How to Speak Bourbon Like an American

Getting serious about whiskey is like going to Italy: You only need to know a handful of words.
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Getting serious about whiskey is like going to Italy: You only need to know a handful of words.
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Bourbon has been having a moment for long enough that it’s beginning to feel more like an epoch and your friends are starting to feign expertise. Don’t feel like you need to be an expert on the stuff – a real man likes what he likes – but it’s worth knowing a bit of the lingo to hang with the barkeep.



Photo: AP Photo / Erik Schelzig / Corbis

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Straight

For bourbons and ryes to be considered “straight,” they must be aged at least two years in new American oak barrels. The wood for the barrels typically comes from Midwestern, Oregonian, or Appalachian forests – though coopers in the Ozarks know precisely what they’re doing. The virtue of the new barrel is that gives off a bit off a stronger flavor. Typically, American woods are associated with a vanilla taste. [Ex: Wild Turkey 81 Rye; wildturkeybourbon.com]



Cask Strength

This stamp means whiskey was not diluted with water after being removed from the cask, and therefore has a higher alcohol content. Most whiskeys hover around the 40% ABV mark, but cask-strength liquors often top 60% ABV. Originally, distillers diluted whiskeys to make them more palatable, but, with stronger liquors growing in popularity, an increasing number of more alcoholic bourbons are hitting the market. Bartenders love to make cocktails with stronger ingredients and Kentucky boys famously love the stuff. [Ex: Maker's Mark Cask Strength Bourbon; makersmark.com]

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Photo: Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Mash

A mixture of cooked grains and water, to which yeast is added to begin fermentation, American mash consists mostly of corn sourced from nearby farms and mixed with naturally filtered water. One of the more popular ways to use mash is to recycle it in order to jumpstart the yeast-aided fermentation process. Mash fermented through this process is called sour mash. Jack Daniel’s loves the stuff. [Ex: Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Sour Mash Tennessee Whiskey; jackdaniels.com]



Photo: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images

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Peat

A mosslike material that’s heated under grain to give it a smokier character, peat is not really part of the American whiskey maker’s tool kit. The adjectival form of the word, “peat-y,” is still used to describe bourbons with an earthier quality. If anyone is being pretentious and talking about all the peat in a bourbon, tell them to shut the hell up and speak American.



Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images

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Small-Batch

A term used to refer to bourbons that have been mixed together from a few different barrels for consistency. Let the Scottish say what they will, but Americans are better at producing mixed liquors than anyone else. Small-batch whiskeys are often harder to find and more expensive than normal bourbons, but they also tend to have more complicated flavors. [Ex: Four Roses Small Batch; fourrosesbourbon.com]



Photo: David Lefranc / Corbis

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Pot Still

The copper container in which mash is heated and the vapor is distilled into whiskey is a critical part of all whiskey-making processes everywhere. What makes American pot still singular is that they tend to be newer (prohibition was a bitch) or jerry rigged, lending a bit more character to the final product.

Photos by Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images