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Bourbon spirits guide

Your go-to guide for answering the age-old question, what is the difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?

Holly Goode

By Holly Goode

September 30, 2021

The difference between Bourbon & Whiskey

Born right here in the United States, Bourbon is America’s claim to fame in the whiskey realm. That’s right; Bourbon is a type of whiskey the same way that champagne is a type of wine. Many people are not aware of the differences that distinguish Bourbon vs. whiskey and that’s why we’re here. Many rules qualify a Bourbon whiskey, proving the concept that all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon.

bourbon requirements

How is Bourbon made? 

One of the most determining factors when categorizing a whiskey is how it is made. Whiskey is a spirit that is fermented from grain and aged in barrels. Bourbon is a unique type of whiskey based on the specific grain and style of barrel used in the creation process. According to the American Bourbon Association, certain standards are required by law.

Bourbon needs to be...

  • Grain used 51+ corn

  • Stored in new charred oak barrels

  • No additives or colorings

  • Barreled at a max of 125 proof

  • Aged for 2+ years

  • Bottled at 80+ proof

  • Bourbon can be made anywhere in US, but Kentucky Bourbon has to be distilled and aged in Kentucky

Now we know the rules, but let’s see what they mean.

Grain style 

We know that whiskey is fermented from grain, but Bourbon takes it one step further. The grain or mash has to be at least 51 percent corn. Bourbon can incorporate other grains to add flavors, such as rye, wheat, and malted barley. But corn is what gives Bourbon that hint of sweetness. This requirement is the biggest difference between Bourbon and other styles of whiskey.

Alcohol by volume (ABV) 

Every time alcohol is distilled, it develops a higher proof. At the same time, distillation removes anything that is not alcohol, such as flavor. That means Bourbon, having a max proof of 125 and a minimum proof of 80, gets to keep much more of the flavors from the grain or mash than other spirits such as vodka.

bourbon barrels

Aging process

The aging process is where Bourbon develops its signature flavors: caramel, oak, and vanilla.

bourbon flavor icons

There are three guidelines when aging a newly distilled Bourbon.

  • No additives or colorings

  • Stored in new charred oak barrels

  • Aged for at least two years

This style of barrel aging brings out a deeper color in the Bourbon, as well as a smooth, rich flavor. Some whiskey styles will utilize old barrels or toasted barrels, which can impart a different flavor that is not authentic to the new charred white oak barrel. 

Fun fact:

Used Bourbon barrels are commonly used for storing some other whiskeys, scotches, beer, and even wine in hopes of soaking up the leftover flavors lingering inside that charred white oak.

According to law, Bourbon must be aged for two years at a minimum. Typically, the longer the Bourbon ages, the softer and more mellow it becomes. Keep in mind, “more mellow” does not mean that the abv is lower. It means that the Bourbon has more time to soak up oakey, vanilla, and caramel flavors from the barrel. The longer a Bourbon is aged, the smoother it becomes.

Location matters

You might have heard that all Bourbon has to be from Kentucky. Well, that’s not the whole truth. As long as you meet the requirements, you can make Bourbon from anywhere in the United States. However, to be qualified as a Kentucky Bourbon, the distilling and aging processes must occur in Kentucky. A common misconception, but now you know why some Bourbon is called Kentucky Bourbon.

map of Kentucky

Other American Whiskeys

Bourbon is not the only whiskey style that is native to America. Have you ever heard of Rye Whiskey? How about Tennessee Whiskey? A few more are rye malt whiskey, malt whiskey, wheat whiskey, and corn whiskey. These are all different types of whiskey, but do not qualify as Bourbon because of the amount and type of grains used to make them or any filtration process they go through.

bottles of bourbon


How to drink Bourbon

There are three ways to enjoy Bourbon: neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail. 

The most traditional way to enjoy a Bourbon is “neat”. Simply pour some Bourbon in a whiskey glass by itself. No mixers, no ice, nothing — just enjoy sipping.

On the rocks is a fancy way to say “add some ice”. A smooth Bourbon over some ice will dilute the spirit, taking the bite off. 

A good Bourbon doesn't need anything else, but some people love the art of cocktails. Bourbon concoctions are a staple in many restaurants and bars. Popular drinks include the Old Fashioned and Mint Julep. Check out a top 10 list of our favorite Bourbon cocktails and try a recipe or two.

bartending pouring bourbon


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