Skip to main content

This is why your bourbon tastes sweet even though there’s no added sugar

Why does bourbon taste sweet?

Whiskey glass
Anastasia Zhenina / Unsplash

There’s a reason America’s “native spirit” is so popular. Bourbon is well-known for its mellow, easy-drinking, sweet flavor. For those new to the truly American whiskey, to be considered a bourbon, all distillers must follow a few rules and regulations.

To get the title of bourbon whiskey, the spirit must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn; it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, it must be made in the US (but not just Kentucky, regardless of what a bourbon purist might tell you), distilled to a maximum of 160-proof, barreled at a maximum of 125-proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80-proof.

If you’ve ever sipped bourbon whiskey (even if only a few times), you probably remember how mellow, smooth, soft, and sweet it was. Now, you might be wondering which of the above steps gives it the sweet, complex, memorable flavor. Well, to put it simply, it’s all of them.

Bourbon drink
Johann Trasch/Unsplash

Bourbon doesn’t have any sugar added to it

One of the rules we didn’t mention above pertains to the sweet, sugary flavor of bourbon. There is no sugar added, and not just because it would make the spirit a cloying, sugary mess. But to be called a bourbon, distillers can’t add any colorings or additives. This means the sugary flavor completely comes from the ingredients and process and nothing else. There are flavored whiskeys, but they have to be specifically designated on the label.

Phoenix Han/Unsplash

Corn is the key

Bourbon whiskey’s base is corn. There’s a reason when people look for delicious corn to grill in the summer, they look for “sweet corn”. Corn is naturally sweet. While to be called bourbon, distillers only need a mash bill of 51% corn, many use much more. More corn equals more sweetness. But it’s not the only step that added sweetness as moonshine, while sweet, can be quite harsh.

Bourbon barrels
Katherine Conrad/Unsplash

Aging adds more sweetness

Beginning with a corn-based spirit is a good start to making a sweet, sippable whiskey, but aging is what puts it over the top. Maturation in charred American oak adds wood sugar to the whiskey. On top of that, the whiskey’s chemical reaction with the charred wood gives it flavors of caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, toffee, oak, and other sweet, memorable flavors.

A person holding a glass of bourbon
YesMore Content / Unsplash

One last trick to add sweetness

You’ve probably seen the term “sour mash” in bourbon and other whiskeys. This phrase is used to describe when distillers use the leftover mash (or backset) from previously distilled batches of whiskey. It adds acidity but lowers the pH level and removes bacteria that might alter the flavor and safety of the spirit.

Instead of using sour mash, many distillers add sweetness and lower the acid level by using sweet mash. Instead of using a backset, distillers make new mash by heating water, grains, and yeast and fermenting it.

Editors' Recommendations

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
How to make the Earthquake cocktail in just 4 simple steps
Make this simple cocktail to start and end your gatherings with a bang
Earthquake cocktail

According to legend, the Earthquake cocktail was a favorite of Post-Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who served it at the frequent parties he hosted. Originally a 50/50 blend of cognac and good absinthe, the two-ingredient cocktail certainly had the potential to start and/or end the evening with a bang.

Over the years, drink makers have mellowed the recipe for those looking for less inebriating libations. Whether you stick to tradition or tinker with the ingredients, the Earthquake makes a brilliant cocktail to add to your repertoire. And who knows, it just might make you a better painter as well (although we doubt it).
The Earthquake cocktail

Read more
A guide to making a Rob Roy, the Scotch lover’s classic
Add this drink to you home bar menu for your next gathering
Rob Roy cocktail with cherry garnish

Of the many classic cocktails worthy of your time, the Rob Roy may have the best name. The title itself is friendly and hard to forget, not unlike the drink itself. The hypnotic hue of the drink as it shrinks into the base of a Nick and Nora glass is reason enough to adore the Rob Roy, but there are many more merits to this mixed beverage.

Essentially a Manhattan with Scotch whisky, the Rob Roy cocktail was born in 1894. Inherently classy, the drink was devised in the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The Manhattan came first, concocted a couple of decades earlier. With the name of its home borough already taken, the creators opted to honor the Broadway premiere of an operetta released at the time about the legendary Scottish outlaw and folk hero Robert Roy MacGregor.

Read more
How to make Ranch Water the right way
Looking for a refreshing beverage? Search no more, Ranch Water is here
A serving of Ranch Water cocktail

If there was ever a beverage built for day drinking, it's Ranch Water. The simple cocktail, born in Texas, can take the sting out of the hottest days and refresh you to the core without knocking you out with an abundance of alcohol.

We've just come out of our winter hibernation, so the days will be getting longer, and soon enough, the warmth will return. When that happens, you'd be wise to have some Ranch Water on hand for you and yours. Lighter than a margarita and far more interesting than plain water, the drink resides in a happy middle ground. Better, it'll tackle your thirst and keep you functional.

Read more