Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey

Whiskey or whisky is the umbrella term for an alcoholic beverage or spirit made from fermented grain mash. Though different varieties of this spirit are popular the world over, this Tastessence article will try to find out the difference between bourbon and whiskey.
Tastessence Staff
Bourbon - An American Contribution
In 1964, the Lyndon Johnson administration named bourbon as 'America's Native Spirit'. This announcement came 200 years after the first bourbon went into the barrel!
All bourbons are whiskeys, but all whiskeys are not bourbons! Confused? Let's start with the basics of both these drinks first. Whiskey is more of a generic name for distilled alcoholic beverage made from different types of grain―corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Each of these grains are used to produce different types of whiskeys like the Scotch Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, etc.
Bourbon, on the other hand, is a type of whiskey comprising 51% corn (rest is malted barley, rye, and wheat). Jim Bean's website describes bourbon as whiskey's sweet spot! We, at Buzzle, explore the differences between these two yummy drinks.
Bourbon vs. Whiskey
Bourbon Whiskey
Distilled from corn and other grains Distilled from grain
Stored in new, charred oak containers Oak Containers (Sometimes reused)
Must be made in the U.S. Can be made anywhere in the world
Distilled to not more than 160 proof* Distilled to not more than 190 proof
Barrel entry proof not more than 125 proof Barrel entry proof not more than 85 proof
Aged for a minimum of 2 years No specific aging period
No added flavors; hence called 'Straight' Passed through bed of sugar maple charcoal
* Proof is a measure of alcohol in the given beverage. In the U.S., it is defined as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. Hence, 160 proof would be 80% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Know Your Whiskey
Whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of grains, which add different flavors to the eternal drink. The usual grains used in making the drink―corn, barley, rye, and wheat―add flavor to the otherwise bland (at least that's what I feel it would be) taste.
  • Corn adds sweetness.
  • Barley gives a biscuit nutty flavor.
  • Rye adds the boldness and spice to the drink.
  • Wheat gives caramel and vanilla flavor.
Whiskey, distilled from any of the above-mentioned ingredients is produced at 190 proof (max.) and stored in oak containers. Unlike other drinks, whiskey doesn't age in the bottle. The aging takes place only in the cask (barrel). Thus, even a day aged whiskey is considered suitable for drinking (though I wouldn't dare to taste such a drink) because the drink's age is between distillation and bottling. It should not be bottled for less than 80 proof, i.e., 40% alcohol by volume (U.S.) Unlike bourbon, whiskey has added flavors. Scotch whiskey (or Scotch) has caramel coloring, whereas the American 'straight' whiskey doesn't allow such additions. Tennessee whiskey is filtered through a bed of sugar maple charcoal (Lincoln County Process) that gives a different flavor to the drink. Unlike bourbon, whiskey can be produced anywhere in the world. In fact, the two biggest whiskey producing nations are Scotland and Ireland. The only difference in the whiskeys produced in different countries, is their spellings. While in the U.S. and Ireland, you will come across whiskey with an 'e' before the y, but if you are in Canada, Scotland, and Japan, the 'e' is omitted and whiskey becomes whisky.
To determine the flavors present in a whiskey, you can drop a bit onto your palms and rub them together until the liquid evaporates. The scent that is left behind will give you an idea of what ingredients were used in the whiskey's creation.
Know Your Bourbon
Bourbon is a type of whiskey which is made by fermenting corn (51% - 79%) and the rest (till 49%) is malted barley, rye, and wheat. This drink is sweeter and heavier in texture than its parent drink (whiskey). The various ingredients have different effects on the beverage.
  • Corn provides starch.
  • Wheat allows the beverage to sit on the forward palate of the tongue!
  •  Barley breaks down starch into sugar.
The barrels that are used for bourbon are made up of oak, charred on the inside. And mind you, these barrels should be brand new, reused ones won't work! For any whiskey to qualify as a 'straight' bourbon, it should undergo aging for at least 2 years without addition of any colors or flavors. However, if you are talking about bourbon that is sold in the U.S., if the aging is less than four years, its age should be mentioned on the label.
However, the journey of whiskey to bourbon is not easy. There's a law that has to be followed (and we thought the law exists for only drinkers and not the drink!) which is an international agreement. As stated by The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5),
"Bourbon whisky", "rye whisky", "wheat whisky", "malt whisky", or "rye malt whisky" is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.
If it is not distilled in America, the beverage cannot mention bourbon on its label! Bourbon production is highest in Kentucky, and any brand which doesn't distill this beverage in Kentucky cannot label it as 'Kentucky Bourbon'. The law also states that:
That the word "bourbon" shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States. If whisky of any of these types is composed in part of whisky or whiskies produced in a foreign country there shall be stated, on the brand label, the percentage of such whisky and the country of origin thereof.
As mentioned earlier, no flavor can be added to this alcoholic beverage except water. Due to the oak new barrels, this drink contains a lot of woody (40%) flavor.
Popular Brands
Bourbon Whiskey
Jim Beam Jack Daniel's
Maker's Mark Glenfiddich
Knob Creek Bushmills Original
Four Roses Crown Royal
Old Rip Van Winkle Templeton Rye
Is Tennessee Whiskey a Type of Bourbon?
As a whiskey loyalist, I would like to clear the biggest misconception of Tennessee whiskey (Jack Daniel's) being a bourbon! Though this whiskey comes from bourbon neighborhood, its filtering method, color, taste, and quality (remember I am whiskey loyalist) is different from that of bourbon's. So, it is loud and clear, Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, Benjamin Prichard's Tennessee Whiskey Kelso, and Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey, a.k.a Tennessee whiskey is not bourbon whiskey!
In a nutshell, bourbon is a subset of whiskey with strict specifications regarding its aging, distillation region, additives, and composition. By now, I am sure you would have grabbed the drink of your choice. So, sit back, relax, and Cheers!