Whiskey vs. Bourbon: A Detailed Comparison

Whiskey and Bourbon are two spirits that often cause confusion due to their similarities, yet they are distinguished by specific characteristics that aficionados and casual drinkers alike should appreciate. By distinguishing these two spirits, we unlock a more nuanced understanding of their flavors, craftsmanship, and cultural significance.

The Main Difference between Whiskey and Bourbon

Whiskey vs. Bourbon: A Detailed Comparison Pin

Whiskey vs. Bourbon: Key Takeaways

  • Whiskey is a category of spirit made from fermented grain mash, while bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey with strict production standards.
  • Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn and be aged in new charred oak barrels, setting it apart from other whiskeys.

Whiskey vs. Bourbon: the Definition

What Does Whiskey Mean?

Whiskey is a broad category of distilled spirits made from fermented grain mash. The grains used can include barley, corn, rye, and wheat. This spirit is aged in wooden barrels, which impart distinct flavors. Different countries have unique regulations for what constitutes whiskey, but aging in barrels is a universal characteristic.

What Does Bourbon Mean?

Bourbon is a subtype of whiskey with strict criteria defining its production. It must be produced in the United States and made from a grain mix that is at least 51% corn. It’s aged in new, charred oak barrels, and unlike whiskey, which can be aged in used barrels, bourbon must always be aged in new ones. The spirit must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof, and entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof. No additives are allowed in bourbon.

Whiskey vs. Bourbon: Usage and Examples

Whiskey and bourbon both hold their unique places in bars and homes around the world. We use these spirits in various drinks, from classic cocktails to sipping them neat.

Whiskey, being the broader category, can be used in numerous cocktails. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Irish Coffee: This delightful beverage combines Irish whiskey with coffee, sugar, and cream.
  • Old Fashioned: Typically made with rye or bourbon, but other whiskeys can also be used, mixed with sugar, bitters, and a twist of citrus rind.
  • Manhattan: A mix of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters.

Now, switching over to bourbon, which is known for its sweet notes and fuller body due to the high corn content, we find it prominently featured in:

  • Mint Julep: A southern classic combining bourbon, sugar, water, crushed ice, and fresh mint.
  • Bourbon Sour: A tangy cocktail with bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, and often a dash of egg white.

Here’s a quick reference table:

Cocktail Spirit Ingredients
Irish Coffee Whiskey Coffee, Sugar, Cream
Old Fashioned Whiskey Sugar, Bitters, Citrus Rind
Manhattan Whiskey Sweet Vermouth, Bitters
Mint Julep Bourbon Sugar, Mint, Water, Crushed Ice
Bourbon Sour Bourbon Lemon Juice, Sugar, Egg White

We enjoy whiskey and bourbon for their versatility and the distinct character they bring to our glasses. Whether it’s the spicy kick of a rye whiskey in a Manhattan or the smooth sweetness of bourbon in a Mint Julep, these spirits have a way of making their presence known and enhancing the flavors of our favorite drinks.

Tips to Remember the Difference

  • Whiskey is a broad category; bourbon is specific to America and meets the 51% corn rule.
  • Think “B for Bourbon, B for Barrels”: Bourbon requires new barrels, whereas other whiskeys can use pre-used ones.
  • Remember that bourbon can’t have additives; it’s all-natural.

Whiskey vs. Bourbon: Examples

Example Sentences Using Whiskey 

  • After a long day at work, he poured himself a glass of smooth, aged whiskey and settled into his favorite armchair by the fireplace.
  • The whiskey connoisseur appreciated the complex flavor profile of the single malt whiskey, noting its peaty undertones and caramel finish.
  • During the distillery tour, they learned about the whiskey-making process, from malting the barley to aging the spirit in charred oak barrels.
  • She gifted her father a bottle of rare Irish whiskey for his birthday, knowing it was his preferred choice for sipping on special occasions.
  • The cocktail menu featured a whiskey sour, a classic drink made with whiskey, lemon juice, sugar, and a dash of egg white for frothiness.

Example Sentences Using Bourbon 

  • The smooth, rich flavor of the bourbon was enhanced by notes of vanilla and oak, a result of its aging process in charred American barrels.
  • He decided to experiment with his barbecue sauce recipe by adding a splash of bourbon, giving it a unique smoky sweetness that complemented the grilled meats perfectly.
  • As a collector of fine spirits, she was proud to display a bottle of small-batch Kentucky bourbon that she had acquired during her travels through the American South.
  • The bartender recommended an old-fashioned cocktail, expertly muddling sugar and bitters before stirring in a generous measure of top-shelf bourbon.
  • During the tasting event, guests were taught how to appreciate the subtle differences between various types of bourbon, from the initial aroma to the lingering aftertaste.

Related Confused Words with Whiskey or Bourbon

Whiskey vs. Vodka


  • Definition: A distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash, which includes barley, corn, rye, and wheat.
  • Aging: Aged in wooden barrels, imparting complex flavors and colors.


  • Definition: A clear distilled alcoholic beverage with origins in Russia and Poland.
  • Characteristics: Commonly made from fermented grains or potatoes, and known for its purity and lack of distinct taste or scent after repeated distillation.

Whiskey vs. Tequila


  • Aging Process: Unique flavors developed from aging in wooden barrels for various periods.


  • Origin: Made from the blue agave plant primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico.
  • Aging Variants: Includes Blanco (unaged), Reposado, and Añejo (aged in oak barrels for different durations), affecting flavor profiles.

Bourbon vs. Scotch


  • Location: Strictly an American product with a legal definition requiring production in the U.S.
  • Grain Content: Must contain at least 51% corn in the mash bill.


  • Also Known As: Simply “whisky” in Scotland.
  • Requirements: Must be made in Scotland, aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and malted barley is commonly the primary grain.

Bourbon vs. Rye


  • Grain Profile: Sweet taste profile due to higher corn content.


  • Main Ingredient: Must contain at least 51% rye in the grain bill.
  • Flavor Profile: Produces spicier and fruitier whiskey compared to the sweet richness of bourbon.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does bourbon differ from other types of whiskey?

Bourbon is a specific category within the whiskey family, distinguished by its primary composition of at least 51% corn and its aging process in new charred oak barrels. These requirements give bourbon its unique flavor profile.

What distinguishes bourbon from Scotch and brandy?

Bourbon and Scotch are both types of whiskey, but while bourbon is American and predominantly corn-based, Scotch is made in Scotland from malted barley and often has a smokier flavor due to the use of peat in the malting process. Brandy, on the other hand, is distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice, not grain.

What are the main ingredients in whiskey?

Whiskey is typically made from a fermented mash of grains, which may include barley, corn, rye, and wheat. The variety and proportions of grains used can greatly influence the taste and classification of the whiskey.

What determines if a whiskey can be classified as bourbon?

For a whiskey to be classified as bourbon, it must be produced in the United States, contain a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume), enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume), and be aged in new, charred oak barrels.

How can one identify a sweet whiskey suitable for beginners?

Sweet whiskeys are often those with a high corn content, as corn contributes a sweeter flavor to the spirit. A beginner may find bourbon to be an approachable choice due to its typical vanilla, caramel, and oak notes.

What is the significance of Kentucky in the production of bourbon?

Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon due to its historical and ongoing production of the spirit. The state’s climate, with warm summers and cool winters, is ideal for aging bourbon, allowing for the perfect development of its characteristically rich and smooth flavor.

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Last Updated on January 30, 2024

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