The Difference Between Bourbon And Whiskey

It takes a strong stomach and a particular palate to fall in love with spirits. Spirits like gin, vodka, rum, and whisky are all fairly high in alcohol and tend to waft fumes reminiscent of petrol or cleaning liquid, though some benefit from aging in oak barrels. The process of making strong spirits is an ancient practice, going back as far as 800 B.C. when items like rice and milk were fermented, then distilled to knock the socks off of those brave enough to indulge in the mixture (via VinePair).

Since the invention of the distillation method, people all over the globe have taken to making their own hard liquor. One of the oldest and most favored spirits out there is whiskey. Oak and Eden says there is a lot of back and forth about where exactly whiskey was invented, but, ultimately, it was created and popularized in the British Isles from where the distillation of grains spread to become a worldwide favorite. Whiskey is most notably made in Ireland and Scotland (as in Scotch) but other countries are also notable for their whiskey craftsmanship, including the United States. But, instead of calling it whiskey, the U.S. has labeled its favorite spirit bourbon.

What is whiskey?

Whiskey, at the most basic level, is an umbrella term for any distilled spirit made from a mash of corn, rye, barley, or wheat grains. The spirit has been made for centuries and, according to the Taster's Club, there are currently over 5,000 different expressions of single-malt whiskeys in existence today. The name "whiskey" is Gaelic in origin, loosely translating to "water of life," says Taster's Club. MasterClass finds that by the 15th century, Ireland and Scotland were successfully distilling whiskey using a variety of grain mashes and aging the mashes in oak barrels to give notes of vanilla and buttery smoothness to help wash it down.

Because whiskey has such a broad definition, you can imagine the sheer amount of different recipes and characteristics the liquor can take on. Over the years, different — and often government-protected labels — divided the various kinds of whiskey based on the kinds of grains used in the mash and the amount of time it has spent in the barrel. Food & Wine describes Irish whiskey as using 30% malted and 30% un-malted barley, single-malt scotch as using 100% malted barley, and American bourbon as using at least 51% corn. Yep! Scotch and bourbon technically both fall under the definition of whiskey, but bourbon, in particular, sets itself apart.

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is made with a minimum of 51% corn in its grain mash for it to earn the true label of "bourbon." Bourbon Country says that traditionally bourbon is a liquor protected by the U.S. Trade Legislation, making it a distinctly American product. The corn used in bourbon mash is what gives this particular whiskey its distinct style and flavors of caramel and vanilla, according to the American Bourbon Association. The site also explains the drink must also be 160 proof or less, tagged in charred oak barrels, and not have any additives to be legally considered a bourbon whiskey. 

The origin of bourbon, while intrinsically linked to the invention of whiskey, has its root in the Bluegrass state of Kentucky. World Whiskey Day reports that Kentucky state produces 95% of the world's entire supply of bourbon thanks to its massive local corn production. Even though bourbon is mostly made in Kentucky, legally it can be made anywhere in the U.S., so long as it maintains the methods of manufacturing.