​If you don't drink spirits on a regular basis, then you may not care what the differences are in whiskey and bourbon or whiskey and Scotch.

However, if you buy it in a store and you don’t know the difference, reading the various labels can be confusing. To help ease the confusion, this information will help you learn the differences between bourbon vs whiskey and when to drink it.

What is Whiskey?

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Whiskey is an alcoholic beverage, a spirit, that is made from grain. The grains often found in whiskeys include corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Bourbon is a whiskey that includes corn, as well as other grains like rye or barley. So, bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon because there are many other types.

The locality of the whiskey distillery also helps to define it. For instance, only Scotch is from Scotland, Irish whiskey is from the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, and Tennessee whiskey is usually made in Tennessee. Bourbon is an American spirit as 95 percent of the world’s supply is from the United States, specifically from Kentucky.

Composition of Bourbon

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Just as they do in France regarding wine, laws help define what goes into bourbon and other spirits. They exist to ensure consumers receive a genuine product instead of buying something fake. By law, a Straight Bourbon Whiskey must contain 51 percent corn mash. However, most distilleries add up to 70 to 90 percent corn.

Federal laws govern the distillation of spirits, which can be done legally by obtaining a ‘Distilled Spirits Permit’ or a ‘Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit.’ If someone doesn’t have those permits, then distilling alcohol may be illegal, even if it is for their personal use. However, each state also has laws regarding distilling alcohol and some allow it without permits if it is for personal use.

The other grains in a bourbon mixture include rye or malted barley. However, some bourbons contain wheat instead of rye, which gives it a smoother, milder taste. Maker’s Mark is one of the brands that use wheat. Also, during the aging process, straight bourbon whiskey must go into new barrels made from charred white oak.

The aging process can take several years depending on the distillery. Some bourbons undergo the procedure for only a year or two, while the more expensive versions can sit for 18 years or so in a warehouse. If the aging process is two years or less, the law requires that it is put on the bourbon’s label.

Another requirement for a whiskey to be a bourbon is that it is a maximum of 80 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), which is 160 proof. Most bourbons are only 45 percent ABV, although Maker’s Mark made changes to their formula in 2013 to reduce its alcohol content to 42 percent ABV. However, the outcry from consumers made them change their minds and restore it to 45 percent.

Bourbon Designations

bourbon vs whiskey Bottles of Jim Beam Bourbon

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Along with Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bourbon has several other designations to distinguish how it is made. They include:

  • ​Blended Bourbon
  • ​Bottled-in-Bond (BiB) Bourbon
  • ​Small Batch Bourbon
  • ​Single Barrel Bourbon
  • ​Uncut Bourbon
  • ​Unfiltered Bourbon

Blended Bourbon

Blended bourbons are often more difficult to find than other blended whiskeys. A blended bourbon consists of a straight bourbon whiskey mix with other grain whiskeys. The other whiskeys usually are bought from other distilleries, and many include rye, barley, or wheat. Over half of the mix must be straight bourbon.

Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

To qualify as a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon, the whiskey must be from one distillation season, by one distiller at one distillery. Also, it cannot age for less than four years, and it requires storage and aging at a federally bonded warehouse. It must undergo bottling at 100 proof. This bourbon can be difficult to find as not many brands bother to meet the criteria to earn the distinction.

Small Batch Bourbon

Many distilleries bottle their bourbons, and other whiskeys, in small batches. So, they will usually handpick barrels of whiskey that have already aged and bottle it. The number of barrels is up to the distillery, but it is often well below 100. For instance, Buffalo Trace uses 40 barrels for their small batch bourbon.

Single Barrel Bourbon

A single barrel bourbon comes from just one barrel, so the release is minimal. Also, the taste of each barrel release will be slightly different because the flavor, color, and aroma vary slightly from barrel to barrel. Bottles of single barrel bourbon can be costly and hard to acquire since a barrel only contains about 53 gallons of whiskey.

Uncut Bourbon

To dilute bourbon to bring down the percentage of alcohol in it, the only substance that a distillery can use is water. However, some distilleries forego this process and bottle the bourbon as is, which is known as Uncut, Barrel Proof or Barrel Strength bourbon.  

Unfiltered Bourbon

Many experts claim that when a distillery filters their bourbon, they are also filtering out some of its flavors. So, by not filtering it, the unfiltered bourbon is much more flavorful. However, it causes the appearance of the whiskey to be cloudy or hazy.

Bourbon Vs Whiskey: Other Whiskey Types

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So, bourbon is a whiskey, but all whiskeys are not bourbons because several other types of whiskeys exist. Many whiskeys are defined by where they come from, which is all over the world. Other whiskeys include:

  • ​Scotch
  • ​Irish
  • ​Japanese
  • ​Tennessee
  • ​Rye
  • ​Canadian
  • ​Malt
  • ​Grain
  • ​Wheat
  • ​Corn

As previously mentioned, by law the definition of Scotch whiskey is one that comes from Scotland and is subject to the laws of the United Kingdom for producing it. The meaning of Irish and Canadian whiskeys is much the same, and they are distinctive products of their countries and subject to their laws regarding their production.

A Tennessee whiskey is made exactly like bourbon save one difference. To be Tennessee whiskey, it must undergo filtering through charcoal or steeping in charcoal chips before going into new oak barrels for aging. Jack Daniels is one of best-known Tennessee whiskeys in the world.

Rye, barley, and wheat whiskey contain 51 percent of that specific grain by law. However, most distilleries make it with more of the grain to give the whiskey its distinctive flavor. Corn whiskey needs to be 80 percent corn by law.

Plus, all but corn whiskeys must age in new charred oak barrels or casks. Charring the oak barrels produces a whiskey that's smoother and mellower tasting. Corn whiskey, or moonshine, can age in uncharred or used oak barrels instead of new ones.

Which Tastes Better Bourbon vs Whiskey?

Bourbon vs Whiskey? The preference in whiskeys is personal for most people. The different grains and distillation processes give each type its unique flavor. Bourbon has a heavier sweeter taste partly due to the corn it’s made from and the sugars in the white oak barrels in which they age.

Most experts agree that when drinking bourbon, the aroma is part of the experience and the liquid should be in a glass that helps bring it to the forefront. Some bourbon drinkers like to put it in brandy snifters or a Glencairn glass, which is the traditional serving glass for Scotch.

First-time whiskey drinkers may want to try a finger or two of whiskey over ice, but those with whiskey experience usually drink it neat at room temperature. To further bring out the aromas of bourbon, they may add a few drops of water to enhance its scent and flavors.

Also, to truly experience whiskey, it should be sipped, not gulped down in shots. Sipping it allows drinkers to taste and smell it, which can enhance its flavor. Whiskey cocktails are another good way to introduce someone to drinking the grain beverages. An Old Fashion, which is made with bourbon, may entice someone to try the whiskey neat.  

Bourbon Vs Whiskey: When to Drink Whiskey

Like wine, many whiskey drinkers like pairing their favorite grain spirit with food. However, many experts suggest drinking it as a digestive after you’ve had dinner. Wait until about 30 to 45 minutes after eating to enjoy a finger or two of scotch or bourbon. By waiting, you won’t drink as much because you’re full, and the alcohol absorbs slower on a full stomach.

However, bourbon, scotch, or rye whiskey is suitable for drinking anytime you’re with friends, whether it is at the bar or having dinner in your house. Many like the tradition of having a cigar with whiskey or a whiskey cocktail after dinner while sitting around and talking with their friends. Basically, there isn’t a wrong way to enjoy your favorite whiskey.

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The real difference between bourbon vs whiskey is a personal taste. Some people like the slightly sweeter, heavier taste of bourbon, while others prefer Scotch. Still, others may like a Canadian over a Tennessee whiskey. It's all about personal likes and dislikes.

With so many types of whiskey on the market, you can experiment with them if you’re new to drinking it to find your favorites. There is no need to pick only one type of whiskey when you can enjoy drinking them with food, after dinner, or when relaxing after a hard day’s work.

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