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Bourbon vs. Whiskey: Sibling but Separate Spirits

If you’re confusing your whiskey and bourbon, you’re not alone. The drinks industry is full of little nuances, often born of geography and different ingredients and materials available. Just ask the vast categories of sparkling wine (Champagne or Prosecco?), IPA (hazy or west coast?), and brandy (cognac or Armagnac?). They’re full of sub-categories, stylistic tweaks, and ongoing riffs.

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But you should probably know the difference between bourbon and whiskey. Not only is it good knowledge to keep in your back pocket, it’ll help inform your sipping going forward, offering context for flavor variations and — hopefully — exposing you to new and enjoyable options.

What is Whiskey?

Think of whiskey as an umbrella, encompassing a host of different varieties beneath. Like Canadian whiskey, Japanese whiskey, Scotch, and rye, bourbon is one of those underlying varieties. And it’s arguably the most homegrown versions, based on the all-American corn crop as its main fermented grain. At least 51% of the mash bill must be corn, which tends to produce a sweeter type of whiskey.


What is Bourbon?

By law, bourbon must also be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred. Charring is what it sounds like, and involves taking a flame to the inner walls of the barrel. The heat produces compounds in the wood that rub off on the whiskey — think vanilla, toast, and baking spices. Bourbon also requires new barrels, unlike other spirits that are allowed to age in previously-used barrels that once held things like wine or sherry. That means there’s a certain purity to bourbon as the spirit isn’t leeching any additional notes from something that previously occupied the barrel as it ages.

Unlike wine and some other spirits, bourbon must be aged in a single kind of wood. That wood is oak and, generally speaking, it tends to be American white oak. Bourbon makers like this grain because it enhances the flavors of bourbon and, in the case of American versus French oak, the former tends to stand up to higher alcohol better. With its one-two punch of domestic grain and often domestic wood for aging, bourbon offers a certain level of American terroir. In that sense, think of it like this: Bourbon is to whiskey as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir.

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While bourbon does not have to come from Kentucky, the vast majority does (to the tune of almost 95%). It’s a roughly $9 billion industry in the Bluegrass State, where there are bourbon trails not unlike the wine trails one associated with Napa or the Willamette Valley. Kentucky is where bourbon was born and remains its stronghold, offering plenty of local corn and other grains as well as a climate favorable for aging.

Look for that percentage to continue to change, however, as more producers pop up elsewhere. There are great options coming out of places like Washington (Dry Fly) and Texas (Balcones). Kentucky has the heritage, but more and more folks are experimenting with various mash bills (still corn-dominated, of course) that reflect different parts of the country.

One more thing to know about bourbon is the amount of alcohol allowed throughout the process, something that changes a bit from spirit to spirit, even whiskey to whiskey. They can only be distilled at a maximum of 160 proof and barrel-aged to a maximum of 125 proof. The finished product must clock in at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol).

Of the many whiskeys out there, bourbon is a bit sweeter, generally quite smooth, and a great example of a real, American-made spirit. Enjoy a pour on its own or see how it fares in your favorite Manhattan, Hot Toddy, or Whiskey Sour.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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