percent corn. And the biggest stricture of them all: bourbon has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels.


That last one is the kicker, because pretty much every other whiskey category in the world uses second-hand wine, rum, and bourbon barrels to age their products — which is both environmentally friendly, and a great way to make a more complex whiskey.

Non-bourbon distilleries can go a step further, switching the liquid's home late in the process to give it a "finish." Barrel finishing is common among pretty much every other variety of whiskey, with a result similar to when you empty out a glass of beer and fill it with orange juice: You get a weaker concentration of the same flavors from residue.

Actually, one of the most common cask finishes in the world is an ex-bourbon cask. Since only bourbon requires new, never-used casks, a lot of those barrels head to Scotland, or to rum distilleries, or to anywhere else that needs barrels, because the bourbon guys can't use them again. So it might not come as a surprise that, despite the huge market for bourbon these days, plenty of distillers are breaking the rules. Some have been doing it for a long time.

George Dickel (and any other Tennessee whiskeys on the market) is, despite arguments to the contrary, bourbon — at least in the spirit of the spirit. Dickel's mash bill meets all of the qualifying requirements for bourbon, as does its aging process. The big deviation is that Dickel filters its distillate through sugar maple charcoal before it goes into the barrel. Depending on who you ask, that's either adding something (sugar maple can cause flavoring) or taking something away (by, you know, filtering). This is known as the Lincoln County Process, and is an almost universal piece of every "Tennessee" whiskey.

Then there's Maker's 46, a unique bottling from the well-known Maker's Mark bourbon brand. It's labeled in detail as "Kentucky Bourbon Whisky barrel finished with oak staves." The 46 was a multiyear masterpiece project from Bill Samuels Jr. using freshly toasted French oak staves to give the whiskey a second round of barrel finishing.

But while those products are standard offerings, others are more like special releases; they come as master distillers get an idea in their heads for something new and different — like when Tarantino made a World War II film, or when Steve Jobs decided to make a cellphone.

Ken Pierce, master distiller at Barton 1792, has done barrel finishes in the past. Most recently he released a port cask-finished bourbon. "The port imparts plenty of apple, vanilla, and caramel," he explains. But Pierce doesn't think that the finishes change the identity of the product: "It is still bourbon to me."

And there's really not a lot of pushback on the labeling rules. Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace's master distiller, enjoys experimenting with his recipes by altering the proportions of grain used in the mash bill (which is totally common and not at all against the rules, so long as, again, and almost arbitrarily, the finished project comes from at least 51 percent corn). Does he see the rules as any sort of hindrance? "Not really," he answers. "It actually clarifies what can and can't be done and still call it a bourbon."

Woodford master distiller Chris Morris lays out the rules pretty clearly. "Finishing a Kentucky straight bourbon in any barrel that is not new, oak, and obviously charred on the inside will technically and legally move it from a bourbon designation," he explains. "The expression simply becomes a whiskey." That's something he's always been careful of with experimental bottlings. "Woodford Reserve has always been specific on this point by modifying our product descriptor in such a way that clearly tells our consumers what we did to create the expression," he says. "Finishing Woodford Reserve in the Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Barrels does not create a new category, but a type of whiskey."

Both of those wine-finished expressions drew a lot of attention on their release, in part because they were something new and risky.

Morris has a particular goal in mind when experimenting with finishes: "I want to accentuate its already existing flavors," he says. "The introduction of a finishing barrel is calculated to change the balance in a positive way, by emphasizing one or more… areas of flavor."

It gets more complicated with things like a double-wood finish, like Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. "The unique Double Oaked barrel was designed as a Woodford Reserve finishing barrel," Morris says. "It does not add any new flavors to the original product. Rather, it enhances Woodford Reserve's already-present sweet aromatic notes that are normally in balance with the fruit and floral, spice, wood, and grain notes."

It may be helpful to think of all these derivative bottlings as director's cuts. When you take in the regular, consumer version of a bourbon, you're getting the same experience as last time. But if you really enjoyed it (or even if you didn't), you're a good candidate for a different variation that may give you something the other version was missing.

That's because, like a director making an unrated cut, those master distillers get more room to craft without worrying what the standards board will say about the final product. No, that doesn't mean you're getting dangerous basement-made hooch. It just means someone wanted to do something different for a small, appreciative audience.