Know Your Essential Bourbon Vocabulary

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San Diego is home to many distilleries, including the 17 craft distillers who are members of the San Diego Distillers Guild. Some make bourbon, and bourbon aficionados speak a language all their own. Never fear – we’ll help you know your essential bourbon vocabulary.


Let’s start with the basics – bourbon is a distilled spirit that must be made from a mix of grains that includes at least 51% corn. Distillers have their own, often closely guarded recipes (“mash bills”) for the other 49%, which may include rye, malt, and wheat in secret proportions.

Bourbon must be distilled at 160 proof or less, barreled in new, charred oak barrels at 125 proof or less, aged for no less than 2 years, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume or ABV). It must have no additives other than water to call itself straight bourbon whiskey.

Bottled in Bond

Moonshiners and amateur distillers were killing people with fake bourbon – crude spirits full of additives and colorings – in the early 1800s. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 set a federal standard for bourbon that required it to be made at a single, federally-bonded distillery in one distilling season during the same calendar year. Bottled in Bond must be aged a minimum of four years and bottled at 100 proof. The label must identify the distillery and bottler (if it’s someplace other than the distillery).

Sour Mash

Cooked grain with yeast added to induce fermentation is called “mash.” Sour mash uses a portion of previously used mash, except the yeast is not active (dead) in sour mash. This doesn’t affect the flavor of the final product, but it does help with consistency between batches, and it makes fermentation more efficient by lowering the pH of the batch to which it is added.


This is a blend made from selected barrels, and only those barrels. There is no universal definition of what small-batch means, so distillers are free to blend their bourbon according to their discretion.

Single Barrel

Single barrel is different from small-batch because the bourbon comes from just one barrel that is selected by a master distiller. No two barrels ever taste exactly alike, so each single barrel bottle has a flavor unique to the barrel it was aged in.

Barrel Proof

This is an important term to know, especially if you plan to take a distillery tour that offers tastings “straight from the barrel.” Barrel proof bourbon is undiluted, and thus a much higher proof than what bottled bourbon. Barrel proof (or cask strength) packs a much stronger punch than a tasting from a bottled bourbon.

This list barely scratches the surface of the vocabulary of bourbon. But whatever words your friends use to describe their favorite spirit, words alone can never capture the taste of fine, high-end liquor. You’ll have to taste it, and maybe learn a whole new vocabulary (“notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and smoke”) to describe the experience.

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