Difference Explained: Bourbon vs. Whiskey

“All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon,” is a common phrase among bourbon drinkers that sometimes catches people off-guard. We’ve all heard it before, but unless you truly understand what they’re trying to suggest, the meaning is lost entirely.

For reference, here’s a brief overview: several subcategories exist in the whiskey world that – like a fine wine – denote the location in which the drink was distilled. These elements are then fused into a family of aromas and tasting notes particular to that specific genre of whiskey. In short, these include blended, Canadian, Irish, Scotch, bourbon, rye, and Tennessee. Of course, there are blended and single malt varieties of each but we need not concern ourselves with those details at this moment.

Instead, we’re here to clear the air in the terms of bourbon. Specifically, we seek to answer what makes bourbon whiskey a bourbon in the first place and how does it compares to whiskey as a whole. Sounds complicated, we know. But bear with us, we’ve done the research and – as enthusiastic bourbon drinkers ourselves – know a thing or two about the history surrounding this strictly American spirit and how it measures up to the greater world of whiskey. So before the weekend hits you in full force, leading you to the nearest watering hole and forcing you to beg the question, ‘what’s the deal with bourbon?’ allow us to impart some foundational knowledge upon your curious palate.

WHAT IS WHISKEY

Sounds a bit elementary, we know. However, understanding the basic elements of the spirit you’re drinking as a whole helps you comprehend any and all sub-genres. Think of it as building a foundation of knowledge upon which more intricate details and structures can take root. In this case, the definition of whiskey is your foundation.

By definition, whiskey (or whisky in Scotland) is a distilled alcoholic beverage that’s made from a fermented grain mash. Now the actual composition of what grains are involved in the mash pertain to the type of whiskey being distilled. For example, Scotch whisky is primarily a barley mash while other whiskies, like white whiskey, utilize a predominantly corn mash. After distillation, the almost pure alcohol spirit is then aged in wooden casks for anywhere from four to 50+ years, absorbing the oak and various other flavors along the way – depending on the type and variety of barrels used throughout the aging process.

Cliffs Notes: Bourbon

  • Hailing from Bourbon Country, KY
  • Must be distilled from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn
  • Cannot be distilled to any more than 160 Proof
  • Cannot enter the barrel at any more than 125 Proof
  • Must be bottled at 40 Proof or more
  • Aged in NEW charred oak barrels only
  • No added flavorings or colorings
  • Distilled and cut only with water (traditionally, Kentucky limestone water)

WHISKEY HISTORY

It’s believed a similar process of distilling alcoholic beverages dates back to Italy in the 13th century, where Italians distilled alcohol from – you guessed it – wine grapes, but was primarily used in medicinal treatments for common illnesses. However, later in the 15th century, our Irish and Scottish friends got a hold of the method, later referring to the spirit with the Gaelic phrase “uisce breathe.” That translates literally to “water of life.”

All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.

From here, man’s interest in whisky spread to the American colonies, where it’s rumored that the spirit was used as currency during the Revolutionary War. In fact, George Washington himself ran a distillery at his Mount Vernon residence. Americans loved the spirit so much, in fact, that the first tax imposed on the newly formed United States by the federal government in 1791 – known as the “whiskey tax” – was met with strong resistance by the people. This came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Cleary we have an adoration for the stuff. And with this brief lesson in American history, we introduce to you an all-American version of this “water of life.” One whose origins are so geographically confined that its name originates from a specific county in one of the fifty states that make up the United States.

WHAT IS BOURBON

Hailing from Bourbon County, Kentucky, bourbon whiskey now boasts a legal definition established by the US Congress in 1964. It states that, to be considered bourbon by American standards, the spirit must have been distilled from a grain mixture that is a majority corn (51 percent or more) and then aged in new charred oak barrels for no less than four years. It also can not be distilled to any more than 160 proof (80 percent ABV) and entered into the barrel for resting at no more that 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV). Finally, bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40 percent ABV) without any added flavoring or coloring before hitting the shelves under the bourbon name.

From here and because corn is a sweet grain, bourbon typically lends itself as a sweeter spirit, with more corn in the grain bill having a direct impact on the sweetness of the final product. And if you’re wondering how distillers bring down the proof for bottling, non-bourbons often feature various additives to cut the ABV. Not bourbon, however. Here, it’s water and only water (Kentucky limestone water to be exact) that’s used in both distilling and lowering the proof. Needless to say, there are plenty of benchmarks required in order to categorize a whiskey as a bourbon. If anything, knowing the difference will help you truly appreciate this American spirit.

Cliffs Notes: Bourbon

  • Hailing from Bourbon Country, KY
  • Must be distilled from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn
  • Cannot be distilled to any more than 160 Proof
  • Cannot enter the barrel at any more than 125 Proof
  • Must be bottled at 40 Proof or more
  • Aged in NEW charred oak barrels only
  • No added flavorings or colorings
  • Distilled and cut only with water (traditionally, Kentucky limestone water)

 

Report by  for hiconsumption.com