Bourbon vs. Whiskey: What’s the Difference?

From color to taste, both spirits have lots in common. Here's the real difference between bourbon vs. whiskey.

A popular explanation is: “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” In other words, bourbon is a specific type of whiskey—American, to be exact. But the difference between bourbon vs. whiskey is a little more complicated than that. Here’s what you need to know.

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What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is a spirit distilled from grains—some combination of wheat, corn, barley and/or rye—and aged in barrels. Whiskey is made around the world, and you’ve probably tasted (or heard of) famous varietals, like Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey. Bourbon is another kind of whiskey.

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What Makes a Whiskey Bourbon?

Turns out, the difference is set in stone, legally speaking. Official guidelines, some dating back to 1897’s TK Bill, specify a strict list of requirements in order for a spirit to qualify as a bourbon. According to Jim Beam, the guidelines say that:

  • Bourbon must be made in the US (and 95% of it is made in Kentucky!)
  • It must be made from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn, though most are closer to 70% corn
  • Bourbon must be distilled at no more than 160 proof, and be stored at no more than 125 proof
  • Bourbon is aged for at least two years in a new, charred white oak barrel
  • Last but not least, bourbons never contain additives, like color or flavor

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Can You Taste the Difference?

Whiskey’s flavor will vary depending on what type of whiskey—Irish, Japanese and so on—so it’s tough to provide exact tasting notes for whiskey.

Bourbon usually has strong notes of vanilla, oak and caramel. These pleasant, often smooth notes make bourbon tasty enjoyed neat or on the rocks, as well as in cocktails. (These cocktails are classic for a reason.)

Bourbons made with a higher amount of wheat (aka “wheated bourbons”), tend to be mellow and softer. Maker’s Mark is a popular example. Bourbons with a higher amount of rye will be spicier, like Bulleit bourbon.

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Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes articles and novels from her home in Milwaukee. She's an avid cook, reader, flâneur, and noir fanatic. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, will be published in June 2019 by William Morrow.