Looking to become a connoisseur of alcoholic beverages, or maybe just curious? One of the most popular choices to spruce up a mixed drink is whiskey. More specifically, bourbon. But what is the difference?
We’ll help you improve your knowledge so that next time you’re ready to choose a bottle, you have all the information you need.
What is whiskey?
In the simplest terms, whiskey is an alcoholic drink distilled from fermented grain mash. The grain it’s made from can be rye, barley, wheat, or corn. Whiskey is typically light brownish and has a 40% alcohol content, or alcohol by volume (ABV).
The type of whiskey and its flavor depends on two things– the origin and content of the grain mash and the aging process. Each distillery has different ways of achieving its signature tastes for whiskey, but common flavor profiles for whiskey include spicy, caramel, toasted, rich, sweet, vegetal, soft, peppery, smokey, and anything in between.
What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?
The short answer is that all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. So what makes a whiskey a bourbon? Whiskey can have many origins, but bourbon is distilled specifically in the United States.
There is a misconception that to qualify as bourbon, whiskey must be distilled in Kentucky. The idea gained popularity because Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark became prominent and recognizable whiskeys (bourbons) from Kentucky.
Bourbon Vs. Whiskey
Since whiskey and bourbon look virtually the same, you must seek out the distinguishing factors such as origin, ingredients, and the aging process. We’ve already established that bourbon is exclusively distilled in the States.
Another key characteristic of bourbon is that its made from at least 51% corn. The grain mash can include several types of grain, but the majority has to be corn for the whiskey to be classified as bourbon. Bourbon always has a sweet flavor profile, and this is because of the sweetness of the corn.
Although you can age whiskey in old barrels that have previously held other spirits, you must always age bourbon with new charred oak barrels. In this case, the barrels have never been used to age any other batch of liquor.
Bourbons also cannot have any additives or colorings. The brand-new barrels are essential for this purpose. The minimum aging process for bourbon has to be at least two years. Bourbon has this in common with other whiskeys—two years is the typical minimum aging time.
It’s also illegal in the US to alter bourbon with additives between leaving the barrel and entering the bottle. Once it’s been tampered with by adding flavorings or additives, it can no longer be legally termed “bourbon.” Distilled water is the only substance you can add to bourbon that does not compromise its label.
One more characteristic that makes whiskey bourbon is the ABV it has to come to when barreled. Before bottling when being transferred from barrels, the bourbon has to be diluted until it reaches an ABV of 40 percent. Other whiskeys’ ABV standards are not so restrictive, but bourbons must meet this ABV.
Whiskey Vs. Scotch
Scotch is another form of whiskey, although the Scots would spell it “whisky.” The main distinction between scotch and ordinary whiskey is that it is distilled, aged, and bottled on Scottish soil. Scotch is also aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
However, unlike bourbon, these barrels do not have to be new—rum or sherry barrels are the most popular for aging scotch. Scotch is unique because it’s made from start to finish in Scotland, but also because its created using peat, which is a material found in marshes made of dirt and decayed plants.
The peat isn’t put directly into the scotch, but the Scots burn peat to dry the malted barley before churning it into a mash to distill. The peat and fire add smokey, slightly earthy tones to scotch.
Rye Whiskey Vs. Bourbon
We’ve introduced bourbon and scotch as two cousins in the whiskey family, so what is rye whiskey?
Just like bourbon must be at least 51% corn, rye whiskey needs to be at least 51% rye to gain that classification. In the United States, just like bourbon, the rules mandate that rye whiskey must be aged in new oak barrels, previously unused.
Just as bourbon is sweet and scotch has a peaty flavor, rye whiskey is characterized by its light flavor profile and spiciness.
What are some of the best bourbons to try?
Looking for something new? Check out these recommendations.
Some of the most popular bourbons are Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, as they’re distilled in Kentucky and widely available all over the country.
Jim Beam has a strong flavor profile commonly smoothed by drinking it over ice. Jim and Coke is a popular bar drink, as the sharpness of Jim mixes well with the sweetness and carbonation of Coca-Cola.
Maker’s Mark, with its distinctive red wax seal, has been a favorite since its foundation in 1959. It has a slightly smoky-sweet flavor and is excellent whether you drink it neat or over ice. You can find both of these in most grocery or convenience stores.
Knob Creek was established 30 years ago, and their 9-Year-Old bourbon is full of strong flavors and spice. This one gained ABV once in the bottle as it has an ABV of 50%. Whether you’re used to sipping bourbon or you’re a newcomer to the bourbon world, Knob Creek is a fantastic choice for its exciting flavor and the fact that it’s around $45 per bottle.
Four Roses Single Barrel is an excellent choice for flavor and affordability. One bottle costs between $40 to $60, and it’s a favorite for its lingering flavor notes of vanilla, charred oak, caramel, and its mellow mouthfeel and aftertaste.
If you’re looking for a bourbon to try and you’re new to the bourbon scene, this may spoil you for other simple bourbons because of their drinkability and full flavor profile. Any bourbon from the Four Roses collection is a good choice.
Elijah Craig is another lovely brand of bourbon to come out of the Bluegrass State. Elijah Craig Small Batch has flavor notes of fruitiness and smokiness, and it goes down smooth. Small Batch is another crowd-pleaser; it’s easy to drink and goes down like a dream.
Wild Turkey is one of the more famous bourbons out there, as the distillery remained active even throughout Prohibition. Wild Turkey 101 raises the bar on producing bourbon—it is aged a minimum of five years in American white oak barrels, which are then exposed to 55 seconds of fire, so they get what’s called an alligator char (because the wood looks like alligator skin).
That process lends the bourbon an incomparable smokey flavor and adds spice to the flavor profile. The best part about this fruity, spicy, full-bodied bourbon is that Wild Turkey 101 is less than $30 a bottle.
Bourbons Outside of Kentucky
Treaty Oak Distilling has a Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon with fruity and floral notes, unlike the smokiness of other bourbons mentioned. They make this bourbon in Texas’ Hill Country, where the hot and dry weather speeds up the bourbon aging process.
Although there are hints of fruit and even white pepper within the flavor profile of this bourbon, we know that the flavors come from the grain mash, the new barrels, and time. You can get a bottle of this Texas bourbon for around $50.
Redwood Empire Distillery is located in Northern California. It’s a long way from the rolling hills of Kentucky, but the climate is amazingly receptive to making excellent bourbon. Redwood Empire’s Pipe Dream bourbon is a blend of differently aged bourbons, ranging from four to twelve years.
It has notes of honey, coconut, brown sugar, and vanilla, making it on the sweeter side even for a bourbon. Some of the bourbons in the blend are from other states, and some are distilled locally. You can pick up a bottle of this unique blend for $45.
One more contender is a bourbon distilled in Wisconsin called Driftless Glen. This one is aged for the minimum requirement of two years and has notes of citrus, cinnamon, dill, and even freshly-cut grass if your olfactory abilities are sensitive enough. It tastes like walnuts, chocolate, and even berries. You can pick up a bottle of this one for $46.
The bourbons mentioned above are excellent choices to start from, as they offer a variety of flavor profiles and are easy on the budget. You can quickly become a bourbon enthusiast and figure out which flavors you prefer and which ones you wish to leave behind. The world of whiskey is a wide one, and the world of bourbon is a great place to begin exploring it.
Whiskey and Bourbon FAQs
What are some popular cocktails I can make with whiskey?
The Old Fashioned is one of the original cocktails. It’s made with rye whiskey or bourbon, bitters, and some simple syrup, and it’s garnished with an orange peel. You can even use a Maraschino cherry if you’re feeling playful.
The Whiskey Highball is super simple. All you need is a tall glass filled with ice, some whiskey, and your favorite non-alcoholic mixer. One thing you can do is mix bourbon with Coca-Cola. You can also have a Jim Beam Highball with simply a shot of Jim and soda water. Delicious!
A Whiskey Sour is perfect for summertime, or anytime. You combine bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup, and mix to perfection. You can garnish with fruit like an orange slice or lime.
How do you taste whiskey?
First, make sure that you don’t put anything else into the glass except the whiskey, not even ice. You want to be able to get the full flavor offerings of just the whiskey. Pour about two fingers of whiskey into your glass. Then swirl the whiskey around in the glass.
Next, smell the whiskey before you take a sip. The smell is just as important as taste when it comes to examining a new whiskey. Take a gentle sip and breathe through your nose as you swallow the sip.
For a deeper experience on your next sip, you can roll the whiskey over your tongue and in different areas of your mouth. You can also add a splash of water before your second sip to unveil flavors that you may have missed with the first sip.
What is single-malt whiskey?
While most whiskeys and bourbons are made up of several different grains, mostly corn in the case of bourbon, single-malt whiskey is made from one grain of one origin. For example, a single-malt whiskey can be made from malted barley and only come from one distillery.
Is Tennessee whiskey the same as bourbon?
Everything in the distilling process for making Tennessee whiskey is the same as making bourbon except the step right before aging. Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal on its way into the barrel. Because this is done before the aging process and it’s a filter rather than an additive, Tennessee whiskey still counts as a sub-type of bourbon.