Bourbon vs Whiskey | What is the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

what is the difference between bourbon and whiskey

If you’re a whiskey lover, you’ve likely heard the terms “bourbon” and “whiskey” thrown around interchangeably. However, while these two spirits share a lot in common, they are not the same thing. Understanding the difference between bourbon and whiskey is essential for any spirits enthusiast. In this article, we’ll explore the distinction between bourbon and whiskey, their production methods, flavor profiles, and regional variations, delving into why bourbon holds a special place in American culture.

Key Takeaways:

  • Bourbon and whiskey are not the same thing; they have unique characteristics that set them apart.
  • The primary difference between bourbon and whiskey lies in their production process and regional variations.
  • Bourbon is a type of whiskey made mainly from corn and aged in charred oak barrels, giving it a distinct sweetness.
  • Whiskey is a broad term that encompasses various spirits produced around the world, with different production methods and flavor profiles.
  • Understanding the distinction between bourbon and whiskey is vital for developing a deeper appreciation for these beloved spirits.

Types of Whiskey: Understanding the Broad Category

Before we dive into the specifics of bourbon, it’s essential to understand the broader category of whiskey. Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grains, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. The spirit is aged in oak barrels, which imparts distinct flavors and colors.

There are different types of whiskey, each with its unique production methods and flavor profiles. Some of the most popular types of whiskey include:

  • Bourbon – Made primarily from corn and aged in charred oak barrels.
  • Scotch – Made in Scotland, using malted barley and distilled in pot stills.
  • Rye – Made from at least 51% rye and aged in new charred oak barrels.
  • Irish whiskey – Distilled in Ireland and aged for at least three years.
  • Japanese whiskey – Modeled after Scotch, but with its unique flavor profile.

Bourbons and whiskeys are types of spirits that fall under the broad category of whiskey. It’s essential to understand the distinctions between these whiskey types to appreciate their unique characteristics fully.

Bourbon: America’s Pride

When it comes to bourbon whiskey, there’s no denying its deep roots in American history. In fact, bourbon is recognized by Congress as a “distinctive product of the United States.”

Bourbon whiskey is a type of whiskey that is primarily made from corn and aged in charred oak barrels. To be considered bourbon, it must meet specific requirements, such as being made in the United States and containing at least 51% corn.

In addition, bourbon must be distilled at 160 proof or less and cannot be bottled at less than 80 proof. It also cannot contain any additives aside from water.

Bourbon whiskey is named after Bourbon County in Kentucky, where it is believed to have been first produced. Today, bourbon can be made in any state in the US, but Kentucky remains the hub of bourbon production.

One of the reasons bourbon is so beloved is because it offers a unique flavor profile that is distinct from other types of whiskey. Bourbon is known for its sweet taste, with notes of vanilla and caramel. Its aging process also contributes to its flavor, as the interaction between the whiskey and the charred oak barrels imparts a distinct smokiness.

If you’re looking to enjoy bourbon, there are many ways to do so. You can try it neat, over ice, or in a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned or a Mint Julep. Whatever your preference, there’s no denying that bourbon whiskey is a true American classic.

Whiskey: A Global Spirit

Whiskey is a broad term that encompasses various spirits produced around the world. It is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains, with different grains and production methods resulting in various types of whiskey. While bourbon is a type of whiskey, not all whiskeys are bourbon. In this section, we’ll explore the production methods, types of whiskey, and the distinct characteristics that set it apart from bourbon.

Production Methods

Whiskey production begins with the fermentation of grains, usually barley, corn, rye, or wheat, in water. The mixture is then distilled to increase the alcohol content and create a purer spirit. Whiskey can be made from a single grain or a blend of different grains, and the distillation process can vary depending on the type of whiskey being produced.

After distillationwhiskey must be aged in barrels made of oak, which contributes to its unique flavor profile. The aging process can take several years, and different types of barrels can be used, such as charred oak barrels, to impart different flavors to the final product.

Types of Whiskey

There are various types of whiskey produced around the world, each with its unique characteristics. Some of the most popular types include:

  • Bourbon: Made primarily from corn and aged in charred oak barrels, bourbon is a distinctly American spirit.
  • Scotch: Made in Scotland from malted barley and aged for at least three years, scotch whisky has a smoky flavor profile.
  • Rye: Made from at least 51% rye and aged in charred oak barrels, rye whiskey has a spicy and complex flavor profile.
  • Irish: Distilled in Ireland from a blend of malted and unmalted barley and aged for at least three years, Irish whiskey is known for its smoothness and complexity.

Distinct Characteristics

While all whiskeys share some common production methods, each type has its distinct characteristics that set it apart from others. For example, bourbon must be produced in the United States and must be made from at least 51% corn, while scotch must be made in Scotland and must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels.

Additionally, different regions have their own unique production methods that result in distinct flavor profiles. For example, bourbon made in Kentucky is known for its sweet and rich flavor profile due to the use of corn in its production, while Tennessee whiskey undergoes a filtering process through sugar maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process, resulting in a smoother taste.

Famous Whiskey Producers and Classic Cocktails

There are numerous whiskey distillers and producers around the world, each with their loyal fan base and signature products. Some of the most famous whiskey producers include Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, and Johnnie Walker.

Whiskey is often enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Whiskey Sour. In recent years, there has been a surge in the popularity of craft cocktails, with bartenders experimenting with new and unique ways to incorporate whiskey into their creations.

Production Process: From Grains to Barrels

Before we can dive into the differences between bourbon and whiskey, let’s take a closer look at how these two spirits are made. The production process is the backbone of what makes each spirit unique, from the type of grains used to the length of time it’s aged in oak barrels.

The Basics of Whiskey Production

Whiskey is made by distilling fermented grains, which can include barley, corn, rye, or wheat. The grains are crushed and then mixed with water to create a mash, which is then heated and allowed to ferment. The resulting liquid, called the wash, is then distilled to create whiskey.

The Malt Whiskey Process

One type of whiskey production process is malt whiskey, which is made using only malted barley as the grain. The barley is first soaked in water to trigger germination, which begins the process of converting the starches in the barley to fermentable sugars. The malted barley is then dried and mixed with water, creating the mash. This mash is then heated and fermented before being distilled to create the final product.

Charred Oak Barrels

One of the essential elements in bourbon and whiskey production is the use of oak barrels. Distillers use charred oak barrels to age their spirits, which adds unique flavors and colors to the final product. These barrels are typically made from American white oak, which is known for its rich, vanilla-like flavor.

The charred oak barrels are filled with the distilled whiskey and left to age for several years. During this time, the whiskey absorbs and imparts flavors from the wood. The length of time the whiskey is aged in barrels can greatly affect its final flavor profile.

The Role of the Distiller

The distiller is the person responsible for overseeing the entire production process of the whiskey. From selecting the grains to overseeing distillation and aging, the distiller plays a critical role in ensuring the final product meets their standards.

Final Thoughts

The production process of bourbon and whiskey is a complex and fascinating process that involves a careful balance of ingredients and techniques. By understanding the basics of this process, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the unique flavors and characteristics that set these spirits apart.

Flavor Profiles: Sweetness and Complexity

When it comes to flavor profiles, bourbon and whiskey have distinct differences. Bourbon is often characterized by its sweeter notes, while whiskey tends to be more complex with varied flavors.

The sweetness of bourbon comes from the grains used in the mash bill, which must be at least 51% corn. The corn gives bourbon its signature sweetness, which is further enhanced by the charred oak barrels used in the aging process. These barrels impart flavors of vanilla, caramel, and even toasted marshmallow, adding to the overall sweetness of the spirit.

Whiskey, on the other hand, has a much broader flavor profile. The type of grain used in the mash bill, the distillation process, and the aging process all contribute to the complexity of its flavor. Whiskey can have notes of fruit, spice, smoke, and even peat, depending on the type and production method.

While bourbon’s sweetness may make it more approachable to some, whiskey’s complexity can offer a more varied range of flavors to explore and enjoy.

Regional Differences: Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye

Besides the general distinction between bourbon and whiskey, there are vast regional variations and unique qualities of other whiskey types, including scotch, rye, and Irish whiskey.

Scotch whiskey is made in Scotland and must be distilled from malted barley. The distiller uses the barley to make a mash, which they then ferment. Scotch must be aged for at least three years in oak casks.

Rye whiskey is made in the United States and must be distilled from at least 51% rye grain. It has a spicy flavor profile and is often used in classic cocktails like the Manhattan.

Irish whiskey is distilled in Ireland and must be aged for at least three years in wooden casks. It is commonly distilled three times, which gives it a smoother and more delicate flavor profile.

Bourbon is made in the United States, with most of it distilled in Kentucky. It must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in charred oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon but must be made in Tennessee and filtered through maple charcoal before being aged.

Type of WhiskeyMade InMain IngredientAgeing Process
ScotchScotlandMalted BarleyAt least 3 years in oak casks
RyeUnited StatesAt least 51% Rye grainAt least 2 years in new, charred oak barrels
IrishIrelandBarley, corn, rye, and wheatAt least 3 years in wooden casks
BourbonUnited States, mostly KentuckyAt least 51% cornAt least 2 years in new, charred oak barrels
Tennessee WhiskeyTennesseeAt least 51% cornAt least 2 years in new, charred oak barrels and filtered through maple charcoal

Overall, each type of whiskey has its unique set of characteristics and flavors, making it a distinct and beloved spirit in its own right. Understanding these regional differences can help you appreciate the subtle nuances and complexities of whiskey and open up a whole new world of flavors and aromas.

Bourbon vs Whiskey Taste: Comparing the Notes

When it comes to taste, bourbon and whiskey have distinct flavor profiles that set them apart from one another. The aging process is a significant factor that plays into the flavor notes of these spirits.

Bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels, which imparts a distinct sweetness and vanilla flavor to the spirit. Whiskey, on the other hand, can be aged in a variety of barrels, including charred oak, which gives it a more complex flavor profile.

One of the reasons bourbon is often associated with sweetness is due to the use of corn in its production. Straight bourbon, for example, must contain at least 51% corn, which gives it a distinct sweetness compared to other types of whiskey.

Flavor Profiles

Let’s take a closer look at the flavor profiles of bourbon and whiskey:


As you can see, bourbon has a sweeter, more vanilla-forward flavor profile, while whiskey has a more complex, robust, and smoky taste.

Bourbon Whiskey vs Straight Bourbon Whiskey

It’s essential to note that not all bourbon is straight bourbonStraight bourbon must meet specific legal requirements, including being aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years and not containing any added flavors or colors. However, all straight bourbon is bourbon, meaning it must contain at least 51% corn and be aged in charred oak barrels.

When it comes to taste, there can be a significant difference between straight bourbon and bourbon whiskey. Bourbon whiskey can contain added flavors and colors, which can impact its taste. Straight bourbon, on the other hand, has a pure and unadulterated flavor profile and is often held in high regard by bourbon enthusiasts.

In conclusion, whether you prefer the sweetness of bourbon or the complexity of whiskey, understanding the distinct flavor profiles of these spirits allows you to appreciate their unique characteristics fully.


In conclusion, understanding the difference between bourbon and whiskey is crucial for any spirits enthusiast. By exploring the broader category of whiskey, we can appreciate the unique qualities of each type, such as scotch, rye, and Irish whiskey.

When it comes to bourbon, we learned that it holds a special place in American culture, and its production is subject to specific legal requirements. The aging process and the use of charred oak barrels give bourbon its distinct flavor profile, often associated with sweetness and complexity.

On the other hand, whiskey encompasses a broad range of spirits produced worldwide, each with its distinct production methods and flavor characteristics. From malt whiskey to Tennessee whiskey, understanding the particularities of each type is key to developing a deeper appreciation for their unique qualities.

Finally, by examining the production process and tasting notes of bourbon and whiskey, we can compare and contrast these beloved spirits, unveiling their subtle differences, and complex flavor profiles.

Whether you enjoy a straight bourbon or a classic whiskey cocktail, we hope this guide has provided you with valuable insights into the world of spirits and how to distinguish between bourbon and whiskey.


What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but not all whiskies are bourbons. Bourbon is made primarily from corn and aged in newly charred oak barrels, giving it a distinct sweet and rich flavor. On the other hand, whiskey is a broader category that includes various types such as bourbon, scotch, rye, and Irish whiskey, each with its own production methods and flavor profiles.

What makes bourbon different from whiskey?

Bourbon differs from other types of whiskey primarily in its production method and legal requirements. To be considered bourbon, it must be made in the United States, contain at least 51% corn, and be aged in new charred oak barrels. Additionally, bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof.

How do I distinguish bourbon from whiskey?

Distinguishing bourbon from other types of whiskey can be done by looking for specific markers. Legally, bourbon must be made in the United States, whereas whiskey can be produced anywhere in the world. Additionally, bourbon is known for its sweeter flavor profile, which is attributed to its high corn content and aging process in charred oak barrels.

Can bourbon be considered a whiskey?

Yes, bourbon is a type of whiskey. It falls under the broader category of whiskey but has specific legal requirements and production methods that differentiate it from other types of whiskey.

Are bourbon and whiskey the same thing?

While bourbon is a type of whiskey, they are not the same thing. Whiskey is a broader category that encompasses various spirits produced around the world, including bourbon. Bourbon, on the other hand, is a specific type of whiskey that has distinct production requirements and flavor profiles.

Can I use bourbon instead of whiskey in recipes?

In most cases, you can substitute bourbon for whiskey in recipes, as long as you are aware of the flavor profile differences. Bourbon’s sweeter and richer taste may alter the overall flavor of the dish or cocktail, so it’s important to consider the desired outcome when making the substitution.

How should I enjoy bourbon?

Bourbon can be enjoyed in various ways, depending on personal preference. Many people savor it neat or on the rocks to appreciate its flavors and aromas fully. Bourbon also works well in classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan, adding complexity and depth to the drink.

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