Whiskey vs. Bourbon
We’ve all heard the old adage, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Okay, all of us. Except me. I’ve never heard that. (Insert confused emoji here.) Is that even the right saying? bourbon=whiskey, whiskey≠bourbon…I need a drink. Someone said that to me recently, so my inner super nerd took to Google to figure out just exactly what exactly it means. Here’s what I found out. By definition, whiskey is a spirit distilled from malted grain, especially barley or rye. It is then aged in wood barrels. Whiskey (whisky in some countries. Thanks, geography.) is distilled in countries worldwide. You have Scotch Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, American Whiskey…I bet you can’t figure out where those are distilled. Seems simple enough.
So then we have the bourbon variety of whiskey. (Okay, all bourbon is whiskey. Got it.)
Bourbon is the most popular American whiskey and has it’s own, very specific, definition. “Bourbon needs to be produced in America and made from 51 percent corn, and whisky does not,” says Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Greg Davis. While whiskey barrels need to be oak, they can be new or old and really have no other specifications. Bourbon on the other hand must be distilled in new charred-oak barrels. “Lastly, to be called bourbon, the liquid needs to be distilled to no more than 160 proof and entered into the barrel at 125.” For other whiskies the liquid must be distilled to no more than 190 proof. David notes that this isn’t just common practice — “it’s actual bourbon law.” (via)
Bourbon law. Is that a thing?
A little history lesson for you: 1800s cowboys, though depicted on many of today’s whiskey bottles, wouldn’t recognize the taste of today’s whiskey-no matter the variety. Because whiskey was produced largely by mass distilleries and essentially grain neutral, all whiskies tasted the same (and awful, at that). Some of the nicknames for whiskies of time were: coffin varnish, tangleleg and chain lightning. Cowboys weren’t exactly known for their sophistication, so I’m not thinking there was much complaint.
Rectifiers would buy the whiskey in bulk and redistill it, adding flavors in an attempt to improve the taste. Often this practice was crooked, adding in flavors from toxic ingredients.
It took many, many years to rid the industry of these practices and create regulations to govern the distilling of whiskey, which is why the laws are so strict today.
So there you (we) have it. The difference between bourbon and whiskey. Now, go find that girl from your Econ class you’ve been trying to impress. Invite her out for a drink and impress her with your suave sophistication as you sip your bourbon in your Southern Shirt and Trask Loafers and explain to her the differences in traditional whiskey and bourbon whiskey. See cheat sheet below. You can thank me later.