What's The Difference Between Bourbon And Whiskey?

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

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 was still elusive. Here's a simple explanation of why all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. In the end, we hope it will make all the difference for connoisseurs of bourbon and whiskey alike.

Bourbon vs. Whiskey
Ryan Kurtz

What is Whiskey?

Whiskey, sometimes spelled as whisky, is distilled from a blend of fermented grains, which are sometimes malted. Among them are commonly corn, barley, rye, and wheat. This blend is what distillers call a mash bill. Whiskey is a highly controlled liquor that comes in a variety of grades and varieties. Grain fermentation, distillation, and aging in hardwood barrels or wooden casks—typically sherry barrels—are common unifying elements of the many classes and varieties. How the resulting liquid is categorized depends, in part, upon what ratio of grains comprises the mash bill. Beyond bourbon, there is also malt whiskey, corn whiskey, blended whiskey, and more.

Bourbon vs Whiskey
Grace Canaan

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon has been distilled in the United States since the 18th century and there are legal requirements for its production and definition. The legal definition varies by country, however many trade agreements stipulate that the term "bourbon" be used only for products created in the United States. So while it is made in other countries, it is only called bourbon when it is distilled in the U.S. Moreover, the legal regulations on bourbon made to be exported differ from the bourbon made to be sold and served in the country of origin.

For a whiskey to be called a bourbon, by U.S. law, it first has to have a mash bill with at least 51 percent corn. What type of bourbon it is depends on how much of the remaining bill is wheat or rye. This is the reason why we have wheat bourbon, which is typically mellower and softer, and rye bourbon, which delivers a spicier taste for more daring bourbon drinkers.

The mash must also be distilled at 160 proof or less, then put into the barrel at 125 proof or less. After the mash bill criteria are met, next comes the barrel aging process. Additionally by law, bourbon has to be aged in a charred oak barrel, and a new one at that. This stipulation caused problems for many major distillers during a decade-long bourbon boom when there was a massive shortage of new barrels for the unexpectedly increased demand. The last criterion whiskey must meet to be declared bourbon: it has to be made in the United States.

Despite the fact that it can be made anywhere throughout the country, it is most closely identified and associated with the South. Much of the bourbon we buy comes from Kentucky. This is where the name is said to have originated, hailing from a certain area in Kentucky called Old Bourbon, now known as Bourbon County. But this claim is yet to be proven, as there are also claims that the name was inspired by Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It may not matter which of these Southern contenders is the true inspiration for the name, as both are derived from the French Bourbon dynasty.

What About Tennessee Whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey presents a unique case. By law, Tennessee whiskey must be produced within the state. No surprise there. But it must also undergo a special filtering process with sugar-maple charcoal, which is the step that makes Tennessee whiskey so smooth according to its fans. Despite the fact that Tennessee Whiskey has been legally defined as bourbon in various international trade agreements, most Tennessee whiskey manufacturers do not refer to their goods as bourbon.

What's the Takeaway?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey which has specific legislation and practices attached to it. This ensures that consumers know they are purchasing a genuine product, much in the way France has laws about how and where wine is produced. Now that you know the difference between whiskey and bourbon—and that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon—you'll be a more informed shopper and a knowledgeable conversationalist at your friend's next tailgate. Raise a glass. Here's to being a more educated imbiber.

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