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What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

Whiskey bourbon in a glass with ice on wooden table colorful background

What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

Often times, lovers of whiskey will lump bourbon and whiskey into the same category when discussing their favorite grain-mash spirit. Many of us have heard the old saying “all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” But what exactly does that mean? What exactly differentiates the two? It’s important for whiskey and bourbon lovers alike to know the difference. In this blog we will discuss the differences, and what makes each one unique.

The Basics of Whiskey

Whiskey is made by distilling fermented grain mash — in the form of rye, corn or barley — and then aging it in a wooden barrel. This is the broadest definition of the term “whiskey,” for there are specific and succinct details about the many varieties of whiskey, as well as the countries in which they are made. In fact, whiskey is made in countries all over the world, including these favorites: Irish whiskey, Scotch “whisky,” and American whiskey (but don’t forget the Canadian whiskies!). The differences are born from the type of grain that they are distilled from, and where they are made. For instance, Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley, while some unaged whiskeys are made from corn.

Bourbon Basics

When we look back at the previously mentioned adage, we’re reminded that “all bourbon is whiskey.” That statement is true, but only in the United States. While many kinds of whiskey are made around the world, whiskey can only be bourbon if it’s made in the United States. This is the primary and most basic difference between all whiskeys and the U.S born whiskey we refer to as bourbon. For a whiskey to qualify as a bourbon, we’ve already covered that it first has to be produced in the U.S., but it also has to have a corn base between 51-79% — something that other whiskeys, worldwide, do not have to meet. The other 21-49% (depending on the corn base percentage) can be any other grain, depending on the distiller’s choice. To meet the rest of “bourbon law,” bourbons must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S) proof (80% alcohol by volume), deposited into new, charred-oak barrels at 125 (U.S.) proof (62.5% alcohol by volume), and then bottled like other whiskeys at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume). Conversely, traditional whiskeys do need to be stored in oak barrels, but they don’t need to be new and charred, and they must be distilled to no more than 190 proof. Bourbon does not have any aging requirements, but most are aged at least 4 years, and our own Butcher’s Bourbon is aged 8 years. The United States and Canada adhere to the aforementioned bourbon standards and regulations, but all other countries do not. However, the one requirement that applies across the board, in all countries, is that bourbon must be made in the U.S.

While the terms will assuredly still be used interchangeably among whiskey and bourbon drinkers, you now have the knowledge to differentiate between the different types of whiskey. Now go forth and use this knowledge to select an excellent U.S. made bourbon, like ours here at Old Tennessee Distilling Company.


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