All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. If you’re an avid brown liquor drinker, you’d know that statement like the back of your hand. However, for those who choose to indulge in sparkling wines or popular cocktails-especially on National Cocktail Day, then the difference is not so evident. Because bourbon and whiskey are both brown, it’s even harder to tell the two apart. More than this, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong if you confused the two. After all, champagne is a type of wine!
If you’re interested in learning the difference between the two for your taste buds, or to have a random fun fact at your disposal the next time you visit a speakeasy, keep reading to learn more about the notorious brown liquors.
Key differences between Bourbon and Whiskey
One key difference between bourbon and whiskey is how they’re manufactured. Whiskey is a spirit based drink made from fermented grains, it’s then aged in wooden or Oak barrels. But the fermentation process isn't what distinguishes the types of whiskey. In order to be a bourbon, whiskey needs to be derived from grains or mash that contain at least 51% corn. Ever wonder why bourbon is sweeter than other brown liquors–well, you have the corn to thank for that.
Another quality bourbon has is that it's aged in charred oak barrels that don't contain extra dyes or colors–they must be all natural. For this reason, bourbon has a distinct taste that most will identify as tasting fresh and aged. Any other whiskey can be aged in any barrel seen fit; commonly port, sherry, and types of rum casks are used to age non-bourbon whiskeys. 100% pure bourbon whiskey has to have aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years.
ABV, or alcohol by volume, is a measure of how much alcohol is in an alcoholic beverage. When barreling bourbon, it has to meet a minimum ABV to be considered bourbon:
- Bourbon must be distilled at 80% ABV or less
- Aged in a charred oak barrel until it has no more than 62.5% ABV.
- Diluted to nothing less than 40% ABV.
All whiskeys have ABV standards; however, each will be different and most don’t have a maximum or minimum required ABV. Check out our article on the ABV formula to find out more.
Straight from Kentucky
There’s a fickle rumor going around that bourbon is not bourbon unless it originated in Kentucky. Simply put, that’s not true–well at least not fully true. Bourbon can and does originate from other states besides Kentucky. But the famous “Kentucky Bourbons” have to be distilled and aged in Kentucky to be a Kentucky bourbon; and fun fact, bourbon is a term derived from “old bourbon” in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It’s no secret that the majority of bourbons come from Kentucky, so there’s a reason this rumor has spread; this is similar reasoning to why most people correlate champagne with France.
Different types of whiskey
Just like any other alcohol, there are plenty of whiskey varieties out there. Does scotch whiskey taste better than bourbon, and what is an irish whiskey? We’re here to help you sort it all out!
Irish whiskey is a popular whiskey that is known for its smooth taste and flavor. It’s derived from a mash or malt mixture, and is only distilled with water and caramel coloring. Just like a bourbon whiskey it has to be distilled properly–in this instance, wooden casks (for at least 3 years).
Scotch whiskey is never really referred to as “scotch” whiskey. Instead it’s just a simple scotch.” It’s made in Scotland with malt and grain mixtures. In Scotland, whiskey making is taken very seriously, as a result, there are strict laws, rules, and regulations that they have to follow during this process. Scotch has to age in oak barrels for at least 3 years, and all bottles are required to have a sticker on the bottle describing the age of the whiskey. Normally you’ll drink scotch “neat,” meaning without ice and other additives.
Japanese whiskey, though newer to the party, is very similar to scotch in every way possible. You’ll find it mixed in drinks like sodas or other alcoholic beverages.
Tennessee whiskey isn’t just a popular love song; it’s a bourbon drink defined entirely by its distillery style. Tennessee whiskey is required to produce their whiskey only in Tennessee and has to use a filtering process called “Lincoln County Process” when aging their whiskey.
Different types of bourbon
Traditional bourbon is made up of 70% corn base with the remaining parts being equally rye and barley with the flavor being a great balance of sweet and spice. Some of the most common bourbon brands you’ll find include Jim Beam, Evan William, Wild Turkey, and Old Crow.
Wheat bourbon is not all that different from traditional bourbon. However, the main difference is that wheat is the main ingredient used in the mash instead of rye. As a result, you get a sweeter flavor with a little less burn. Fan favorite brands include Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, and Old Fitzgerald.
You guessed it, rye bourbon is made up of mostly rye, less corn, and almost no barley. Rye whiskey is said to taste peppery with a spicy surprise. Popular brands include George T. Stagg. Basil Haydens, and Woodford Reserve.
If you have a bottle of bourbon laying around then you’ll be glad to know that it makes for a great addition to any cocktail. Due to its hints of vanilla and oak, there’s a reason why bourbon is a great seasonal drink. Though you might think of bourbon as more of part of winter cocktails to keep you warm, there are plenty of summer recipes out there for those days in the pool.
- Whiskey Sour
One of the most popular bourbon recipes is the bourbon or whiskey sour. It has a very balanced taste of sweet and tart flavors that compliment bourbons sweetness and acidity. This drink is perfect for summer or fall!
- Boulevardier Cocktail
Next up is the boulevardier–this drink has a mix of everything really, smoothness, spice, warmth, and bitterness. This cocktail is red in appearance and is made with whiskey instead of the typical gin. So it’s a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.
- New York Sour
The new york sour is a drink few actually know about, and it’s a bit more complex. The New York Sour features a whiskey sour layer–sweet and tart, it then merges into a float layer of red wine that provides fruitiness and acidity. Overall, it’s a picture-worthy drink that also works great in summer or wintertime.
- John Collins
The John Collins is a fun drink that is a twist on the classic Tom Collins cocktail. Instead of gin and lemon juice, the John Collins features whiskey and soda water. It’s a bubbly drink that is bold and flavorful. This is a perfect drink for the summertime.
- The Old Fashioned
If you’re looking for a classic “bartender drinks” option, then the old fashioned should be your go-to. This drink is ever-famous and dates back to the 1800s. In fact, it’s not truly a cocktail at all, instead it’s a sweetened booze drink with a bitter taste. You can use any form of bourbon you want, either way, the taste is still the smoky classic you’ll love.
Bourbon or Whiskey: There’s no wrong or right!
Whether you’re learning how to become a bartender, or you’re just trying to learn some happy hour drinks for your next at home party–knowing the difference between the two is a good place to start. But as you research you’ll learn that the two are far more alike than you might have thought!