Bourbon is a type of whisky that must meet certain production requirements to be labeled and sold as bourbon. Making bourbon at home in the United States is illegal, so purchase your bourbon from a licensed alcohol retailer. If the bottle is labeled “Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” it means that the liquor has met the U.S. government’s standards for bourbon. Choose your bourbon based on characteristics that suit your personal taste. Consider sweetness, smokiness and flavor notes, such as hints of vanilla and caramel.

To be considered a straight bourbon whiskey — sometimes just called “straight bourbon” — bourbon must:

  • Be made in the United States

  • Contain at least 51 percent corn in the grain mix

  • Have at least 80 percent alcohol

  • Contain no additives other than water

  • Be aged in charred, new, white oak barrels for a minimum of two years

Bourbon is made from a mix of grains. While corn is the dominant grain, other grains commonly used to make bourbon include:

  • Barley

  • Malt

  • Rye

After the grain blend is chosen, the grains are then cooked with fresh spring water. The amount of time and the temperature depends on the type of grain. After cooking, the grain mash is cooled and then fermented with yeast.

After fermentation, the mash is distilled — the liquid is reduced after being separated from the grains — then fermented again. This second fermentation is known as the sour mash. During the sour mash process, some of the fermented grains removed during distillation — the residue — are added back to the mash. This makes the mash more acidic, an ideal environment for the yeasts to act.

After the sour mash, the bourbon is then transferred into charred, oak barrels — provided by a special manufacturer because of the requirements — and left to age. The charring of the barrels gives bourbon it’s smoky aroma and taste.

The barrels are rotated during their storage period for ideal temperature and humidity conditions. The longer a bourbon is aged, the smoother and more complex the flavors will be.

Bourbons have a pale gold to caramel brown color. Because of their high alcohol content, bourbons are strong tasting, so many people prefer to blend them with sweeter ingredients — such as cola — to dilute the drink. An example is a Jack and Coke, which is a mix of Coca Cola and Jack Daniels. However, higher-quality bourbon is often drunk straight or with ice.

To choose an introductory bourbon, go for a milder, sweeter bourbon — less intense and not as strong in taste — as a way to ease in. Look for bourbons with strong vanilla or caramel notes but not too much smoke.