Why is bourbon so sweet?

Credit: guzzphoto

Credit: guzzphoto

One unmistakable difference between bourbon whiskey and scotch whisky is the sweetness. You can come up with a variety of flavor profiles for any scotch whisky and “sweet” is unlikely to be one of them.

Floral and fruity are likely to be more accurate descriptors than sweet, especially when talking about anything finished in port pipes or another dessert wine.

But one sip of bourbon and the first thing that jumps to mind is its sweetness.

Bourbon is sweet. So very sweet.

When you think about how both bourbon and scotch are made, the processes are very similar. There are some big differences but you ferment the mash, you distill, then you age.

So why is bourbon so sweet?

It’s all about the corn mash. The stuff those geniuses ferment.

Bourbon’s mashbill is made of at least 51% corn, often far more (closer to 70% as an average). Four Roses has two mashbills, one with 60% corn and one with 75% corn. There are various high-rye, low-rye, wheat and whatever else mashbills but all share one characteristic – at least 51% corn.

Scotch, on the other hand, uses mostly or all barley in its mash and the glucose content of corn is much higher. That glucose is what gives bourbon its easily recognizable sweetness.

51%+ corn in the mash is why bourbon is so sweet.

About Jim

Jim is the founder of Scotch Addict and one of the many fans of whisky in all its forms. Connect with me on Google+.
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8 Responses to Why is bourbon so sweet?

  1. pgaynon says:

    How does the sugar cross over in distillation?

    • Jens Risbo says:

      Sweetness simply cannot pass the distillation. The text is simply not right… The sweetness most be related to the cask or addition of caramel to adjust the color…

      • Alex says:

        Bourbon isn’t allowed to have additives like caramel (by law). It’s likely because of the new charred barrels used for aging. When the wood gets charred, it caramelizes. Age the liquor in there for a couple years and you leech all of that out, which is, of course, the point.

        • Evan says:

          Jens isn’t right. When distilling for bourbon it cant exceed 80% alcohol and when put into the barrel it can’t exceed 62.5% alcohol. Then what is the rest. corn has a high sugar amount which can translate into having a sweet bourbon and since wheated bourbons are sweet is because the wheat has less taste and uniqueness then rye or barely so it allows the natural sweetness to come out. you may still get some from the barrel but thats what happens.

          • B man says:

            Glucose and compounds with high boiling points will not boil off during distillation. The remainder of the distillate will be simply water boiled off. When you double or triple distill a solution you end up with a solution with higher and higher concentrations of alcohol. I hope this post isn’t taken as condescending or patronizing. I just wanted to offer my input to this post and I know this message doesn’t confer tone properly.

  2. Eric Haag says:

    Sugar will not evaporate during distillation (this is why maple syrup can be concentrated by boiling). So, that the sugar is extracted from the wood is a likely explanation.
    Dr. Eric

  3. peter m says:

    ok interesting – I stumbled on this thread after wondering why the nikka coffey grain whisky i have in my hand tasted so sweet to me. didnt realize that it is mostly (95%) made from corn mash so now it makes sense… except one more question – should nikka coffey grain whisky then really be called a bourbon?

  4. Kamamura says:

    How is it even possible that someone posing as an authority is so wrong on this topic?

    First, as was already stated here, sugars including glucose do not pass distillation. Therefore, a freshly distilled spirit is always free of sugars of any kind. Aromatic compounds that give the spirit “sweet nose” can pass, though, and since taste and smell are closely related, they can give the impression of sweetness even without sugar.

    More importantly, however, yeast that creates alcohol can only work with sugar, so even if the original grain is not very sweet, it must be “malted”, i.e. the starches of the grain must be enzymatically broken into simple sugars that can be metabolized by the yeast into alcohol(s). So every mash or wash is sweet, because yeast works only with sugar.

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