Prestigious labels are all the rage in the spirit market. And when it comes to bourbon, distilleries love nothing more than the words “Kentucky.” If you have noticed “Kentucky Straight” written on a bourbon bottle, you can tell from the font alone that you are in the presence of greatness. But what does the label really mean?
Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a bourbon that is distilled in Kentucky and aged in the state for at least one year after barreling according to the following standards: 160 proof (max) recipe, 125 proof (max) at barreling in charred oak containers and bottling at 80 proof (min).
In this article, we will simplify the criteria that make a bourbon Kentucky straight and will go over what makes this bourbon special. Toward the end, you will learn how to select the best straight bourbon alongside the top two labels in Kentucky.
But first, let’s go over what Kentucky Straight bourbon is in detail…
Kentucky Straight Bourbon: A Brief Overview
The state of Kentucky is credited with inventing bourbon. Being an all-American beverage integrated into the fabric of American alcohol tradition, bourbon’s marketability revolves around its authenticity. The closer bourbon gets to its historical roots, the better-valued it is.
The marketability of history and tradition in the bourbon market is so evident that many producers still use the “bottled in bond” label to give their liquor an air of history.
True authenticity, however, comes from geography and recipe.
If a bourbon has a historically accurate recipe and is aged in the area where the drink originated, it is the closest you can come to drinking original bourbon.
Straight bourbon is free of flavoring agents and colorants and is considered pretty close to old-school bourbon. When said bourbon is aged in Kentucky for at least one year, it is called Kentucky straight bourbon.
Overlapping additive-free recipes with a geographically-specific aging location results in bourbon that is hailed as the closest to the original bourbon consumed by the people who invented the drink.
What Is Straight Bourbon?
It is impossible to specify Kentucky straight bourbon with any degree of precision without identifying what makes a straight bourbon. As mentioned earlier, straight bourbon is free of pre-bottling additives.
But adding alternative contents to the barrels before the aging process could be a potential way to bypass quality control. That’s why there is a very strict checklist of conditions that straight bourbon has to satisfy before it can be categorized as a straight whiskey.
Straight bourbon is a bourbon that satisfies the following criteria:
- Over 50% corn in the mash bill
- No more than 80% Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
- Barreled at 125 proof
- Aged in charred oak barrels
- Aged for 2 years or more
- Bottled at over 40% Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
If you remove the 50%+ corn content condition, the rest of the criteria can be used to produce any type of straight whiskey. Since bourbon is made with 51% to 80% corn grain, straight bourbon also has to be made with over 50% corn.
Straight Bourbon Vs. Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Now that you know what straight bourbon is, you might think Kentucky straight bourbon is a spirit produced under the same criteria in Kentucky. That is partially true.
Straight bourbon is bourbon barreled at 125 proof after mash stirring at under 160 proof, then aged for 2 or more years and bottled at over 80 proof. Kentucky straight bourbon is straight bourbon that is produced and aged for at least 1 year in Kentucky.
So the entire aging process of Kentucky straight bourbon doesn’t need to take place in Kentucky. And the bottling process also can happen in a different state as long as it meets the proof standards.
The conditions that bourbon has to meet before it can be accurately labeled as Kentucky straight are as follows:
- Must be produced in Kentucky
- Must contain over 50% corn in its grain content
- Must be at no more than 160 proof in its recipe
- Must have 62.5% or less alcohol by volume when barreled
- Must be barreled in new charred oak containers
- Must be left to age in a location in Kentucky for a minimum of one year
- Must be aged for 2 years at a minimum overall
- Must be bottled with over 40% ABV concentration
What Do The Straight Bourbon Conditions Do?
Unlike “bottled in bond” and “single barrel” conditions, the straight bourbon criteria do not create an objectively strong spirit. The conditions set for a straight bourbon to qualify as a Kentucky Straight one do result in a rare beverage. These conditions act more like cooking directions that produce a specific taste.
If you like the taste, then the criteria mean something to you. But if you’re unimpressed by straight bourbon, then the conditions under which the spirit becomes straight are irrelevant.
Still, there are a few objective perks to straight bourbon. Here is what rings true for all straight bourbons.
- They are free of flavoring agents – Because of the strict proof requirements at every stage of the bourbon-making process, it is hard for a producer to sneak additives into the spirit’s recipe. But you can get this benefit from any bourbon labeled as free of flavorants.
- They are free of colorants – Bourbon can have food coloring added to it for visual effect. Straight bourbon’s strict proof requirements make it difficult for the drink to come bearing artificial colors.
- They have more room for grain – This is the true taste advantage of bourbon. Because of the initial maximum limit on alcohol concentration, it is possible for the grains’ flavor to shine in the final product. This effect is why regular straight bourbon consumers choose it.
Is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Better?
Kentucky Straight Bourbon is better, according to many bourbon connoisseurs. Not only is it aged in the state that invented bourbon, but it is also made under strict process-specific instructions to maximize grain flavor, ensure alcohol balance, and produce a well-rounded liquor.
To get the best Kentucky straight bourbon, you should buy from distilleries that have a long history of distilling it. Fresh distilleries can still get things wrong while checking off the technical points of this whiskey.
Kentucky, straight bourbon production is a lot more intuitive than the criteria would have you believe. And the main advantage of Kentucky straight bourbon is that it carries an old-world charm.
Kentucky Straight Bourbon: Modern Vs. Old School
Modern Kentucky straight bourbon can be made by any distillery that can contract a warehouse in Kentucky to house its barrels for a year. The technical requirements of making straight bourbon aren’t all too complicated either.
Old-school Kentucky straight bourbon is learned intuitively from apprenticeship. At one point, it used to be taught from father to son. Nowadays, it is taught by a full-time employee to a new recruit.
An unbreaking chain of “hands-on” training, results in distillery manpower that can hit all the marks of a straight bourbon without even measuring the alcohol and grain contents. This kind of mastery brings with it a taste advantage that cannot be replicated by number-crunching ABV and grain content.
How To Select The Best Kentucky Straight Bourbon?
To select the best Kentucky straight bourbon, you should opt for a Kentucky-based distillery with at least a 50-year history of making bourbon. Straight bourbon distillers became free agents in the 70s, and many distilleries employed them in the decades to follow.
There was room for master-to-apprentice learning during this period. Distilleries that are less than a decade old have the hardest time developing good-tasting straight whiskey.
Since distilling experience and continuous operations are two of the greatest predictors of Kentucky Straight Bourbon’s quality, here are the best brands you can buy today:
- Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon – The distillery that makes this bourbon was established in 1805 and later incorporated as the current iteration’s predecessor in 1812. As one of the longest-running continuous bourbon distilling operations, Buffalo Trace produces some of the best-crafted straight bourbons in Kentucky.
- Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon – Maker’s Mark bourbon is hand-made Kentucky straight whiskey with a complex flavor and great color. The distillery that makes this bourbon is one of the oldest operations in the world and has the prestige of legacy spirit distillation and the expertise of a continuous distilling tradition.
Does Straight Bourbon Taste Different From Kentucky Straight Bourbon?
Straight bourbon and Kentucky straight bourbon taste the same if they are chill filtered. Otherwise, Kentucky straight bourbon has a more grain-driven flavor than regular straight bourbon. Exceptions do exist because there are better and worse aging environments than Kentucky rickhouses.
Kentucky straight is a safe bet because the climate of Kentucky is great for bourbon-making. But if you can get straight bourbon aged elsewhere and you like how it tastes, you can continue to have it. It doesn’t hurt to sample different straight bourbons in order to find your favorite. Besides, any reason to drink is a good reason to drink.
Final Thoughts: Straight Talk About Kentucky Bourbon
Kentucky straight bourbon is made in Kentucky according to the conditions set for straight bourbon. The conditions ensure that there is no room for flavoring agents and colorants in the bourbon’s recipe and that the end product is as “straight” as possible.
To get good Kentucky Straight whiskey, you should opt for ones that are made by distilleries that have been operating since the 80s.