The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey, Explained
BY KARA NEWMAN. The Wine Enthusiast
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Whiskey is made all across the world, and across America, too. But within the broad umbrella of this spirits category, many varieties exist. It may be confusing to keep track of them all, but here’s the headline when it comes to bourbon: Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, made with at least 51% corn. Remember that, and everything else falls into place.
“Bourbon drinkers are fond of saying, ‘All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,’” says Heather Wibbels, managing director of Bourbon Women, a female-centered, consumer-based bourbon organization.
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“Bourbon is America’s take on whiskey that came over with the original colonists and immigrants from Europe,” Wibbels adds, noting in particular settlers from Ireland and France, where whiskey and brandy respectively have deep roots.
“People arriving in America brought their distilling traditions with them and adapted them to the grains and materials at hand to create a new kind of whiskey,” Wibbels continues. “Corn thrived in the U.S. more than rye and barley, so the colonists and early immigrants pivoted toward it as a base for their whiskies.”
Today, bourbon—America’s native whiskey—remains one of the most popular spirits categories. But it’s far from the only whiskey out there.
So, How Is Bourbon Different From Whiskey?
The key differences include:
The location: Bourbon needs to be made in the U.S. That means that everything—the mashing, distilling and aging—must be conducted on American soil.
Whiskey/whisky, more broadly, can be made anywhere. That said, certain types of whiskey do have geographical limitations, such as Canadian whisky (made in Canada), Irish whiskey (Ireland), Japanese whisky (Japan) and Scotch whisky(Scotland).
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The mash bill: Bourbon is made with at least 51% corn. The remaining grains in the mix can range widely. High-rye bourbons contain a high concentration of rye grain, while wheated bourbons contain a high concentration of wheat. Other bourbons might include oats, barley or rice-based varieties. Some are 100% corn.
Whiskey is a broader category, and the grains will vary depending on the type of whiskey. For example, Scotch whiskey is made from malted (germinated) barley, while American rye whiskey contains at least 51% rye grain. (Rye made elsewhere may vary, but should contain a significant percentage of rye grain.)
The barrel: To be called bourbon, the whiskey must be aged in new charred barrels made from American oak.
Whiskeys from other regions may have different rules about the vessels. Most allow for used oak barrels—and used bourbon barrels often are used for aging other spirits, including non-bourbon whiskeys.
4 Top-Rated Bourbons to Try, $50 and Below
Enticing vanilla and cinnamon aromas yield a cinnamon bun-like effect. The palate opens with a mouthwatering saline note, sliding into a salted caramel note that finishes long, buttery and palate-coating, with a warming spicy glow. Best Buy. 95 Points — K.N.
Bright topaz in the glass, this displays a mellow vanilla aroma and a light palate that integrates sweet vanilla and oak, before drying to attractive cocoa, leather and grapefruit peel. 95 Points — K.N.
This is for those who prefer a sweeter-style bourbon. Vanilla and brown sugar aromas lead into a velvety palate that echoes those notes, braced by a black pepper tingle. Made with Texas-grown grains. 94 Points — K.N.
Maple sugar aromas are accented by a rootsy, sarsaparilla-like hint. Add a splash of water to adjust to taste; the reward is burnt brown sugar and maple, drying to a complex finish that suggests baking spice, leather and a fleeting espresso note. A versatile option to sip or mix. Launched June 2021. Best
5 Top-Rated Whiskeys That Aren’t Bourbon to Try, $50 and Below
Complex and enticing, this rich take on rye has a notably deep, ruddy hue, with toffee and red fruit aromas. The big, bold palate opens with dusty cocoa and mild cinnamon. Adding water brings out plush butterscotch and peanut brittle, finishing with a red fruit note and plenty of warming spice. 97 Points — K.N.
This honey-hued whiskey is aged in Bourbon barrels, then finished in oloroso Sherry casks. The overall effect is bold and mouthwatering, and yields flavors of almond, vanilla and pecan accented by clove and black pepper. Best Buy. 95 Points — K.N.
Caramel and oak aromas lead the nose, plus a wallop of alcohol heat. The big, oaky palate echoes the caramel note, rounding into a long, warming finish with plenty of mouthwatering butterscotch, clove and peppery heat. Tasty, full-strength and clearly meant for mixing. One of two new permanent expressions added to the line-up in May 2022. Best Buy. 94 Points — K.N.
This seven-year-old small batch whiskey is a powerhouse. Oak and vanilla aromas skew sweet. The palate is deep and dark, silky and spicy, showing cocoa and espresso. Adding water doubles down on the espresso notes, bringing clove and black pepper forward into a big, grippy finish that sings with spice. Best Buy. 94 Points — K.N.
Made with rye grain grown in New York state, and aged for three years. A mild maple aroma leads into the distinctly sweet-and-spiced palate, which opens with maple and marzipan and exits with plenty of baking spice intensity. Mix into Manhattans and other cocktails. 90 Points — K.N.
Does Bourbon Need to Come from Kentucky?
No. Kentucky is considered the spiritual home of bourbon, but the spirit can be made in any U.S. state.
In addition to Kentucky, a significant amount of bourbon also is produced in neighboring Indiana, in an industrial facility known as MGP, which supplies bourbon (and other spirits) to distilleries nationwide.
A large number of craft distilleries also make bourbon. “As the craft bourbon movement has grown in the U.S., our expectations of what an American whiskey should taste like are being challenged and broadened in exciting ways,” Wibbels says. This has translated to a growing number of West Coast bourbons, Texas bourbons and more regional options—often with their own nuances.
“Every country or region’s whiskey has its own terroir and profile, and bourbon is no different,” Wibbels insists. “It’s an exciting time to be a whiskey drinker!”
Which Bourbons Are Made in Kentucky?
Although bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, 95% of all bourbons are, according to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Well-known bourbon producers from the state include Bulleit, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, Old Forester, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.
What Type of Whiskey Is Pappy Van Winkle?
The Kentucky-based brand, previously made by Stitzel-Weller Distillery and taken over by Heaven Hill’s Buffalo Trace in 2002, is best known for rare and sought-after “unicorn” bourbons. The lineup also includes rye whiskey. Read more about the cult of Pappy here.
Does Bourbon Taste Different from Other Types of Whiskey?
The high percentage of corn; aging time in new barrels with plenty of vanilla and spice to contribute; and exposure to barrel char are among the components that give bourbon its bold, distinctive flavor, experts say.
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“Some people say that bourbon tastes sweeter than, say, a whiskey made from barley,” says Pip Hanson, Beverage Director of O’Shaughnessy Distilling/Keeper’s Heart Whiskey, which includes bourbon among their whiskey offerings. “However, I’ve always felt that the intense char of the oak barrels provides a bitter—in a good way!—backbone to the flavor of bourbon that balances out the vanilla and honey.”
Further, the process of charring barrels intended for bourbon caramelizes the wood, Hanson adds, creating “a rich depth, with diverse notes like vanilla, honey, tobacco and even charcoal existing in harmony.” Thanks to these production details, “no other whiskey tastes like it.”