If you’re a fan of distilled spirits, you’ve likely come across the terms bourbon and whiskey at some point. But what is the difference between bourbon and whiskey? In broadest terms, bourbon is a type of whiskey.
Understanding the difference between bourbon and whiskey can enhance your appreciation for each and help you choose the right one for your taste buds. Anyone in the world can make whiskey. It doesn’t have to meet strict aging requirements, but bourbon must be aged in specific ways to be considered bourbon.
This post covers the nuances of bourbon and whiskey to help you become more informed.
What Is Whiskey?
Whiskey is a type of distilled spirit made from fermented grain mash. The type of grain used can vary, but it usually includes corn, rye, wheat or barley. What sets whiskey apart from other spirits is the aging process. To be considered whiskey, the spirit must be barrel-aged in wooden casks, typically white oak. During aging, the whiskey absorbs flavors from the wood and undergoes chemical reactions that give it its characteristic taste and aroma.
Although there isn’t a minimum aging requirement for a spirit to be considered whiskey, there are some general aging requirements within the whiskey category. For example, Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years, whereas “straight” whiskeys must be aged for at least two years. Also, bottled-in-bond (BIB) indicates a four-year minimum age as per the U.S. Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.
Whiskey production showcases a fascinating tapestry of regional styles, with distinct subcategories protected and governed by specific production rules. For instance, Irish whiskey must be distilled within the bounds of Ireland in addition to aging for three years. Scotland is famous for its whisky, crafted predominantly from malted barley.
The term “scotch” is exclusively reserved for single malt and blended whiskies produced in Scotland that are aged a minimum of three years and made with water, malted barley and other optional cereal grains. However, the title “single malt” is not reserved exclusively for Scotland. Japan, India and the United States are renowned for single malt whiskeys, yet they can not be called “scotch” as they do not originate in Scotland.
Whiskey boasts a rich diversity of styles and types, each with its own distinctive character. Some of the notable categories include:
- Scotch whisky: Hailing from Scotland, this well-known style encompasses single malt, blended scotch and blended malt scotch. Single malt scotch is made from malted barley in a single distillery, such as Glenfiddich, while blended scotch is a blend of various malted and unmalted grain whiskies, such as Johnnie Walker Red Label. Blended malt scotch is a blend of two or more single malt whiskies, such as Naked Grouse.
- Irish whiskey: Produced in Ireland, this whiskey is often triple-distilled and exhibits a smooth and approachable character. Examples include Jameson and Tullamore Dew.
- American whiskey: Encompassing a range of styles like bourbon, rye and corn whiskey, American whiskey reflects the diversity of whiskey production within the United States. Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve are excellent examples of American whiskey.
- Tennessee whiskey: Tennessee whiskey shares some similarities with bourbon and undergoes an additional charcoal filtering process known as the Lincoln County Process, contributing to its distinct taste. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey’s name says it all and is a perfect example of this type of whiskey.
These are just a few examples, and within each category, you’ll find numerous expressions and variations, making the world of whiskey a captivating exploration for enthusiasts.
How Is Whiskey Enjoyed?
People can enjoy whiskey in various ways, depending on personal taste and preference. You can drink whiskey neat without any mixers or ice. This allows you to fully appreciate the flavors and aromas of the spirit. Others prefer to add a small amount of water or ice to the whiskey to help enhance its flavors.
Whiskey is also a popular ingredient in cocktails, such as the classic old fashioned or the whiskey sour. When mixing whiskey in a cocktail, choosing the right type of whiskey to complement the other ingredients is essential.
If you’re new to whiskey, several brands and varieties are worth trying. Canadian Club and Jameson Irish whiskey have a smooth and mellow taste. Try a scotch like Lagavulin or Laphroaig for a smoky and peaty flavor. Bourbon lovers might enjoy Maker’s Mark or Wild Turkey.
Ultimately, the best way to enjoy whiskey is however you like. Feel free to experiment with different brands, types of liquor glasses and methods of serving until you find your perfect combination.
What Is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey consisting primarily of corn. Chapter Four of the Department of the Treasury Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau’s (TTB) beverage alcohol manual (BAM) sets the requirements for bourbon. Authentic bourbon must consist of a grain mixture of a minimum of 51% corn, distilled to about 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). It must then be aged in new and charred oak barrels and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV or 80 proof.
Bourbon gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it’s believed to have originated in the late 18th century. Today, any state in the U.S. can make bourbon, but Kentucky still produces most bourbon — more specifically, Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon.
Although authentic bourbon doesn’t have to be produced in Kentucky, it must originate from the U.S. and meet the TTB’s specific legal requirements. Distilleries anywhere in the U.S. can produce bourbon if they meet these requirements.
How Is Bourbon Enjoyed?
You can enjoy bourbon in many of the same ways as whiskey, but a few tips can help you fully appreciate its unique flavors and characteristics. Many bourbon aficionados prefer to drink it neat to fully experience its complex flavor profile. As with whiskey, you can add a splash of water or a block of single ice to bourbon — or even mix it into a cocktail, like the classic Manhattan or the New York Sour.
When choosing a bourbon, many options are available. For those new to bourbon, Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace are great options to start with as they have a smooth and approachable flavor profile. For those who prefer a more complex and robust flavor, Knob Creek or Bulleit are excellent choices.
What Is the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?
Bourbon and whiskey are often used interchangeably, but there are some key differences between the two. While bourbon is a type of whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon.
One of the most significant differences between bourbon and whiskey is the grain mixture used in the mash. Bourbon must consist of a mash of 51% corn, while whiskey can include any grain. This gives bourbon a unique sweetness not found in other types of whiskey.
Also, bourbon must age in new, charred oak barrels. Other varieties of whiskey can be aged in barrels that have been previously used for other spirits. This gives bourbon its distinct flavor profile, characterized by notes of vanilla, caramel and oak.
Despite these differences, bourbon and whiskey also have some similarities. Both are typically aged for several years in oak barrels, which impart flavors and aromas characteristic of the aging process. They can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in cocktails, and both offer a wide range of flavor profiles and complexities.
It’s also worth noting that bourbon is available in several varieties. Just like with whiskey, each type of bourbon has its own unique flavor profile and characteristics. Some are smoother and more approachable, such as wheated bourbons, while others are more complex and robust, such as high-rye or four-grain bourbons.
Ultimately, the difference between bourbon and whiskey comes down to the specific requirements for each type of spirit. Bourbon whiskey is created mainly of corn and matured in new and charred oak barrels, while other forms of whiskey can be made from any grain and aged in many different barrel types.
Explore the World of Bourbon and Whiskey at Marketview Liquor
Understanding the difference between bourbon and whiskey can enhance your appreciation for these spirits. While whiskey can come from any country, bourbon must be made in America and follow stringent guidelines. When it comes to taste, bourbons tend to have a sweeter flavor profile, while whiskeys can be smokier, peatier or spicier.
At Marketview Liquor, we offer a wide selection of bourbons and whiskeys for you to explore and enjoy. From rare finds to famous brands, we have something for every taste and budget. Visit our website to browse our collection and order your next bottle today.