What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Hannah Hayes
Bourbon vs. Whiskey
Ryan Kurtz

Two bottles diverged on a shelf in a liquor store: one bourbon, one whiskey. You stood there trying to tell the difference between both. You stood there staring at the labels, but the answer still illusive. Here’s a simple explanation of why all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon, and we hope it will make all the difference.

What is whiskey? Whiskey is distilled from a fermented blend of grains, commonly corn, barley, rye, and wheat–that blend is what distillers call a mash bill. Depending on what ratio of grains comprises the mash bill is part of how the resulting liquid is either categorized whiskey or bourbon.

How to be considered a bourbon? For a whiskey to be called a bourbon, it first by law has to have a mash bill with at least 51 percent corn. Depending on how much of the remaining bill is wheat or rye is the reason why we have wheated bourbon (typically mellower and softer) and rye bourbon (a spicier taste). The mash must also be distilled at 160 proof or less, put into the barrel at 125 proof or less. After the mash bill criteria is met, next is the the barrel aging process. Additionally by law, bourbon has to be aged in a charred white oak barrell, and a new one at that. This stipulation caused problems for many major distillers during the bourbon boom of the past 10 years when there was a massive shortage of new barrels for the unexpected increased demand. The last criteria for bourbon: it has to be made in the U.S.A. Much of the bourbon we buy comes from Kentucky, which is where the name originated from in a certain area called Old Bourbon, now known as Bourbon County.

The main takeaway: bourbon has legislation and practices attached to it so the drinker knows they are purchasing a genuine product, much in the way France has laws about how and where wine is produced.

What about Tennessee Whiskey? By law, Tennessee whiskey must be produced within the state, but it must also undergo a filtering process with sugar-maple charcoal. This is the step that makes Tennessee Whiskey so smooth according to its fans.

Now that you know the difference between the two, you'll be a more informed shopper–and conversationalist at your friend's next tailgate. Here’s to being a more educated imbiber.