“What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?” you might ask.
“All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,” your distillery tour guide will inevitably reply.
There’s plenty of nuance to go around the whiskey world. From bourbons to Tennessee Whiskeys, Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskeys, and of course ‘whisky.’ Where do all these pieces fit together? What separates them, and what do they share in common?
The answers begin with the mash. Whiskey (or ‘whisky’, if you are in Scotland) in all its forms, is by definition distilled from fermented grains, corn, barley, rye, and wheat in blends that distillers call a mash, then aged in wooden barrels. No matter what kind of whiskey you are drinking, it was made from these ingredients and aged in a wooden barrel.
Though whiskey itself is produced all around the world, certain styles of whiskeys gave unique legislation and practices that define it; like the laws and customs that make champagne and other French wines what they are. Take Bourbon, for example.
Bourbon has legislation and practices attached to it so the drinker knows they are purchasing a genuine product, much in the way France has laws about how and where wine is produced.
So, all bourbon is whiskey, as established above. But all whiskey is not bourbon. Here’s what makes a whiskey qualify as bourbon:
Bourbon must only be made in the United States. It must contain a mash of at least 51 percent corn. That mash must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and barreled at or below 125 proof. The whiskey must be aged in a new, charred white-oak barrel. It must contain no added flavoring, coloring or other additives. And it must be bottled at no less than 80 proof.
If all of that seems a little confusing, it is! There are so many other, smaller differences that vary from location, recipe and maker, but the thing to remember is this: all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. That knowledge alone is enough to impress a first date.