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What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

In the world of distilled spirits, the words “whiskey” and “bourbon” are often used interchangeably. While these popular spirits have many similarities, they aren’t exactly the same.

In this article, we’re breaking down whiskey and bourbon so you can know the difference the next time you have a cocktail.

Whiskey & Bourbon Infographic | DRINKS

Is Bourbon the Same as Whiskey?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Whiskey and bourbon were born from distilling techniques brought to the United States by European immigrants in the eighteenth century, and they date back to the Revolution. 

What is Bourbon Whiskey?

Bourbon is characterized by its smooth textures and sweet, distinctive flavors of vanilla, caramel, and oak. It’s popularly served neat, on the rocks, or in famous cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. 

In order for a whiskey to truly be considered bourbon, stringent legal requirements must be met.

Bourbon Requirements

Kentucky is to bourbon what Champagne, France is to its sparkling wine of the same name. For whiskey to be considered bourbon, it must be produced in the U.S. However, not all bourbon comes from Kentucky. The exception is if the spirit is labeled “Kentucky Bourbon.” In this case, it’s required to have been crafted and aged in the state of Kentucky.

Bourbon must be produced with at least 51% corn in the mash bill (the makeup of grains) and aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. It can consist of different types of grains like barley, rye, or wheat, but over half of the total mash bill must be corn. 

There is also an alcohol content requirement for bourbon. It must be distilled to a maximum of 80% ABV (alcohol by volume), 160 proof. Before it’s barreled, it must be brought down to 62.5% ABV or 125 proof, with further distillation or the addition of water. 

For bottling, bourbon must have a minimum alcohol content of 40% ABV, 80 proof, and a maximum of 75% ABV or 150 proof.

Now that we know the requirements, let's dig into how bourbon is made. 

How is Bourbon Made?

While techniques for making bourbon may vary slightly depending on the distiller, the same main steps are followed.

  1. 1. Mash

A master distiller will come up with the recipe for the mash bill, which is the proportion of the grains that will be used. Keep in mind that 51% of this mash must be corn.

The grains are then heated with water, converting enzymes from the starch into fermentable sugar.

  1. 2. Ferment

Once cooled, yeast is added to the mash, beginning the fermentation process.

The mash is stored in a vat for about one to two weeks, creating ethanol or alcohol.

  1. 3. Distill

The fermented mash is then transferred to a still.

Most bourbon is distilled twice, first in a column still, then in a copper pot still. 

Once it reaches 80-125 proof, distillers place the bourbon into new charred oak barrels. Again, bourbon must be aged for at least two years for straight bourbon and at least four years for bottled-in-bond bourbon.

Water may be added if the proof is too high, after which the final product is bottled and sold.

Does Bourbon Go Bad?

When stored in a dark place and sealed, it’s unlikely that bourbon will go bad. It can last for years, even decades.

Opening a bottle of bourbon causes oxidation, risking the spirit to lose its taste and quality over time. However, there are many cases where bourbon can still last longer, even when opened. 

The key is to keep it away from sunlight and reseal it as best as possible.

Testing a barrel of whiskey | DRINKS

How is Whiskey Made?

Whiskey styles vary greatly depending on where they’re made and what grains are used. However, most follow the same basic steps.

  1. 1. Malt

Like bourbon, all whiskeys start as raw grains, usually barley, rye, or wheat. When the barley is moistened and allowed to sprout partially, this is known as malting. Enzymes are then secreted, converting the barley’s starches into sugar.

  1. 2. Mash

Before fermentation, the sugars must be extracted from the mash (also known as wort). The grains are ground up and soaked in hot water to accomplish this. Once the sugar has been extracted, the porridge-like mixture is fermented.

  1. 3. Ferment 

Yeast is added to the mash or wort, soaking up the remaining sugars and converting them into alcohol. Fermenting the grain can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours. Once finished, the mixture will resemble beer and have an ABV of around 7-10%.

  1. 4. Distill

Once fermented, the whiskey is transferred to a still to increase the alcohol content. Stills are usually made of copper to strip the spirit from unwanted flavors. Pot stills are used for making bolder whiskeys, while column stills produce those that are more neutral in taste.

  1. 5. Maturation

Nearly all whiskeys are aged in oak barrels, but unlike bourbon, they don’t need new charred oak barrels. Port barrels, sherry barrels, or even bourbon barrels can all be used for aging whiskey.

Now that we know how whiskey is produced, let’s explore some of the most popular whiskeys sipped today.

Popular Whiskeys

Made with superb craftsmanship, these whiskeys are famous for a reason. Below are the top three most famous whiskeys in the world.

Tennessee Whiskey

Like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey must be made with over 51% corn, though a small amount of rye and barley can be used. This type of whiskey undergoes a unique fermentation process involving charcoal and maple filtering. This gives it its unique toasted oak, vanilla, and caramel flavor profile. The age statement for Tennessee whiskey requires it to be fermented in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. It must also be crafted and aged within the state.

A classic example of Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniels.

Whiskey in a rocks glass | DRINKS

Irish Whiskey

Like the type mentioned above, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland. It’s characterized by its use of barley, oats, wheat, and rye in the distillation process. Irish whiskey matures in oak casks for up to three or four years. It’s not as sweet as the oaky, vanilla Tennessee whiskey.

Single Malts

Single malt whiskeys are those produced from a single distillery. They are characterized by their oaky and woody taste and are most commonly associated with single-malt Scotch.

Rye Whiskey vs Bourbon

Bourbon and Rye whiskey have many similarities, including taste, maximum distillation proof, and aging in new charred oak barrels. However, bourbon can only be manufactured in the United States, while rye whiskey is made worldwide.

Bourbon is also sweeter than rye whiskey, while whiskey is spicier.

Bourbon vs. Whiskey vs. Scotch

The main differences between bourbon, whiskey, and Scotch are location, production requirements, and taste.

As mentioned above, bourbon must be made in the United States, have at least 51% corn in the mash bill, and be fermented in newly charred oak barrels only. Bourbon has an oil texture and presents dessert-like flavors like vanilla, chocolate, and caramel.

On the other hand, whiskey does not have to be made in a specific location (unless it is Tennessee whiskey or Irish whiskey). It does not have to be aged in a particular type of oak barrel or meet specific grain requirements. As a result, whiskey has a wide range of flavors.

Scotch can only be produced in Scotland and is made from malted barley. It must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years and has a smokey, peaty flavor profile.

Which is Your Preferred Spirit?

While whiskey and bourbon are sometimes one and the same, there are many strict regulations setting bourbon apart from Scotch and regular whiskey. Now that you know the differences between all of them, you should have a better understanding of which one will fit your personal taste,

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