The difference between whisky and bourbon
The difference between whisky and bourbon
Bourbon vs whisky – are they the same thing? Well, not exactly. Bourbon is a type of whisky, much like the way Champagne is a type of wine. So all bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon. Although they may look similar and follow a similar process, there are a few key factors that differentiate the two – from how they’re aged to the predominant grains used in each. We’ll share some simple ways to recognise the difference between bourbon and whisky, and how you can enjoy both next time you’re pulling up a stool at your local bar.
Let’s kick off with what whisky is
In simple terms, whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains and water. This amber-coloured spirit is made via a meticulous step-by-step ritual and has been for many, many years. Exactly how many? The origin of whisky dates back to over 1000 years ago when distillation made the migration from mainland Europe into Scotland and Ireland via travelling monks. To this day, whisky is still made using a mixture of grains like malted barley, corn, rye or wheat; each can play a crucial part in the flavour(s) of the final product. It’s a spirit universally enjoyed for its complex flavours and versatility – from the humble Old Fashioned and Whisky Sour to enjoying it neatin a Glencairn glass.
And what’s bourbon’s story?
Well, let’s start with where it’s made. Bourbon is a type of American whisky that can only be created in the USA – around 95% of bourbons come from Kentucky. Bourbon is such a distinct product of the United States in fact, it’s recognised by the U.S. Congress as an American spirit. While all bourbon whisky needs to be made in the US, not all US whiskies are bourbon.
Distillers can only label a spirit bourbon when its mash (or grain mix, as it’s sometimes referred to) is made with at least 51% corn – the remainder usually consists of a mix of rye, barley, and/or wheat. Bourbon must also be distilled at 80% ABV (or 160 proof); it can’t contain any additives other than water and is aged in new charred American oak barrels. This is an important distinction, as most whisky from outside the U.S. is aged in used oak barrels that previously contained another whisky, port, sherry or wine.
As for bourbon’s origins, it’s hard to say exactly. Distilling was most likely brought to present-day Kentucky by the earliest settlers of the region (Scots and Scots-Irish) sometime in the late 1800s. Some say it’s named after Bourbon County (in Kentucky), and when that part of the U.S. was eventually divided, people in the region continued to call the area Old Bourbon. Old Bourbon went on to become a major port city used to transport goods on the Ohio River. Barrels of whisky were said to be painted with the name ‘Old Bourbon’ to reference the port of origin, and because corn whisky was likely the first kind of whisky people tasted, ‘bourbon’ became the name of any corn-based whisky.
What are some key differences between bourbon and whisky?
As mentioned, bourbon can only be produced in the U.S. – similar to how Scotch whisky can only be made in Scotland. Another key difference is the fermentation process. Whisky is distilled from fermented grain such as barley, corn, wheat and rye, and is almost always matured in pre-soaked wooden barrels which gives it its distinct auburn colour and unique taste. Conversely, bourbon must have at least 51% corn included and use new oak barrels. Corn was an obvious choice when it came to choosing a key grain in bourbon because it turns out there are a lot of corn fields in Kentucky.
When it comes to whisky ingredients, it depends on the type: a blended malt whisky will use barley from two or more distilleries. Rye whisky is made using a minimum of 51% rye and is often mixed with barley and other grains. Wheat whisky uses wheat for a large percentage of the grains, with some distillers using 100% of wheat in their mash. Bourbon’s key ingredient is corn – at least 51%. Typically, bourbon distillers use approximately 70% corn content and are free to choose other grains for the remainder of the mash; the type of grain used will affect the style and flavours of the bourbon.
The production process for bourbon involves distilling the fermented grains and ageing the spirit in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. When bourbon is barrelled, it also has to hit a certain proof or alcohol content in the spirit. The mash must be distilled at 160 proof (or 80% alcohol by volume) or less, and aged in barrels until it is no more than 125 proof or less. Before bottling, bourbon is filtered and diluted down to no less than 80 proof. Other whiskies have different ABV standards for barreling and distilling.
Unlike many other whiskies that are aged for a minimum of two to three years, there is no age requirement for bourbon. All bourbon aged less than four years is marked accordingly on the label – and any bourbon aged over two years is labelled as ‘straight bourbon whisky’.
The key difference you’ll notice between the taste of bourbon versus whisky is that bourbon is slightly sweeter due to the high concentration of corn. Given bourbon is matured in new barrels, its flavours are less nuanced than whisky, which matures in secondhand barrels soaked in wine or sherry.
The best ways to enjoy both whisky and bourbon
We think every spirit deserves to feel the love (read: have a place in your cocktail cabinet), and both bourbon and whisky can be enjoyed in different ways. Whisky, as we know, works well in cocktails like a Whisky Sour, Highball or an Old Fashioned, over ice or sipped straight. It also pairs well with food like dark chocolate, cheese and anything barbequed or cooked over coals. In the case of bourbon, it can also be sipped straight or added to a Mint Julep cocktail – which combines mint, sugar and bourbon – or a Manhattan. Its slightly sweeter taste makes bourbon a great match for dessert – try it with a slice of carrot cake and thank us later. Or sip it alongside your salmon: the dish will soften the bourbon, while the bourbon draws out the sweet flavours of the fish. *Chef’s kiss*
So, now you know the difference between these two spirits, you might be in the mood for a glass Australian made whisky or thinking about buying a bottle of whisky online. You could even compare the two the next time you’re out having a drink with friends – or you might want to better understand the key differences with a whisky tasting class. We’ll see you there!