Skip to main content

The differences between bourbon and brandy, explained

Brandy and bourbon are quite different

Robin Canfield/Unsplash

Like most aged spirits, brandy and bourbon look the same. If you’re a drinking novice and someone puts a glass of bourbon and a glass of brandy side by side, you might even have a little difficulty figuring out which is which. Both are golden to caramel in color depending on the age. The two spirits also carry some of the same aromas and flavors, like oak, caramel, and fruity flavors. That being said, the two spirits couldn’t be more different.

Anthony Torres/Unsplash

A very different base

Bourbon is often referred to as America’s “native spirit”. If you didn’t already know it, this is a reference to its history and cultural significance in the US. It’s also a reference to the rules of bourbon whiskey. That being that it must be made in the US (not just Kentucky). While there are various other rules and regulations, the other most important rule is that, to be called a bourbon, the whiskey must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn. So, it’s a corn-based spirit.

When matured in charred oak barrels, it’s known for its nuanced, complex flavor profile featuring butterscotch, vanilla beans, cinnamon, cracked black pepper, dried fruits, and various other immediately recognizable flavors.

Brandy, on the other hand, is a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juices. Its name comes from the Dutch word ‘brandewijn’ which translates to ‘burnt wine”. While the most common fruit used to make brandy is grapes, this spirit can also be made from other fruits including apples, pears, blackberries, and many other fruits. There is one major rule when it comes to brandy. If it’s simply labeled ‘brandy’, this means it’s made from grapes. If it’s made from any other fruits, it must be labeled with the fruit before the word ‘brandy’.

While there are different types of brandy, when it’s matured it gains a lot of complexity as well as flavors like oak, caramel, vanilla, floral notes, and a ton of fruit flavors.

Thomas Park/Unsplash

Different types of brandy

Not all brandy is Cognac, but all Cognac is brandy. That’s because brandy is the all-encompassing umbrella term for spirits made from fruits (primarily grapes). There are myriad different types of brandy, and you’ve probably heard of a few (even if you didn’t know they were brandies).

We already mentioned Cognac, the French grape-based spirit. Other brandies include:

  • Brandy (grape-based, aged spirit)
  • Calvados (a French apple or pear-based brandy)
  • Grappa (an Italian grape seed, stalks, and stem-based brandy)
  • Pisco (a Peruvian and Chilean grape juice and grape must-based brandy)
  • Armagnac (similar to Cognac, this grape-based brandy is made in the Gascony region of France)
  • Eau-de-vie (a term for un-aged brandy)

There are also flavored brandies and the aforementioned fruit brandies (apple, berry, etc.).

To say that brandy is a complicated spirit is a major understatement. Sure, you can simply tell people you enjoy “brandy,” but there’s a good chance there will be a follow-up question about which brandy you prefer. Be prepared to dive into Cognac, calvados, and other brandies in this case.

Timothy James / Unsplash

Different types of bourbon

Bourbon is much different than brandy when it comes to sorting out the different types. It would be much easier if you were going to ramble on about the different types of whisk(e)y. That’s because, like single malt Scotch whisky, rye whiskey, Japanese whisky, and Irish whiskey, bourbon is a type of whiskey.

There are different kinds of bourbon, though. They just aren’t as diverse as brandy. While there are other offshoots, it’s safe to say that there are several different types of bourbons (and some fall into multiple categories):

  • Cask strength (high alcohol content, usually around 120-proof)
  • Bottled-in-bond (100-proof, matured for at least four years in Federally bonded warehouses)
  • Single barrel (a whiskey made from one single barrel)
  • High corn (a high corn-content whiskey)
  • High rye (a whiskey with a lot of rye in its mash bill)
  • Wheated (a whiskey with a lot of wheat in its mash bill)
  • Small batch (a whiskey made from a limited number of barrels)
bourbon barrel
Katherine Conrad / Unsplash

Aging connects

Now that you know a little bit about brandy and bourbon, you can now understand why some drinkers might find them similar in taste and appearance even though they are extremely different spirits. This is mostly due to the aging process and all the flavors imparted by charred oak and other woods. Regardless of the original ingredients, whether they are corn, grapes, or apples, maturation in wood will add some of the same, complex, nuanced flavors.

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s competing recipes for National Michelada Day
Smokey, fruity, or spicy - there's a Michelada recipe for every taste
national michelada day modelo x dos hombres hero image 1

Today, July 12, is National Michelada Day, so that's the ideal excuse to kick back with this classic Mexican beer cocktail. Beer cocktails aren't the easiest thing to create as beer has such a low alcohol percentage and high amount of water compared to spirits -- but when you get it right, there are few things more refreshing. As the beloved combination of Mexican lager, lime, and tomato juice proves, there's a great way to mix almost any ingredient.

Another fun aspect of the Michelada is its flexibility. You can use clamato juice in place of the tomato juice, pour in an extra shot of spirit, and add whatever combination of hot sauces or umami sauces that your heart desires. As the drink is traditionally served in a glass with a salt rim, you can also add bonus flavors here like making a chili salt or using salt and pepper. And of course you can garnish with anything from fruit to pickles.

Read more
What is a gruit, and where can you find one?
Gruit, the beer made without hops that you need to try
Beer snifter chalice glass

Most beers you know and love today have four primary ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast. That’s largely due to the centuries-old German beer purity law, or reinheitsgebot, which demanded that beer be made exclusively using these ingredients and set the standard for today’s brews. 
But beer is an ancient beverage — historians believe its story stretches back to 5th millennium BC in Iran and went on to be enjoyed by the likes of Egyptian pharaohs and the Greek philosophers. However, if Socrates or Tutankhamun ever enjoyed a pint in their days, the beer was likely missing one of those four critical ingredients: the hop.
In today’s hop-hungry climate of India pale ales (and hazy IPAs, New England IPAs, as well as milkshake IPAs, and others), it seems impossible that beer could exist without hops. The fact is that many other natural ingredients can serve as substitutes for the bittering, aromatic, and flavoring characteristics of hops. Today, if a beer relies on other herbs to fill the "hops" role, the beverage is classified as a gruit.

Gruit is the German word for herb. Instead of depending on hops, these brews use exotic additives like bog myrtle, horehound, elderflowers, and yarrow to offset the sweetness of the malts and create a more complex beverage.
Thanks to the creativity of modern breweries, you don’t have to travel back to the Middle Ages to find a gruit (though if you can, please let us in on your time travel technology). You can try them right now, but you will have to do some detective work.
“Authentic” gruits can be tough to find in the mainstream marketplace. That’s because some laws require hops to be present for a product to be sold as beer. Not having the “beer” title would limit distribution and sales channels for some breweries.  To illustrate how rare gruits are in the current marketplace, there are currently 32,576 American IPAs listed on the Beer Advocate database and only 380 gruits.
But don’t despair — this list will help you get started on the path toward discovering modern versions of the ancient ale. Start your gruit journey here:

Read more
A quick guide to French wine crus
We'll help you understand French wine labels
Person grabbing a wine bottle

A French wine label can seem, well, foreign. As a whole, they tend to be peppered with traits and terminology that are not immediately familiar, sometimes cloaking the contents of the bottle to those who don’t speak the language or understand the hierarchies.
One word you’re likely to encounter a lot — whether you’re hunting for a fine Burgundy, a good sauternes, or a celebratory Champagne — is "cru." Meaning "growth," the word is a viticultural one, pointing to the vineyard where the fruit is grown. Over the years in France, vineyards have been rated based on their ability to create wine. It’s subjective and, like a lot of things in wine, probably due for some reform, but it’s worth understanding if you’re looking to better know what you’re drinking.
Like water rights or celebrity, the cru system is certainly antiquated, based largely on family names and maps or lists drawn up a long time ago. To France’s credit, growers are finally waking up to the many moving parts at play, adjusting dusty old blending rules and considering different cru designations based on an abruptly changing climate. But there’s far more work to do here. With the imbibing masses increasingly focused on transparency over critical acclaim and prestige, it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.
In the meantime, here are some basics to get you in and out of the bottle shop a little more confidently, whether it’s an online find or a brick-and-mortar pickup. In addition to being something of a rating hierarchy, the cru system stresses terroir. Bottles designated a certain way should, in theory, demonstrate some type of typicity associated with a specific place. Again, it’s often more subjective than scientific, but there are certainly styles and flavors attached to certain French vineyards (and beyond).
Generally, if you see cru on the label, it’s pretty good stuff. The two most esteemed wine crus are Premiere and Grand. How the two terms are used is a little confusing. In Bordeaux, Premier (or premier grand cru classé) is the best of the best, the topmost of five formal designations (refresh your French vocabulary by looking up how to count from one to five). Unlike Burgundy, where the focus is on the site, the cru designation here is more focused on the production facility itself, or the chateau. 
Elsewhere, as in Sauternes or Burgundy, Grand wears the gold medal while Premiere refers to the silver medal bearer. Burgundy classifies all of its vineyards this way, with lesser-revered sites and labels sporting the “Villages” (bronze medal) and “Bourgogne” markers (honorary mention). Many other regions in France and beyond work under very similar labeling guidelines. Famous spots like Alsace and Champagne place their work on similar podiums.

What to look for

Read more