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What is a basic bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is made primarily from corn. There are specific requirements that a whiskey must meet in order to be called bourbon. Understanding what makes bourbon unique can help you appreciate the complex flavors and choose a quality bottle.

What are the requirements for bourbon?

According to U.S. law, bourbon must meet these requirements:

  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV)
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% ABV)
  • Made only in the United States

While other whiskeys may contain corn, bourbon is unique in its high corn content. The corn provides sweetness that balances out the other flavors. By law, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels. This aging gives bourbon its amber color and smoky, vanilla flavors from the wood. Most bourbons are aged for at least 4 years.

What are the different types of bourbon?

There are a few main types of bourbon:

  • Straight bourbon – Aged at least 2 years. Most bourbon on the market is straight bourbon.
  • Single barrel bourbon – Bottled from one individual barrel instead of blended from multiple barrels.
  • Small batch bourbon – Made by blending a small amount of select barrels.
  • Wheated bourbon – Uses wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain.
  • High-rye bourbon – Contains a high percentage of rye grain.

While all straight bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, the remaining grains vary between distilleries. The secondary grains impart their own unique flavors. Rye adds spice and pepperiness, while wheat is more mellow.

What defines a basic or entry-level bourbon?

A basic bourbon meets only the legal minimum requirements of a straight bourbon whiskey. Here are some characteristics of a basic bourbon:

  • Aged for around 4 years – the legal minimum is 2 years
  • Bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) – the legal minimum
  • Primarily made from corn, rye, and malted barley
  • Aged in charred new oak barrels
  • Simple and straight-forward flavor profile
  • Affordable price point, usually under $30

While basic bourbons lack complexity, they can still deliver the classic sweet corn and vanilla flavors people expect from bourbon. They are approachable for mixing cocktails or sipping neat.

Examples of some popular basic bourbons

Here are a few examples of some well-known bourbons that would be considered basic or entry-level:

Bourbon Brand Proof Age Mash Bill Price
Jim Beam 80 4 years Corn, rye, malted barley $15-25
Evan Williams 80 4 years Corn, rye, malted barley $12-15
Ancient Age 80 3 years Corn, rye, malted barley $12-18
Benchmark 80 3 years Corn, rye, malted barley $10-15

As you can see, popular basic bourbons like Jim Beam, Evan Williams, and Ancient Age are all aged for around 4 years and bottled at the legal minimum of 80 proof. Their mash bills stick to the traditional recipe of corn, rye, and malted barley. With price tags under $30, they offer an affordable way to enjoy straight bourbon whiskey.

How does basic bourbon differ from premium bourbons?

While basic bourbons deliver fundamental bourbon flavor, premium bourbons have more complex and layered flavors. Here are some of the key differences:

  • Older age – Premium bourbons are aged over 4 years, sometimes up to 12 years or more.
  • Higher proof – Bottled at over 90 proof for more rich flavor.
  • Spice and heat – More rye and alcohol gives premium bourbons a spiciness.
  • Smoothness – Extended aging makes them very smooth.
  • Complexity – Exhibit hints of caramel, butterscotch, cocoa, dried fruit, and other flavors.
  • High standards – Made from select barrels and proprietary yeasts.
  • Higher price – Around $50 or more per bottle.

While basic bourbons are perfect for mixing cocktails, premium bourbons deserve to be slowly sipped and savored. Their nuanced flavors reward those with an appreciation for whiskey.

What are some recommended uses for a basic bourbon?

Here are some of the best uses for an affordable, basic straight bourbon whiskey:

  • Cocktails – Mix with cola, ginger ale, lemonade or other simple mixers. Use in classics like Whiskey Sours, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds.
  • Shooters – Fun Straight, as a shot with a beer chaser, or in combinations like the Kamikaze.
  • Flames – Carefully light a shot on fire to create a Blazing Cocktail.
  • Marinades – Its sweet vanilla oakiness enhances meats like chicken, pork, and beef.
  • Baking – Use in cakes, brownies, and desserts for a sweet kick.
  • On the rocks – Pour over ice for easy sipping.

With its mellow corn flavor and affordable price, basic bourbon is ideal for cooking and mixing drinks. You don’t have to break the bank to start experimenting with classic bourbon cocktails.

What are some tips for getting the most out of a basic bourbon?

Here are some tips to maximize the enjoyment you get out of a basic bourbon on a budget:

  • Store opened bottles away from heat and light to maintain freshness.
  • Let your poured glass rest for 10-15 minutes so the flavors open up.
  • Add a few drops of water to help mellow the edges.
  • Sip slowly and see how subtle flavors develop over time.
  • Always mix with quality ingredients – real sugar, fresh citrus, premium sodas or ginger beer.
  • Consider aging a basic bourbon in small barrels at home to experiment with custom flavors.
  • Repurpose empty bottles for DIY infusions with spices, herbs, fruits or nuts.

While you shouldn’t expect massive complexity from a value-priced bourbon, taking time to appreciate the nuances can make basic bourbon much more satisfying. With proper care, these budget bottles can punch above their weight.

What are some common bourbon cocktails/drinks you can make with a basic bourbon?

Basic bourbons are perfect for mixing up delicious classic cocktails. Here are some popular bourbon drink recipes to try at home:

Old Fashioned

The quintessential bourbon cocktail! Build in a glass over ice: 2 oz bourbon, .25 oz simple syrup, 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters. Garnish with an orange slice and cherry.

Whiskey Sour

A perfect balance of sweet and tart. Shake over ice: 2 oz bourbon, 1 oz lemon juice, .75 oz simple syrup. Strain into a glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Kentucky Mule

Bourbon’s twist on the Moscow Mule. Fill a copper mug with ice and add: 2 oz bourbon, 4-6 oz ginger beer, .5 oz lime juice. Garnish with lime wedge.


An elegant classic. Stir over ice: 2 oz bourbon, 1 oz sweet vermouth, 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters. Strain and garnish with a cherry.

Mint Julep

Iconic Derby cocktail. Muddle mint leaves and simple syrup in a glass, fill with crushed ice. Add 2-3 oz bourbon and garnish with more mint.

Bourbon Smash

Bright and refreshing. Muddle 5 mint leaves and .5 oz simple syrup. Add 2 oz bourbon and .5 oz lemon juice. Shake and double strain over ice.

Don’t be afraid to get creative with seasonal ingredients too. Basic bourbon has an affinity for apples, peaches, pumpkin, and eggnog.

What are some common mistakes people make when drinking or serving basic bourbon?

It’s easy to make some rookie bourbon mistakes. Here are some common errors to avoid:

  • Not giving it time to breathe – Pour a neat bourbon and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before enjoying to open up the aromas.
  • Mixing with low-quality ingredients – Use real sugar and juices, avoidBottom-shelf sodas.
  • Chilling too much – Cooling dulls the subtle flavors. Skip the rocks and chill just a bit with a couple ice cubes.
  • Selecting the wrong bourbon – Reach for a higher-end bourbon for sipping neat or on the rocks.
  • Overdoing mixers – The flavor of quality bourbon can get drowned out. Use no more than a 2:1 ratio of mixer to spirit.
  • Pouring heavy-handed – Bourbon is strong at 80 proof. Standard pours are generally 1.5-2 oz.
  • Shooting quickly – Sip slowly to allow the bourbon’s flavors to develop across your palate.

Showcasing bourbon’s nuanced flavors takes the right pour in the right vessel. Avoid drowning it with lots of mixers or ice. Sipping slowly lets you fully savor quality bourbon.


Basic bourbon may be simple, but it offers an authentically American whiskey experience. Bottles like Jim Beam and Evan Williams provide a cost-effective way to mix classic cocktails while developing an appreciation for bourbon. With its signature sweet corn and vanilla oak flavors, basic bourbon makes a versatile liquor cabinet addition. Taking time to add special touches, from quality mixers to ice cubes and garnishes, helps a basic bourbon shine. With proper care in mixing and serving, even budget bottles can provide a satisfying sipping experience.