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Knowing the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey

With so many alcoholic beverages in the marketplace, understanding the difference between them is challenging. Bourbon and whiskey are two beverages that have so many similarities that people often confuse them. Bourbons are types of whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. 

bourbon vs whiskey

Consider the difference between whiskey vs bourbon as the difference between champagne and wine. As all champagnes are wines, but not all wines are champagnes. The difference between bourbon and whiskey involves the distillation process as well as the grains distillers use. 

If you want to impress your drinking buddies on your next trip to the bar, know these facts about bourbon.

At Least 51 Percent Corn

According to the American Bourbon Association, distillers can only make bourbon whiskey from corn mash, at a minimum of 51%. The corn mash makes whiskey have a sweet flavor, while the oak barrels give the beverage a charred, woodsy flavor. 

Other whiskeys come from grains like rye, wheat, and barley. For example, distilleries in Scotland use malted barley mash to make Scotch whiskey. 

bourbon corn mash

New Charred Oak Barrels

Also, according to the American Bourbon Association, bourbon distilleries must use new charred oak barrels for the aging process. It cannot be age in previously used barrels. These barrels and the whiskey cannot have any additives like flavoring or other alcohols.

bourbon barrels

Other whiskeys that aren’t bourbons can age in any other barrel or cask. Typically used bourbon barrels are sold to other whiskey makers in the US and Ireland.

Bourbon barrels being roasted
Bourbon barrels being roasted

Strict Aging Process

For bourbon to earn the “straight bourbon whiskey” label, distilleries must age the beverage for at least two years in new charred oak barrels. As the bourbon is aged, more evaporates, which causes an increase in the prices of bottled straight bourbon. 

Born in the USA

In order to be considered a bourbon, the whiskey must be produced in the United States. In 1964, the US Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” Some think to be called bourbon, it must be produced in Kentucky, but that isn’t true. Although 90% of all bourbon does come from that state.

Bourbon Standards, No Added Flavors

Delicious Bourbon Whiskey Neat in a Glass

Bourbon is a unique American beverage that must meet requirements to earn the name. While the majority ingredient must be corn, no other flavors may be added to the drink. Otherwise is cannot be called a bourbon. During the aging process bourbon will develop flavor profiles it extracts from the wood barrels and charring from inside those barrels. Some bourbons have a subtle flavors, and others have hints of spice, but those are not added. 

Alcohol-by-Volume Marks

Bourbon whiskey has to reach a minimum alcohol content. Overall, the mash must reach 80 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) at distillation. When in the barrels, as it ages, the bourbon gets to no more than 62.5 percent ABV or 125 proof. Once bottled, bourbon cannot be lower than 40 percent ABV or 80 proof. 

When comparing bourbon vs. whiskey, ABV standards vary. For example, Scotch whiskey is bottled at 40 percent ABV, but no organization sets a standard for the distillate percentage. Other non-bourbon whiskeys do not have any ABV standards at any stage of distilling or bottling. 

Iconic Kentucky Bourbon

Bourbon Barrels in Louisville Kentucky
Bourbon Barrels in Louisville Kentucky

Bourbon originated in Kentucky, but not all of today’s bourbons must come from Kentucky. To earn the reputable label of being a Kentucky bourbon, the beverage must be processed – distilled and aged – in the Bluegrass State. Only about 5% of bourbons come from a state other than Kentucky. 

The term bourbon came from Kentucky, most notably, in Bourbon County. The beverage earned its name in a similar way to champagne, which originated in the Champagne region of France. But, champagne now comes from wineries all over the globe. However, bourbon purists only drink Kentucky Bourbon. 

History of Bourbon vs. Whiskey

Whiskey is older than Kentucky bourbon, as the first mention of the beverage in writing was in the late 1400s. The Irish and Scottish take credit for creating the fermented beverage. They fermented grains in wood barrels. Countries like Scotland, Canada, Japan, and the United States distill the flavorful brown drink. 

The Irish make their whiskey from malted barley along with the Scottish. They also age their whiskey in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Despite the similar process, the flavor is subtly different, because the farming processes vary. Some whiskeys are called scotch or rye, based on the location of the distillery and the ingredients they use. 

Drinking Bourbon and Whiskey

Bartender Serving Bourbon Whiskey
Bartender Serving Bourbon Whiskey

As bourbon and whiskey have pleasant flavors, many people enjoy drinking them straight or on the rocks. Before adding water or another mixer, take a sip of your whiskey to get the full flavor. If it’s too much, add some ice or some water to make it smoother for the palate. 

Bourbon and whiskey make the base of several popular cocktails. The Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Sazerac come from whiskey. If you enjoy the mint julep on Kentucky Derby Day, you must use bourbon as an homage to the Bluegrass State. The boulevardier also requires bourbon, rather than generic whiskey. 

When looking at the difference between bourbon and whiskey, check the flavor, distillery location, and years of aging. Kentucky bourbon has strict requirements for distillation, ABV, and aging, while other whiskeys have fewer requirements.

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Written by Brian N

Brian has been an influencer in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. He not only loves to eat and drink at restaurants on a regular basis, he also knows the business inside and out.