The famous saying goes: all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. But what does that mean?

Whiskey, by definition, is distilled from a variety of fermented grains and aged in wooden barrels. There are a variety of whiskeys (Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and American whiskey) and it can be made anywhere in the world. However, bourbon is American whiskey and has its own definition and set of legal guidelines.

Bourbon Cheat Sheet

The government has set forth strict guidelines and regulations for what can be labeled bourbon.

The differences are:

  1. Must be made in the USA.
  2. Must be distilled from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn.
  3. Distilled at less than 160 proof.
  4. Aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.
  5. No additives.

How Do the Flavor Profiles Differ?

The flavor profile between bourbon and whiskey is vastly different. Since bourbon is made with at least 51% corn mash it tends to have a sweeter flavor profile than whiskey. The barrel also impacts the flavor profile. Bourbon is aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels which allows for a smooth flavor. The longer the bourbon is aged the more mellow it will taste. Lastly, the bourbon tends to absorb more of the barrel’s character such as color and taste.

American bourbon tends to have a richer caramel and vanilla profile than its whiskey counterpart. Naturally, this make bourbon smoother. The proof of bourbon will also determine how intense the flavor and burn is.

Why is the government so strict when it comes to regulating bourbon? In the 1800’s it was widely known that distillers diluted and tampered with their whiskey. The government stepped in with the Bottle in Bond Act of 1897 making the U.S. the guarantor of bourbon’s authenticity.

Bourbon is highly regarded as a “native American spirit.” However, this wasn’t always the case. It use to be viewed as a cheap, commodity spirit in the early 1900’s. Thankfully, distillers today have redeemed the name of Bourbon and themselves.

Given that Bourbon is a true, authentic product of America with a long, rich history, we don’t see it disappearing any time soon. So whether you prefer bourbon, Kentucky whiskey, or something from across the pond, you now know the difference between bourbon and whiskey.

Further Reading