Many people wonder, “What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?”. We’d like to take this time to clear up the differences between these two delicious drinks.
The term “Whiskey” derives from an Irish phrase meaning “water of life.” As one of the most popular alcoholic drinks globally, whiskey has many varieties, like Irish whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, Scotch whisky, and Bourbon. Despite numerous similarities, there lies a fundamental difference between scotch, whiskey, and bourbon.
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made with a fermented grain mash that has been aged in oak barrels. The mash can have varying proportions of different grains, including barley, corn, rye, or wheat, leaving a lot of room for interpretation, experimentation, and artistry.
A more straightforward explanation would be to think of whiskey as an umbrella liquor category, just like wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is characteristically distinct from Chardonnay, but both are classified as wine. The same principle applies to whiskey as well. The difference between scotch whiskey and bourbon is quite pronounced, yet both are placed under the whiskey label.
In a nutshell, every whiskey is not scotch, but all scotch are whiskeys. Similarly, all bourbons are whiskeys, but not every whiskey is bourbon. Since both scotch and bourbon are technically whiskeys, we have made a comprehensive comparison between them all to help you understand the difference between bourbon and whiskey varieties.
Bourbon whiskey is only produced in the USA. According to the federal liquor regulations, it must be made from a mash bill that contains at least 51% corn and matured in brand new charred oak barrels. Although there are no minimum time limitations for aging bourbon, the varieties aged less than four years must have their age printed on the label. Straight bourbon, however, must be aged for at least two years before bottling.
Scotch whisky, as the name suggests, must be produced in Scotland. It is mainly distilled from malted barley and has two major types called single malt and single grain scotch. Single malt scotch is produced at a single distillery using only water and malted barley, whereas single grain scotch may also contain other grains along with malted or unmalted barley. Unlike bourbon, scotch must be aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels before distillation and bottling at an ABV of at least 40%.
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Even though they are both categorized as whiskeys, there’s an ocean-sized difference between whiskey and bourbon. According to the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, an alcoholic beverage can only be termed “Scotch” if it has been wholly produced in Scotland. It also states that the whiskey must be matured in wooden Oak barrels for three or more years and bottled in Scotland (except blended scotch whiskey).
Bourbon is governed by similar laws laid out in the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, a set of rules designed to maintain the distinct taste of bourbon. Since it is considered America’s native spirit, one of the guidelines for earning the bourbon label requires the whiskey to be produced in the USA. Although 95% of the world’s bourbon supply originates from Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in America. However, the limestone content in Kentucky’s water filters out metallic impurities, making it an ideal place for bourbon distilleries.
A significant difference between bourbon and whiskey lies in the fermentation process they undergo. Whiskey can be distilled from any fermented grain such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat or a mixture. It is generally stored to mature in wooden oak barrels, imparting the distinctive brown color and taste profile. Single malt scotch must be prepared from a 100% malted barley grain mash, while grain scotch can be fermented from malt and unmalted barley and wheat mixture.
On the other hand, the American Whiskey variety or bourbon must have at least 51% corn in its mash bill, with a mixture of rye, wheat, or barley making up the remaining portion of the basic recipe. The reason behind choosing corn as the primary ingredient is its historically high availability in the USA. Also, the higher the corn content, the sweeter the bourbon produced, whereas rye-based bourbons have a distinctively spicier note.
Although all whiskey is aged in charred wooden oak barrels, bourbon must be matured in a brand new oak barrel every time. Also, to get the official scotch label, the Scotch Whisky Act states that the spirit must be noticeably devoid of any added substances except water or plain caramel coloring. Bourbon, however, cannot have anything added to it except for water.
Whiskey, in general, does not have a single generic style. For example, scotch varieties like a light and grassy Speyside have relatively little in common with the powerful and peaty Islay monster. Hence, scotch whiskies can taste elegant and floral, rich and spicy, or even salty and maritime depending on a multitude of factors including barrel type, peating level, and maturation time.
The flavor difference between Irish whiskey and bourbon is much more pronounced as bourbon is generally sweeter than all other whiskey types due to a high concentrate of corn in its mash bill. Also, it often displays tasting notes like toffee, cinnamon, or vanilla, depending upon the wooden barrel used for maturation. The sugary nature of bourbon also makes it an excellent cooking liquor and mixing spirit for preparing cocktails as it complements beers, cola, coffee, and even Cointreau quite well.
If you still can’t understand what the difference between whiskey and bourbon is, this should help. The good old Scotch Whisky Act guidelines state that a whiskey must be distilled at an alcohol by volume (ABV) strength of less than 94.8% and have a minimum alcoholic concentration of 40% by volume to be considered a scotch. By American liquor standards, any bourbon higher than 125 proof shouldn’t enter the barrel for maturation, and anything under 80 proof (40% ABV) can’t be bottled as bourbon.
We hope this article answers the age-old question, “What’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey?” to your satisfaction. Looking for a place to get Marsala or any other type of liquor you could possibly desire? Check out Arrow Liquormart, the nearest liquor store that can deliver straight to your doorstep!