Bourbon vs Whiskey: Their Key Differences Explained

Bourbon and whiskey have a long, shared history. The spirits are powerful, full-bodied alcohols that inspire deep loyalty and strong opinions.

Whiskey is a blanket term that describes a wide array of distilled alcohols. Bourbon falls under the whiskey umbrella.

glass of bourbon next to a glass of whiskey

In this article, we’ll explain what differentiates bourbon from whiskey, its unique origins, distinctive tastes, and production methods. 

We’ll examine bourbon and whiskey’s commonalities while examining what makes them special and different. 

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon is barrel-aged, corn-based American whiskey

Much like genuine champagne comes from France’s Champagne region, for bourbon to be authentic, it must come from the United States

glass of bourbon next to barrel

Bourbon Requirements:

Bourbon follows the same basic principles as whiskey, but with a strict set of standars om the ingredients and process.

  1. Bourbon must be produced in the United States
  2. Bourbon’s mash must be at least 51 percent corn, and the remainder can be any cereal grain.
  3. Bourbon must be aged for at least two years to be considered a straight bourbon
  4. It cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof or be higher than 125 proof when it enters the aging barrel
  5. Once distilled, the liquid, or white dog, must only age inside new charred oak barrels. Whiskey can age in previously used barrels, but not bourbon. They must be new.
  6. It cannot be less than 80 proof when bottled
  7. No additives, flavors or colors may be added. Only water can be added to lower the proof if needed.

While all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon tastes different than whiskey

What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is a spirit made from fermented grain mash. Different whiskeys use different grains, including wheat, rye, corn, and barley. The alcohol is aged in wooden casks.

Scotch whiskey bottle, glass and old wooden barrel

17 different countries craft their own unique variations of whiskey. However, there are nine basic types of whiskey:

  • Bourbon whiskey
  • Tennessee whiskey
  • Single-malt whiskey
  • Rye whiskey
  • Irish whiskey
  • Scotch whiskey
  • Canadian whiskey
  • Japanese whiskey
  • Blended whiskey

Bourbon vs. Whiskey: The Key Differences

Since bourbon is a whiskey, the two spirits have quite a bit in common. However, the alcohols differ in many fundamental ways; bourbon’s history, use, and life aren’t the same as whiskey’s at large.


Even though bourbon is whiskey, the two spirits have distinct origin stories and histories.

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The name “whiskey” derives from Celtic words meaning “water of life.” The over-the-top title indicates how inextricably bound the spirit is to the history of the world.

aged Scotch whisky on old dark wooden vintage table with barley grains

Scotland perfected the art of distillation. The country has been making the spirit for an incredibly long time, though precisely how long is unclear.

No one knows exactly how the process began, but whiskey distilling has been a seminal part of Scotland’s economy and culture for hundreds of years.

The first written reference to whiskey appeared in 1494 in a Scottish text. The first whiskey distillery was mentioned in the 1690 Acts of the Scottish Parliament. 

Bourbon is a baby compared to whiskey. The spirit originated in Kentucky in the late 1700s by a variety of immigrants farming the areas, including:

  • The Scots
  • The Scotch-Irish
  • The English
  • The Welsh
  • The Irish
  • The Germans
  • The French

Bourbon was designated a “distinctive product of the United States” by Congress on May 4, 1964.

Oldtimer car with Bourbon barrels in Louisville kentucky

While the Scots created whiskey, the mothership, Kentucky, invented bourbon, the offshoot. 

Taste and Flavor

Whiskey is too broad a designation to classify the flavor fully. There are nine whiskey designations across multiple countries, each unique and with a distinctive flavor.

Most whiskeys have a sweet undertone and smoky qualities. The subcategories break down in the following way: 

  • Scotch Whiskey: very smoky flavor with barley undertones.
  • Irish Whiskey: Smooth-flavored, with oak and caramel flavors.
  • American Rye Whiskey: A spicy blend with notes of caramel, oak, and vanilla
  • Japanese Whiskey: Similar to Scotch, but dryer, smoother, oakier, and smokier
  • Canadian Whiskey: Very similar to bourbon, but lighter and sweeter
  • Tennessee Whiskey: It tastes very similar to bourbon since it uses the same ingredients. However, Tennessee whiskey is smoother than bourbon.
  • Single Malt Whiskey: A variation on Scotch with a stronger malted barley taste
  • Blended Whiskey: As the name suggests, blended whiskey mixes several whiskeys together, allowing for a wide variety of flavors, usually smoky and earthy. 

While there is room for variation within bourbon brands and varieties, all bourbons contain notes of vanilla, caramel, and rye spice.

rye whiskey

Bourbon is aged in oak, so the wood lends its flavor to the spirit. Different kinds of oak add different taste profiles, allowing for variation across the liquor. 

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Production Methods

Although there are many types of whiskey, distillers follow the same nine basic steps to craft the spirit:

  1. Make the base: Mix grains, water, and yeast. Heat and stir the ingredients until well combined.
  2. Ferment: The base sits unbothered for a prescribed period, developing alcohol.
  3. Strain: The liquid is strained to remove the remaining yeast particles and other solids.
  4. Distill: Distillation is a process that removes impurities by heating the liquid to evaporation levels, allowing it to condense, and collecting that liquid.
  5. Collect the distilled liquid: Distillers need to ensure the fluid is in its purest form, and even after distillation, impurities may remain. Crafters separate the purified liquid from the contaminated.
  6. Age it: The liquid is stored in oak barrels for at least two years; different companies use different materials to make their casks.
  7. Bottle it: Exactly what it sounds like. The whiskey is poured into the bottles. 


Bourbon makes an excellent cocktail base. The spirit is hearty and powerful, providing plenty of flavor without overpowering the other ingredients. 

bourbon cocktail

Whiskey is similarly a utility player in many cocktails. The spirit has been around for as long as mixologists have crafted drinks, and it appears in many recipes. 

Non-Drinking Uses

Bourbon’s distinctive flavor makes it an ideal ingredient for cooking and baking. The spirit goes well in sauces and adds a punch of flavor to cakes.

Bourbon makes a good cold treatment. Hot toddies prominently feature bourbon and soothe sore throats while opening sinus passages. 

whiskey bbq sauce

Whiskey’s high alcohol content makes it a powerful antiseptic. While more advanced methods exist, whiskey has been used to disinfect wounds and medical equipment. 

Some still use whiskey and bourbon as a mouthwash. 

Whiskey diluted with water makes an effective odor-eater for rooms and humans. 

Noted Brands

Plenty of celebrated distillers have tried their hands at bourbon production. Knob Creek creates some of the most celebrated bourbons in the world. The distillery is an offshoot of Jim Beam.

wild turkey bourbon

Wild Turkey provides a cost-effective and delicious option for bourbon fans

There are enough whiskey brands to fill a book; however, some are more celebrated, including Jack Daniels, the premiere Kentucky whiskey brand. 

Jameson is a widely recognized and enjoyed Irish whiskey brand with a delicious, smooth finish. 

Popular Bourbon and Whiskey Cocktails

Bourbon and whiskey make delicious cocktails, providing strong flavor notes and complementing other ingredients. 

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Bourbon Cocktails

Old fashioned cocktail with orange and cherry

Some of the most beloved cocktails feature bourbon, including:

  • Mint Julep: The Kentucky Derby’s official drink since the 1820s, the mint julep contains mint, bourbon, simple syrup, and ice.
  • Old Fashioned: Crafting the perfect Old Fashioned is harder than you’d expect for a cocktail that’s only ingredients are: bourbon, simple syrup, bitters, and a citrus twist. 
  • The Gold Rush: The gold rush provides a unique variation on the whiskey sour, containing bourbon, lemon juice, and honey syrup. 

Whiskey Cocktails

whiskey sour cocktail

Whiskey has been around longer than cocktails have, so it’s unsurprising that the spirit features in many beloved mixed drinks, including:

  • Whiskey Sour: Whiskey sours use whiskey, simple syrup, lemon, and egg whites to craft a cocktail classic.
  • Whiskey Highball: Whiskey highballs are simple, sophisticated cocktails made from whiskey and soda water and garnished with lemon.
  • Manhattan Cocktail: Manhattan’s scream sophistication and are made of bitters, whiskey, and vermouth. 
Bourbon barrels being charred

Frequently Asked Questions

While we’ve covered the basics, many questions remain about whiskey and bourbon, including:

Can bourbon be made entirely from corn?

Bourbon can be made from 100 percent corn. The spirit needs to be made of at least 51 percent corn mash to be bourbon, but anything beyond that still qualifies as bourbon. Several distilleries make 100 percent corn bourbon, including Southern Revival Straight Bourbon. 

Is it whiskey or whisky?

It’s both. Whether you spell it, whiskey or whisky, depends on the alcohol’s country of origin. Scotland, Canada, and Japan make whisky. Ireland and the United States make whiskey. 

What is the “angel’s share?”

While whiskey ages, a small amount evaporates over the years. The evaporated portion is called the angel’s share because distillers claim the angels claim a price for delicious whiskeys. 

Final Thoughts

Bourbon and whiskey have a great deal in common. However, the spirits differ more than you might expect two alcohols in the same family to.

All bourbons are whiskeys; however, whiskey covers far more ground than simply bourbon. Each spirit has a unique history, distinctive flavors, and unique ingredients. 

Both spirits have contributed to alcohol’s rich cultural history, creating some of the most indelible cocktails. 

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

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