What's the difference between Bourbon and whisky?

What's the difference between bourbon and whisky

Simply put, there is no difference. Bourbon is a style of whiskey. What makes Bourbon different to other whiskies? Read on to find out...

Whisky is a widely varied spirit, and there are many different styles around the world. Bourbon is America's spirit, just as Scotch is Scotland's. A good way of looking at it is using the example of squares and rectangles. Whilst all squares are rectangles, not all rectangles are squares - similarly all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey (or whisky) is Bourbon!

Location, Location, Location

One of the defining features that separates Bourbon from the pack is its location of origin. You'll have heard it a million times from your wine-geek friend – "Champagne actually has to come from the Champagne region of France, otherwise its just sparkling wine." It's a similar situation with Bourbon.

For a whiskey to be called Bourbon, it must be made in the United States of America. Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be made in Kentucky (Bourbon's spiritual home), anywhere on US soil can be Bourbon-making territory – from Alaska to Hawaii.

There’s nothing stopping non-American distilleries from producing whisky using all the techniques and ingredients of Bourbon, but they won’t get the official seal of approval. Since the 1960s by the U.S. government as a “distinctive product of the United States" – and this distinction is fiercely protected in trade agreements.

Oh one more thing, in America, whiskey is generally spelt with the 'e', whilst in Scotland, Australia and Japan, the spirit is called "whisky".

So What Makes Bourbon Bourbon?

Bourbon's production is enshrined in US law and strictly regulated. If you're a distiller wanting to make a Bourbon (aren't we all?) there's several boxes you have to tick.

  • Mashbill

First and foremost, the ingredients.

Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in its mashbill (essentially a distillers' recipe). In practice, most Bourbons contain over 65% corn, with the remainder made up of rye, wheat or barley. It is this fundamental ingredient that gives Bourbon its distinctive flavour profile.

Only one ingredient can be added to Bourbon after distillation: plain water to dilute it down to their desired proof.

  • Cask

Bourbon must be aged in charred, new oak barrels. It's a common misconception that these barrels must be made of American oak – distillers can use what kind of oak they please, but new, charred American oak barrels remains the classic go-to.

The combination of sweet spirit made with a high-corn mashbill and fresh, bright oaky notes from the barrel is what drives the flavour profile of Bourbon.

  • Strength

The strength of the spirit is also stringently restricted. The spirit must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, and barrelled at no more then 62.5%. Due to unique climatic conditions in Kentucky warehouses, the spirit can actually increase in strength in the barrel – some reaching the ripping heights of 70%+, these drams have been nicknamed "HazMat" by whiskey enthusiasts, as they technically qualify as a hazardous material. Bourbon must, however, be bottled at no less than 40% - as with most spirits.

  • Age

Another popular myth is that Bourbon must be aged for several years to be earn its title. This is not true – there's no specific age requirement for Bourbon. Whiskies as young as three months have been bottled as Bourbons (some markets, like the EU, require all whiskies to be at least three years old). In practice, distillers usually age their spirit for a few years, simply because it tastes better this way!

  • Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Here's where things get a little tricky. "Straight Bourbon" must be aged for more than two years. If it has been aged for less than four years, it must carry an age statement. "Straight Bourbon" can also be produced anywhere in America, but Kentucky Straight Bourbon must come from the Bluegrass state. Phew, got all that?

  • Bottled in Bond

But wait, there's more!

Another confusing Bourbon phrase is Bottled-in-Bond, but within this term lies an interesting period of American whiskey history.

On the eve of the 20th century, public confidence in Bourbon was at an all time low. Unscrupulous distillers had been adding flavour and stretching their stock through the addition of various noxious ingredients, such as iodine, tobacco or turpentine. At this point, most Bourbon was unaged, and the additions sought to make the harsh spirit more palatable.

To counteract these practices, the federal government and a handful of honest distillers (including E.H. Taylor, now honoured with his own Buffalo Trace range) joined forces to produce the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. This act offered tax incentives to distillers, and the ability to label their whiskey as “Bottled-in-Bond” – an assurance of quality – so long as they committed to producing their whiskey the right way.

The stipulations they laid out then remain to this day. Bottled-in-Bond whiskey must be:

  • The product of one distiller, at one distillery during one distilling season (January to June, or July to December).
  • At least 50% ABV.
  • Aged in a federally bonded warehouse for a minimum of four years.

At the time, bonded warehouses were literally supervised by Government Agents, who held the keys and would lock the doors every night, and unlock them every morning.

To this day, Bottled-in-Bond is seen as an indication of a whiskey’s quality, and many Bourbon aficionados regard “BiB” Bourbon as some of the last great bargains of the industry.

What about Tennessee whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey goes through a unique filtration known as the Lincoln County Process. Here, the whiskey is slowly trickled through maple charcoal before being placed in the barrel for aging. Whether this counts as "adding an ingredient" is a debate that rages on. Nevertheless, Tennessee whiskies such as George Dickel and Jack Daniel's could technically be labelled as Bourbons. They just choose not to!

A Brief History of Bourbon

When settlers first came from Scotland and Ireland to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, they brought their distilling knowledge and abilities with them.

Like in Europe, whiskey production in the US first emerged when farmers wanted to make something of their spare produce. In America, they found that corn and rye grew in abundance, and applied the same principles they had used with malted barley back home to their excess crop. The result was Bourbon.

It’s not entirely known when the first Bourbon was made, where and by whom, but is rumoured to have emerged in the mid-18th century, with Baptist minister Elijah Craig (who has now given his name to a Jim Beam range) said to have been one of the early innovators. Old Bourbon County, close to where Craig’s first still was established, eventually gave its name to this distinctively American style of spirit.

Bourbon’s history has not always been smooth sailing. In 1791, whiskey threatened to destablise the nascent United States. Several distillers and drinkers took up arms when newly appointed President George Washington announced a tariff on whiskey. The tax was particularly hard on smaller distilleries in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Though the rebellion collapsed, the duty remained extremely difficult to collect in the remote parts of the US, and distilleries were able to survive and thrive. When Jefferson became President, the tax was repealed. American whiskey was here to stay.

Bourbon never truly went out of favour, even during Prohibition (when a few distillers were allowed to keep producing for “medical” reasons), the spirit survived, and actually overtook Rye whiskey as America’s preferred tipple. After a downturn in the mid-1900s, Bourbon enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s, and has been en vogue around the world ever since. These days there is more choice for the discerning Bourbon drinker than at any other time in history.

What does Bourbon taste like?

So after all this history, all this work and all these rules, what's the end result? Well... A damn good whiskey! Bourbon is a broad church, with different mashbills, distilleries, barrel types, char levels and ages all producing radically different final products.

Generally though, it is a sweeter style of whiskey compared to single malt or Rye whiskey, and notes of caramel, apples, baking spice, cornbread, oak and vanilla are common.

The best way to work out what Bourbon tastes like is to get out there and try some! We recommend perusing Whisky Loot’s range of American drams, where you are bound to find a Bourbon for you.

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