Cheat Sheet: Bourbon

Ask for a bottle of bourbon at Park Avenue Liquor Shop in Midtown Manhattan and you’ll be shown a wall of whiskey. The store carries more than five dozen different bottlings, and that’s not counting rye or Tennessee whiskey. How’s a drinker supposed to choose?

To help you make the decision easier, we enlisted Knob Creek’s whiskey professor Bernie Lubbers. In addition to knowing about liquor, he has another special talent: Tell him your bourbon of choice, and he’ll immediately rattle off your other favorites and which spirits you should try next. We got Lubbers to reveal the secret to his trick, which will make finding whiskies you’ll love that much easier.

From how long the spirit ages to the proof, there are a number of key factors that contribute to the flavor of bourbon. But today we’re focusing on the most basic: the three grains used to make the whiskey. While all bourbons must be at least 51 percent corn and usually contain some barley, the third grain can vary from brand to brand. Using that so-called “flavoring grain,” Lubbers divides the whole bourbon category into three main groups. “I try to find the common dominator,” he says.

There’s the “traditional bourbon recipe,” which calls for about 70 percent corn and then roughly equal amounts of rye and barley. Knob Creek, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams fall into this group. Then there’s the spicy “high-rye recipe,” which includes a higher percentage of, you guessed it, rye. Basil Hayden’s, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace all follow this formula. The last group is the “traditional wheat recipe,” which, according to Lubbers, has a “sweeter and softer” taste since it’s made from corn, barley and wheat. Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle and W.L. Weller are examples of this style.

While the bourbons in each group will taste different, there’s a good chance that if you like one you’ll like the rest. With Lubbers’ assistance we created a cheat sheet that breaks down the most popular brands into these three categories. Now it’s time to go back to the liquor store.

Traditional Bourbon Recipe:

High-Rye Recipe:

High-Wheat Recipe:

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From our Friends



  • monica14 posted 3 years ago

    Hi Earl,

    I just found your posting and just stumbled across a bottle exactly as you describe. There is absolutely no information out there on this bourbon. Did you ever get anything from anyone?

    Thanks so much,

  • William R Peterson posted 4 years ago

    I've heard about Larceny Bourbon but not tried it all though Iwould like too. What can you tell me about this brand of liquor.And where does it fall in place with the others.

  • posted 4 years ago

    1792 Ridgemont Reserve is a high-rye bourbon. We're not sure about Old Pogue—the brand's website doesn't specify what grain recipe it uses—but based on the fact that the distillery also makes a rye whiskey, we'd bet that the bourbon is a high-rye recipe as well.

  • Thomas Kitchen posted 4 years ago

    I am a Maker's fan but also enjoy Ridgemont Reserve 1792. Where does that fit in? What about Pogue?

  • posted 4 years ago

    Mike, George Dickel (like Jack Daniel's) is a Tennessee whiskey, not a bourbon. The grains used and the production process are pretty much the same, but Tenessee whiskies are charcoal-filtered before they go into the barrel, which makes them softer and smoother. That said, the recipe Dickel uses is most like the traditional bourbon recipe.

  • Mike posted 4 years ago

    Any ideas where you'd place George Dickel either No. 8 or 12?

  • posted 4 years ago

    The B&E is actually a blend of many different bourbons from Kentucky. St. George doesn't divulge which distilleries they are from or which mashbills they use, but in all likelihood it's a mix of all three different recipes.

  • Kippendog posted 4 years ago

    Where would you place the St. George B&E Bourbon Whiskey?

  • posted 4 years ago

    We've read about Black Reserve, but haven't had a chance to taste it—it doesn't seem to be available outside of Ohio yet. It's certainly intriguing, though we have our doubts about whether the "accelerated" aging process is really as good as real barrel aging. We're reserving judgment for now.

  • Scott posted 4 years ago

    I find that there are as many exceptions in this list, as far as actual flavor profile vs what you would expect from the recipe. I tend to like spicy bourbons, as well as straight ryes.

    I haven't had Basil hayden's but have heard it is very mild. Four Roses, Eagle Rare, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace are all rather mild to my palate. On the other hand, Old Weller Antique and Elijah Craig are two of the spiciest Bourbons I have had, and Knob Creek and Wild Turkey both have a lot of rye spice to them.

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