Somewhat similar to how Champagne is only Champagne if it is produced within the Champagne region of France, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There are a few key qualities and differences that make them two similar but unique tipples! To answer the difference between bourbon and whiskey properly, we are going to take a trip back in time.
Bourbon’s History Isn’t So Clear Cut
You probably won’t be shocked to learn this. Bourbon has got quite a rich and varied history. Because of this, it is not extremely clear just where this widely popular drink and America’s “native spirit” came from.
We do know one thing, though. It stretches all the way back to the latter half of the 18th century with the Samuels Family. Today, they are still going strong. Bourbon started out as a secret family recipe and remained so until the 1840s when it was commercially produced. Today, it is one of America’s most popular bourbons, Maker’s Mark.
Distilled right out of the so-called Bourbon state, Kentucky, the Samuels Family produced their signature bourbon whiskey following this family recipe right up until Prohibition hit the U.S. during the early-to-mid-20th century. It wasn’t until the famous family recipe was destroyed during Prohibition that the Samuels family created Marker’s Mark, a similar bourbon to their family recipe. The major difference between their family recipe and Maker’s Mark is that the latter product was not as bitter and far more palatable.
There has of course been a lot that has happened throughout the course of history that has made bourbon the widely popular spirit it is today, however, it is the Samuels family that is credited with firmly establishing bourbon’s roots in the United States.
Other key events during bourbon’s rich and varied history include the Whiskey Rebellion, the establishment of the “Beam Tradition” and the development of sour mash during the 1820s. Of course, bourbon wasn’t “officially” bourbon until 1840, but it was still the same product! We highly recommend reading about all these key events as they offer a delicate insight into how bourbon has become the drink it is today.
The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey
It’s good that we’ve got that out of the way. Now, let’s take a look at the key differences between bourbon and whiskey.
It’s a common sight to see varieties of both on the shelves of bars and liquor stores throughout the nation. In fact, you may have found yourself stood there scratching your head as you try to determine what it is that makes them different. Rather than strike up a conversation with the busy bartender, you choose your usual drink and carry on with your business without giving it a second thought. Not anymore!
What is Whisk(e)y?
To put it simply, whiskey is a broader category of liquor that covers all grain-based spirits that are typically barrel-aged (they don’t have to be, though.) You will most commonly see whiskey spelled with an “e” in the name and this means that it is of an Irish or American origin. Without an “e” in the name—whisky—then it is of a Scottish, Japanese or Canadian origin.
Now, you may be thinking “But Maker’s Mark spells it without an “e” in the name!” and you are absolutely right. Maker’s Mark uses the non-American spelling for their U.S.-made bourbon whiskey. The reason for this, however, remains a mystery. What is for certain, though, is that this doesn’t help matters when distinguishing between whiskey and whisky.
Whiskey (or whisky) is made by distilling fermented blends of grain—usually corn, rye, wheat, and barley—that is known as mash. Depending on the ratio of grains within the mash, the end-product will either be a whiskey or bourbon.
So, What Makes a Bourbon?
Bourbon, by law, has to be an American-made whiskey. Even though bourbon originated in Kentucky, it can be made anywhere within the states. Today, the majority of bourbons are made within Kentucky and the 200-year-old traditions still live on here.
If a whiskey is to be a bourbon, it needs a mash that is at least 51 percent corn. This is so serious that it is something dictated by federal law. Depending on the proportion of the mash that is either wheat or rye, the resulting liquid will either be wheated bourbon or rye bourbon. Wheated bourbon is known to have a softer and more mellow palate whereas bourbon has a much spicier and harsher palate. It is the fact that bourbon is made from over 50 percent corn that means it tastes richer and sweeter than other whiskeys such as scotch. Additionally, the mash must not be distilled at over 160 proof (80 percent volume) otherwise it simply becomes just another spirit.
After meeting the mash and proof criteria, bourbon must be aged in a new charred white oak barrel. Historically, this caused problems for manufacturers due to a major of new barrels during the bourbon boom. Despite this, it is a criterion that has stuck and remains relevant today.
So, there you have it—that’s what makes a bourbon what it is. If it doesn’t meet these criteria, then it is merely just another whiskey.
What’s the Deal with Tennessee Whiskey?
Everything gets a little more complicated when it comes to Tennessee whiskey. The major difference between Tennessee whiskeys and other whiskeys are that Tennessee whiskey must be produced within the state of Tennessee.
In addition to this, Tennessee whiskey must undergo a different filtering process. This process uses sugar-maple charcoal—popular Tennessee brand Jack Daniel’s does this, for example—that gives Tennessee whiskeys their unique smooth character.
Here’s a fun fact: some people consider Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey to be a bourbon whereas other people do not. This comes down to the fact that Tennessee whiskeys are filtered through maple charcoal—including Jack Daniel’s—whereas bourbon is not. This, in many peoples’ eyes, makes it a different product entirely.
How Do the Flavor Profiles Differ?
With proper American bourbon whiskey, the flavor profile is vastly different to that of other whiskeys. Because American bourbons are made with at least 51 percent corn, sometimes more, alongside the likes of rye and barley, before it is aged in charred barrels, American bourbons take in more of the barrel’s character from the wood such as color and taste. Additionally, because the barrels used are brand new then the aging process is completed much faster, sometimes as quickly as two to four years. Scotch, on the other hand, usually takes much longer to age.
Due to this production method, even the newest whiskey drinker will notice a stark difference. The flavor profiles of American bourbon and other whiskeys are very different. American bourbon, for example, won’t have the smoky-type flavor that many scotch whiskeys have unless it has specifically been made with smoked malt. This is quite rare, too. Additionally, American bourbon is more likely to have a richer and deeper caramelly and vanilla-ry flavor. This naturally makes the spirit smoother. Depending on how long the bourbon has been aged for and how high its proof is, the more intense the overall flavor and burn will be.
Your Bourbon Cheat Sheet
There is a lot that goes into whiskey to make it a true American bourbon. Without meeting these criteria, the law dictates that whiskey cannot legally be called bourbon.
- Made in the United States, however, it can be outside Kentucky.
- At least 51 percent corn by volume in the mash.
- It must be aged in new charred oak barrels.
- It can be distilled up to 160 proof (80 percent volume.)
- When entering the barrel, it can be no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent volume.)
- When it is bottled, it can not be less than 80 proof (40 percent volume.)
- There cannot, under any circumstances, be any additional colors, flavors or additives present in the end-product.
If whiskey is produced outside the U.S. that adheres to the above criteria, it cannot be a bourbon. It is an American whiskey born and bred!
Bourbon is By Far the Most Popular Whiskey in the U.S.
In fact, it always has been and was for a very long time the most popular spirit. Well, it was. In the 20th century, vodka hit the mainstream for being far easier to drink and make fruity cocktails with. Despite being taken over by vodka, bourbon is still a very popular drink throughout the U.S. If we are honest, it is highly likely that this will always be the case.
Given that it is a true American product that has a deep and rich history that stretches back to the earliest days of the United States, we can’t see it disappearing any time soon. So whether you like your whiskey to be a bourbon, a Tennessee whiskey, or something from Ireland that’s missing an “e”, you now know the difference between them and have something else to talk about at your next party.