When I first started bartending, I wanted to learn as much as I could about alcoholic beverages and see how other bartenders creatively interpreted the language of liquor. Knowing your brown liquors from one another has always been an integral part of bar knowledge, and that means knowing your whiskey. 

I grew up fascinated by the rich history of New York in the prohibition era, and to this day am obsessed with the bad-ass business suit aesthetic of Mad Men. So, the longer this went on, the more urgently I needed to know: what is so special about bourbon? It has to be special if Congress designated September National Bourbon Heritage Month


Before you can know bourbon, you must first understand whiskey.

Whiskey is an alcoholic spirit made from fermented grain mash (typically barley, wheat, rye, or corn plants). After distillation, the spirit is aged for years in a wooden cask, usually made of charred oak, so that the flavor can develop more over time.

Once you get over the general processing concept, a whole OTHER world opens up; whiskey that tastes earthy, whiskey that tastes like vanilla, even whiskey that tastes like it could punch you in the face. The possibilities are endless.

This is because whiskey can be considered the origin of all brown liquors. What differentiates each brand from one another is usually just a small change in variables to capture a different flavor. It’s also the reason why Jack Daniels isn’t the same as Jameson, so choose wisely.

Whiskey flavor also changes based on location. In Tennessee, the filtration process involves the use of charcoal. In Ireland, the aging process MUST be a minimum of three years. In Canada, it’s called “whisky,” okay?


Rye is the next branch on the whiskey family tree.

Rye is primarily distilled in Kentucky. Remember that fermented grain mash that started it all? Basically, rye whiskey’s grain mash consists of at least 51% rye, giving the whiskey an earthier, drier taste.

Pretty simple. Try it in a Manhattan!


It's still whiskey, still aged at a minimum of three years, but scotch must be made in Scotland and from a mixture of water and malted barley.

Because it’s got a slightly more bright and woody taste, sometimes the best way to take scotch is just a double shot on the rocks (that’s “on ice” for those still new to bar-speak).

My favorite scotch, when it comes to taste, is Mac15 (aka Macallan Fine Oak 15-Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whiskey), because it’s the type of drink you can’t just shoot back. It’s expensive, takes forever to finish a bottle, and is best enjoyed in good company.


And now, for the big Kahuna of brown liquor, the one we all know and love but aren’t sure why: bourbon.

Even if you’ve previously tasted and enjoyed bourbon before, it’s important to note that it often has a sweeter and more demure, full-bodied taste than other types of whiskey. The secret to this is actually a combination of changes to the initial whiskey making process.

First of all, bourbon is at least 51% corn. Also, it must be made in the United States (sorry, Canada). During the distilling process, bourbon has a shorter and more sensitive range at which it can be distilled: it must enter the barrel at 125 proof alcohol, and be no more than 160 proof by the end. The bottling process is similar, because no bourbon can be less than 80 proof.

A lot of bourbon’s popularity also stems from it’s marketing. We see bourbon as the sexier relative of whiskey because it dresses a little better, and because we see it everyday in the hands of Donald Draper characters.

So if you’re wondering why Joseph Magnus Bourbon won “Best In Show 2016,” or why Matthew McConaughey is now the creative director of Wild Turkey, first ask yourself, “why aren’t I celebrating with them?” Get yourself an Old-Fashioned and drink up.