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What’s the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?

A whiskey decanter with a rocks glass holding two ounces of whiskey, with a rustic barrel in the background.

If you’ve ever perused the aisles of a liquor store, there’s a fair chance the glistening bottles of whiskey and bourbon caught your eye. Before you make your selection, you’ll need to know a few things about the two spirits.

While these two amber-hued liquors look similar, they each carry distinctive characteristics that set them apart. We’ll start with a famous saying— “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” So, what does that mean exactly?

What is Whiskey?

A whiskey neat along side of a crystal whiskey decanter.
Brent Hofacker/ Shutterstock.com

Whiskey (sometimes spelled whisky) is a spirit made from a fermented combination of grains like wheat, rye, corn, or barley. Whiskey makers typically start by combining grains with water and yeast, then heat and stir the mixture until it’s well combined. The combination is called a “mash bill.”

The mash bill gets stored for a couple of weeks until fully fermented. Whiskey makers then work to strain ethanol (simple alcohol) from the fermented grains before the distilling process occurs.

Whiskey is distilled by heating and vaporizing the liquid, then collecting that vapor once it has recondensed into a purer, more alcoholic liquid. The resulting liquid varies in quality. According to Masterclass, the first 35 percent is considered toxic and typically thrown out.

The following 30 percent, called “the heart,” is known as the best product. This developed, and pure whiskey goes into wooden barrels to be aged. The last 35 percent (known as the tail) is often redistilled until it reaches a more developed product.

The type of grains, the blending method, and the aging process are all significant factors that dictate the final unique flavor of the whiskey. Some offer a smoky flavor, while others give a natural woody taste.

Once you’ve found a whiskey you enjoy, you can move on to find a sophisticated decanter to store your liquid gold.

ELIDOMC Crystal Whiskey Decanter and Glasses

A sophisticated way of showing off your whiskey.

Decanters will help preserve the quality of your whisky as it minimizes the amount of air interacting with it. Plus they look stellar in your home bar.

What is Bourbon?

Two rocks glasses filled with a shot of whiskey on the rocks.
Goskova Tatiana/ Shutterstock.com

Bourbon is a type of whiskey produced in the United States that follows specific legal requirements to earn the label. According to the American Bourbon Association, these requirements can be broken down into five rules:

  1. It must be distilled (produced) in the United States. Most bourbon is made in Kentucky, but other states also produce it.
  2. The mash bill must consist of at least 51% corn.
  3. The spirit must age in new charred oak barrels. It must be aged for a minimum of two years to be considered “straight” bourbon.
  4. It cannot be bottled at a proof less than 80. That means bourbon must be at least 40% alcohol.
  5. Additional coloring or flavoring cannot be added to alter the flavor. Whiskey makers can only add water to lessen the proof.

Many say bourbon offers strong oaky flavors with hints of vanilla and caramel. It’s often considered smoother than other types of whiskey and an excellent place to start when you are new to the spirit.

Because of its smooth finish, bourbon is a well-known main ingredient in several cocktails including the old-fashioned and the manhattan.

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What’s the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?

Two glasses of whiskey on the rocks.
Shaiith/ Shutterstock.com

Whiskey is produced in many countries across the globe. The location, production, and aging processes all set whiskeys apart from one another.

Bourbon is a type of whiskey that must always be made in the US and must adhere to inflexible regulations giving it the unique flavor many love today.

The grain type, distilling processes, and aging methods give both spirits unique qualities that whisky connoisseurs can appreciate. Bourbon is just one type that falls under the whiskey umbrella; there are nine types of whiskey in total.

What Are the Different Types of Whiskey?

Five whisky tasting glasses with whisky in each for tasting.

You’ll find hundreds of unique whiskeys on the market today, but each bottle is categorized by one of the nine types.

These nine whiskeys are distinguished by their place or origin, grain type, blending method, and the aging process:

  • Bourbon whiskey: A type of American-made whiskey often produced in Kentucky. Whiskey makers must follow strict guidelines to qualify this spirit as bourbon. It boasts a sweet caramelized flavor that many find smooth and admirable.
  • Tennessee whiskey: It must be made in Tennessee, using a unique filtering method called the Lincoln County Process. Tennessee whiskey is technically a type of bourbon that has a more mellow flavor than others.
  • Blended whiskey: A mixture of different whiskeys that sometimes come from different distilleries.
  • Single-Malt whiskey: Comes from one distillery and is made from only one type of malted grain.
  • Rye whiskey: The mash must contain at least 51% rye, and it’s required to age in newly charred oak barrels, like bourbon. Its flavor is light and piquant.
  • Canadian whiskey: The spirit must be produced and aged in (you guessed it) Canada. Many say it has a distinct, spicy taste.
  • Japanese whiskey: While it doesn’t have to be distilled or aged in Japan, this type of whiskey must be bottled in Japan to earn the label.
  • Irish whisky: It must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland, and the mash must consist of malt cereal grain and barley. The aging process takes a minimum of three years in wooden casks.
  • Scotch whisky: AKA, Scotch must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland. To qualify as scotch, whisky makers must abide by Scottish laws concerning the aging process.

Because each type of whiskey follows specific recipes and distilling methods, they all carry unique flavors. Once you start experiencing the spirit, you might even find yourself wanting to dig deeper into whiskey enjoyment.

Whiskey Cocktail Kit

Everything you need to make fun whiskey cocktails.

The kit includes a mixing glass, bar spoon muddler, some bitters, and a few recipe cards to get you started. Maybe you’ll find yourself to be quite the mixologist.

What are the Different Styles of Bourbon?

A few whiskey tasting glasses with sprinkled grains around the glasses.

Similar to whiskey, you’ll find several styles of bourbon on the market today. First, all styles of bourbon must follow the five rules of qualifying as a standard bourbon.

From there, whisky makers can further categorize them based on additional standards. These standards and procedures lead to specific bourbon types, which can be identified by the labels on each bottle.

Here’s what the labels mean:

  • Standard bourbon: Minimum legal requirements are met and include all five rules about location, mash makeup, proof standards, and aging practices.
  • Straight bourbon: Must follow the rules of a standard bourbon and must age for at least two years in charred oak barrels.
  • Blended bourbon: A blend of different bourbons from different distilleries and mash bills.
  • Kentucky bourbon: It must be distilled in Kentucky to qualify and earn the name.
  • Single barrel bourbon: Bourbon bottled from one single barrel and never blended with bourbon whiskey from other barrels. This carries a rarity because no two bourbon barrels will produce the same whiskey.
  • Sour mash bourbon: Made by adding a portion of the mash from the previous batch to a fresh batch. This helps control the pH levels of fermenting alcohol before adding yeast.
  • Bottled-in-bond bourbon: This signifies that the bourbon is of higher quality due to the Bottle-in-Bond Act of 1897.
  • High-rye or wheated bourbon: While bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn, the remaining mash may consist of other grains. High rye means the remaining grains are heavy on the rye, while wheated bourbons are heavy on wheat.

Understanding bourbon labels is one way to learn about what you might like in bourbon, but giving each a try will surely provide a more profound appreciation.

One way to accentuate the flavor of bourbon or any whiskey, even more, is by drinking it with a tasting glass. The shape of the glass offers a bulb towards the base, making it great for swirling and concentrating the aromas towards the narrowed rim.

Glencairn Whiskey Tasting Glasses

Enhance your whiskey experience!

The thick stem is designed to avoid your hands from cupping the glass, which will warm it, and is considered a faux pas.

What is the Right Way to Drink Whiskey?

In the world of food in drink, there are several debates that’ll shake people to their core, and the right way to drink whiskey is one of them. You can break down whiskey consumption into two categories; enjoyment and appreciation.

Enjoyment is all about preference. If mixing a couple of ounces with coke is your style, then all that matters is that you like your whiskey that way. Many enjoy whiskey combined with ingredients to create a fun seasonal cocktail and that is totally fine too.

Appreciation is more about experiencing the whiskey, which can be done in a few different ways. This is broken down in the video above.

You can drink it neat,  which means pouring it right into the glass and drinking it at room temperature. A whiskey neat will give you the true essence of the spirit, but it may taste too harsh for some.

You can also drink whiskey with a splash of room-temperature water added. This is a popular way to dull down the harshness and allow you to perceive the flavors more easily.

You can also drink whiskey on the rocks, which means on ice. Some choose ice as they enjoy whiskey chilled, but others avoid ice as it dilutes the whiskey unevenly and too quickly. You can experience the whiskey while enjoying it chilled by adding one large ice cube as it melts more slowly and dilutes the spirit less. Plus, it looks sharp. Otherwise, whiskey stones offer a chilled take your drink, without ever diluting your beverage.

Samuelworld Silicone Jumbo Ice Trays

Designed for a slow melt and an aesthetic appeal.

A whiskey tumbler is what you’ll need if you plan to drink your whiskey on the rocks or if you plan to make a cocktail featuring whiskey. They look nice, and the wide-rim design makes them accessible for ice.

KANARS Rocks Glasses

When you fancy a few rocks for your whiskey.

Once you’ve stocked your bar with the right tools, you’ll need to select a whiskey or bourbon to build those brilliant drinks.

Popular Whiskey Recipes

Three images of classic whisky cocktails including an Old Fashioned by Simply Recipes, a Whisky Sour by A Couple Cooks, and a Mint Julep by The Chunky Chef.
Simply Recipes/ A Couple Cooks/ The Chunky Chef

While enjoying whiskey straight up or on the rocks gives you the best opportunity to appreciate the true nature of the spirit, many enjoy mixing it up with other ingredients. Three of the most popular whiskey drinks are the old fashioned, whiskey sour, and the mint julep.

Old Fashioned: Traditionally made by muddling a sugar cube and a few dashes of Angostura bitters, then adding a small piece of orange and two ounces of whiskey. This timeless cocktail is sometimes made with simple syrup instead of a sugar cube to ensure even sweetness.

Whiskey Sour: A sweet and tart whisky cocktail made with bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and an orange cherry garnish. The bloggers from A couple of cooks make theirs with maple syrup (instead of simple syrup) which complements oaky bourbon beautifully.

Mint Julep: This subtly sweet cocktail combines simple syrup, mint, bourbon, and ice to make a dangerously refreshing cocktail. It’s best known for being served at the Kentuck Derby.

Trying new spirits can feel overwhelming when you aren’t sure how to differentiate them from one another. Now that you’re an expert on bourbon and whiskey, it’s time to start upping your game as a  home bartender.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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