Updated at: 26-06-2023 - By: John Lau

Welcome to the exciting world of American whiskeys, where Sour Mash and Bourbon have captured the hearts and taste buds of connoisseurs worldwide.

In this captivating guide, we’ll dive into understanding these beloved beverages by exploring their origins, unique characteristics, and complexities.

Understanding Sour Mash And Bourbon

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Sour mash and bourbon are two distinct types of American whiskey, with both sharing a common ancestry dating back to the days of moonshine.

What Is Sour Mash?

Sour mash is a technique used in the whiskey production process that adds a portion of previously fermented (or “sour”) mash to the fresh, unfermented mash. This method helps maintain consistency and control pH levels during fermentation, resulting in a more balanced and smooth final product.

The sourness in sour mash whiskey comes from lactic acid bacteria present within the fermenting grains which work alongside the yeast to break down sugars into alcohol.

Some well-known examples of sour mash whiskeys include Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel Tennessee Whiskeys, as well as some bourbons like Maker’s Mark.

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is distilled from a mixture or mash bill of grains, usually containing at least 51% corn. The spirit must be aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years to be considered bourbon.

It’s named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it was first produced. Bourbon has become the quintessential American spirit and can now legally be made anywhere in the United States.

There are many different types of bourbons available, including single barrel and small batch varieties. Its bold flavor profile often includes hints of caramel, vanilla, and oak with a smooth finish that makes it an easy-to-drink option for both new and seasoned drinkers alike.

Distinctions Between The Two

While sour mash and bourbon whiskey share some similarities, there are notable distinctions between the two. Sour mash is a process that involves adding backset or spent mash from a previous batch to help control the pH level during production.

On the other hand, bourbon can be made using any type of yeast and does not have to use this technique.

Additionally, while both types of whiskey are primarily produced in Kentucky and Tennessee and often include corn as a key ingredient in their mash bills, they can taste quite different from one another.

Bourbon is typically on the sweeter side with lighter body and flavor profiles, while sour mash whiskeys tend to be more robust with full-bodied flavors.

Differences Between Sour Mash And Bourbon

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Sour mash uses a combination of leftover mash from a previous batch and fresh ingredients, while bourbon requires the use of only fresh ingredients for each new batch.

The aging process for sour mash and bourbon also differs, with sour mash typically being aged in reused barrels while bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

Mash Recipe And Process

Sour mash and bourbon have different mash recipes, which play a significant role in their production processes. Below are essential facts to note about mash recipe and process when it comes to sour mash vs. bourbon:

  • Sour mash: In the sour mash process, a portion of previously fermented mash is added to the new batch of whiskey. This technique helps control the pH levels during fermentation, ensuring a consistent flavor profile for each batch. The sour mash process also encourages the growth of good bacteria that prevent contamination by harmful microorganisms.
  • Bourbon: Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in its mash bill, with the remaining grains usually being rye or wheat. The grains are ground and mixed with water to create a mash that is heated and cooled before yeast is added for fermentation.
  • Mash recipe variations: Distilleries can vary their recipes within legal limits while producing either sour mash or bourbon whiskeys. Different types of grains and different ratios of grains can be used to change the flavor profile of each whiskey.
  • Fermentation: During fermentation, yeast feeds on the sugars in the mash, converting them into alcohol. This process takes approximately three to five days for both sour mash and bourbon.
  • Distillation: Once fermented, the mixture is placed in stills where heat vaporizes it into alcohol vapors that are then collected as they condense back into a liquid form.

Aging And Maturation

Bourbon and sour mash whiskey are both aged in charred oak barrels to achieve their distinct flavor profiles. However, there are variations in the aging and maturation process that contribute to differences in taste.

Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels whereas sour mash whiskey has no specific aging requirements. Some bourbons age for longer periods, which can lead to more complex and refined flavors.

Aging also affects the color of the final product as bourbons tend to have a darker hue compared to lighter-colored sour mash whiskeys.

Flavor Profile And Characteristics

Sour mash and bourbon may both be whiskey, but they have distinct flavor profiles and characteristics. Bourbon tends to be sweeter and lighter-bodied compared to sour mash whiskey, which is typically more robust and full-bodied.

When it comes to aging, both types of whiskey spend time in charred oak barrels that give them their distinctive color and flavor profile. However, the length of aging can vary depending on the distiller’s preference.

It’s important to note that taste is subjective – some people prefer the sweeter notes in bourbon while others enjoy the bolder flavors of sour mash.

Legal Requirements And Standards

Both sour mash and bourbon are subject to strict legal requirements and standards set by the US government. To be considered bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the United States from at least 51% corn mash, aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume.

Additionally, to bear the name “Tennessee whiskey,” a spirit must meet specific production standards outlined by state law.

Sour mash whiskey is also held to certain legal standards that dictate its production process. This type of liquor must use previously fermented mash to start its next batch as an alternative method to controlling pH balance during fermentation.

Overall, these regulations ensure that consumers can trust that they are getting an authentic product when purchasing either sour mash or bourbon whiskeys from reputable distilleries.

Popular Sour Mash And Bourbon Brands

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Comparison Of Tasting Notes And Differences

Comparing the tasting notes and differences between popular sour mash and bourbon brands can help drinkers select the best whiskey for their preferences. Here, we present a handy table to easily compare the basic characteristics of each category.

Whiskey Type Nose (Aroma) Palate (Taste) Finish
Sour Mash Notes of sour fruit, spice, and earthiness Rich, robust, and full-bodied with hints of toffee, chocolate, and oak Long and lingering, often with a bold, spicy kick
Bourbon Sweet, with scents of vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak Smooth, sweet, and light-bodied, featuring flavors of corn, honey, and fruit Medium to long, mellow, and warm with a touch of sweetness

Distillery Histories And Traditions

The history of bourbon and sour mash whiskey is rich and intertwined with American culture. Many of the most well-known distilleries have been around for over a century, with some tracing their roots back to the 18th century.

For example, Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee was founded in 1866 and has remained an iconic brand ever since.

These distilleries have unique traditions that have been passed down through generations. Some use special strains of yeast that have been cultivated for decades or even centuries, while others rely on specific methods of aging their spirits.

While these traditions may seem quaint or old-fashioned, they are an essential part of what makes each brand unique.

Innovations And Unique Offerings

When it comes to bourbon and sour mash whiskey, there are always new innovations and unique offerings being introduced to the market. Here are some examples:

  1. Cask finishes: Some distilleries are experimenting with finishing their bourbon or sour mash in different types of casks, such as sherry or port barrels, to add interesting flavor profiles.
  2. High-proof bottlings: For whiskey lovers who prefer a stronger alcohol content, some brands have started releasing limited-edition high-proof versions of their bourbons or sour mash whiskeys.
  3. Non-traditional grains: While corn is a staple in both bourbon and sour mash recipes, some distillers are using other grains like quinoa or millet to create unique flavor profiles.
  4. Flavored varieties: Some brands offer flavored versions of their whiskeys, such as honey or cinnamon-infused bourbons or sour mash whiskeys.
  5. Single barrel releases: Many bourbons and sour mash whiskeys are blended from various barrels, but some distillers release single barrel editions that showcase the distinct characteristics of each individual barrel.
  6. Small batch productions: Distilleries sometimes produce small batches of bourbon or sour mash whiskey with more attention paid to detail and quality control than large-scale productions.
  7. Hybrid blends: Some distillers are blending different styles of whiskey, such as combining rye and bourbon into one bottle for a unique taste experience.

These innovations and unique offerings keep the world of bourbon and sour mash whiskey exciting for enthusiasts looking for something new to try.

Choosing Between Sour Mash And Bourbon

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Consider personal taste, food and pairing suggestions, as well as price and availability when choosing between sour mash and bourbon.

Personal Preferences And Taste

Ultimately, choosing between sour mash and bourbon comes down to personal preference. Some prefer the sweeter taste of bourbon, while others enjoy the boldness of sour mash whiskey.

When it comes to food pairings, both sour mash and bourbon can complement a variety of dishes.

Price and availability are also factors that may influence your decision.

In the end, whether you choose a classic Kentucky bourbon or a Tennessee-made sour mash whiskey depends on your own preferences as well as occasion in which you’ll be drinking it.

Food And Pairing Suggestions

If you’re looking to enjoy your sour mash or bourbon with some tasty food pairings, check out these suggestions:

  1. BBQ – The smoky, sweet flavors of a good BBQ dish pair perfectly with the charred oak and rich flavors of bourbon.
  2. Fried Chicken – The crispiness of fried chicken and the smoothness of bourbon make for a delicious combination.
  3. Steak – A hearty steak pairs well with the full-bodied taste of sour mash whiskey.
  4. Chocolate – A piece of dark chocolate can bring out the sweetness in bourbon and enhance its flavor profile.
  5. Cheese – Pairing a sharp cheddar or aged gouda with bourbon can create a delightful balance between the salty cheese and sweet whiskey notes.

Price And Availability

The price and availability of sour mash whiskey and bourbon can vary widely depending on the brand, aging process, and production method. Generally speaking, bourbon tends to be more widely available and affordable compared to sour mash whiskey due to its popularity around the world.

For example, popular bourbon brands like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey are readily available at most liquor stores or online retailers for under $30 per bottle. On the other hand, unique offerings such as Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon command top dollar with prices ranging from $1,000-2,500 per bottle.

Meanwhile, lesser-known sour mash whiskeys like George Dickel No.

When choosing between sour mash and bourbon based on price and availability factors alone may require a little bit of research beforehand.


In conclusion, deciding between sour mash and bourbon largely comes down to personal preference. While they share some similarities in their distilling process, there are distinct differences that can affect the flavor profile and overall experience of each whiskey.

Whether you prefer the sweet and smooth taste of bourbon or the bold complexity of sour mash, both offer unique qualities worth exploring. With a variety of distilleries and brands to choose from, take your time exploring different options on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or visiting Tennessee’s famous whiskey producers.