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Bourbon vs Whiskey: Which Should You Choose?

The world of spirits is diverse and rich, with bourbon and whiskey being two of the most celebrated varieties. While they share some similarities, bourbon and whiskey are distinct in their production, flavor profiles, and cultural significance. This article aims to demystify these spirits, exploring what's the difference between bourbon and whiskey, and how best to enjoy them.

Bourbon VS Whiskey

What Is Bourbon Whiskey?

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey with a rich, sweet flavor profile. It's legally defined and must meet certain criteria: it must be made in the United States, contain at least 51% corn in the mash bill, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels. The aging process must occur under controlled conditions, and bourbon cannot enter the barrel at more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume). This unique production process gives bourbon its distinct caramel, vanilla, and wood notes.


What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey (or whisky, as it's known in Scotland and Canada) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash, which can include barley, corn, rye, and wheat. The production process involves aging in wooden barrels, which contributes to its flavor complexity. The term 'whiskey' is an umbrella that covers many styles, including Scotch, Irish whiskey, and bourbon. Each type adheres to specific production regulations that vary by country, influencing their unique flavor profiles and qualities.


What Is the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

Understanding the difference between whiskey and bourbon is key to appreciating their unique qualities. The difference between bourbon and whiskey primarily lies in their production methods, ingredients, and geographical origins. While bourbon is a type of whiskey, it has specific characteristics that set it apart from other whiskeys.

Ingredients and Mash Bill

  • Bourbon: By law, bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn, which gives it a sweeter flavor. The rest of the mash bill can be made up of other grains like barley, rye, or wheat.
  • Whiskey: Whiskey can be made from a variety of grains, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. The grain composition varies significantly across different types of whiskey, like Scotch (primarily malted barley) or Irish whiskey (often a mix of malted and unmalted barley).

Geographical Origin

  • Bourbon: Bourbon must be produced in the United States, and while it is strongly associated with Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the U.S.
  • Whiskey: Whiskey is a broader category that includes spirits produced worldwide, including Scotch whisky from Scotland, Irish whiskey from Ireland, and Canadian whisky from Canada.

Aging Process

  • Bourbon: It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. The use of new barrels contributes to bourbon's distinct flavor profile, imparting notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak.
  • Whiskey: The aging requirements for whiskey vary depending on the type. Scotch whisky, for example, is often aged in used barrels, which previously held other spirits or wine, influencing its flavor differently compared to bourbon.

Distillation and Proof

  • Bourbon: It cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) and must be entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
  • Whiskey: Other whiskeys have different regulations regarding distillation and proof. For example, Scotch whisky has its own set of rules regarding distillation strength and aging, which must be distilled at an alcohol by volume (ABV) of less than 94.8% and be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Labeling and Legal Requirements

  • Bourbon: The legal requirements for a spirit to be labeled as bourbon are quite strict, governed by U.S. law.
  • Whiskey: Different countries have their own legal definitions and requirements for whiskeys produced in their regions, leading to a diverse range of products under the whiskey category.

How to Drink Bourbon Vs Whiskey?

As bourbon and whiskey are not the same, drinking bourbon and whiskey needs to understand and appreciate the nuances of each. Both offer distinct experiences due to their unique production methods and flavor profiles.

When drinking bourbon, it's common to enjoy it neat or with a few drops of water. The water can open up the flavors, making the sweeter and deeper notes more prominent. Bourbon is also popular in cocktails like the Old Fashioned or the Mint Julep, where its sweetness complements the other ingredients.

On the other hand, with such diversity, the best way to drink whiskey depends on its type. Scotch is often enjoyed neat or with a little water, especially single malts, to appreciate their complex flavors. Irish whiskey can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in cocktails.

In both cases, using the right glassware enhances the experience. A Glencairn glass, for example, is ideal for nosing and tasting whiskey, as its shape concentrates the aromas. For bourbon, a rock glass is common, especially when enjoying it with ice.


In summary, bourbon and whiskey, each with their unique heritage and flavor profiles, offer a world of exploration for enthusiasts. Bourbon, with its sweet, rich profile and strict American roots, offers a distinct experience from the diverse and rich flavors found in whiskies from around the globe. Understanding these differences enriches the tasting experience, allowing enthusiasts to fully appreciate the craftsmanship and tradition behind each glass. Whether you're a seasoned connoisseur or a curious newcomer, the exploration of bourbon and whiskey is a delightful journey into the heart of fine spirits.

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