Whisky is a wide variety of drink. Despite some pretty tight rules about what constitutes an official whisky, there’s a surprising number of whisky categories: scotch, rye, and of course, bourbon.
Bourbon is a common whisky that can be served just about any way you can imagine: neat, on the rocks or even mixed into a cocktail. And it has a reputation worldwide for its unique flavour and smooth quality.
So what exactly sets bourbon apart from other whiskies? Whisky and bourbon are like rectangles and squares. All bourbon is technically whisky, but not all whisky can be called bourbon. The difference is in the ingredients, production process, and bourbon’s location of origin.
Location, location, location
America is protective of its bourbon. It’s a similar situation to that of champagne. If you want to get technical, it can only be made in one place on earth. Just like the only “true” champagne comes from the Champagne wine region of France, the only “official” bourbon comes from the American south and in particular, Kentucky. Although you will find labelled bottles of bourbon that come from elsewhere in the United States, as well. The name is derived from an area known as Old Bourbon, which is now called Bourbon County. There’s nothing stopping non-American distilleries from producing whisky using all the specifications of bourbon, but they won’t get the official seal of approval. Bourbon was recognized in the 1960s by the U.S. government as a “distinctive product of the United States.”
Bourbon vs. whisky: the official rules
On a more practical note, there are some official regulations about the production of bourbon that separate it from other whiskies. Many of these rules are in place thanks to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 as well as other whisky proof laws.
New, oak-charred barrels are a requirement for bourbon to be bourbon. Whisky, in general, has its own barrel requirements, but bourbon rules are even more exclusive.
America produces a lot of corn, and quite a bit of it ends up in the whisky. To officially be bourbon, a whisky must be made with at least 51 percent corn. Other types of whisky can use different grains in their mash, but not bourbon.
Whisky proofs can be all over the place, but if you want to call it bourbon, then the whisky needs to be distilled to no more than 160 proof, entered into the barrel at 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Picky, but then that’s a whisky for you.
If bourbon is labelled as “straight,” then it must have been aged for less than four years. Bourbons aged longer than that may not carry the straight label.
Bourbon is not allowed to contain extra additives, dyes or flavouring. The only thing added to bourbon may be plain water, and only when deemed necessary for lowering the proof.
What is scotch?
Many people don’t understand the difference between bourbon and scotch. Scotch whisky is similar to bourbon, but it is made from mostly malted barley rather than corn. (Bourbon will certainly have some malted barley in it, but it is not permitted to make up the majority of the mash.) Coming from Scotland, asking for a whisky in the U.K. will likely net you a Scotch. Ask that same question in America, and you might just be treated to a bourbon.
What does bourbon taste like?
So what is the end result of all these specifications that bourbon must go through? Bourbon is known for its sweetness (corn will do that to a drink), but you’ll also find a good smoky undertone thanks to the required charred barrel. Other common bourbon flavours include butterscotch, honey, caramel, fruit and citrus. You’ll also encounter plenty of spices like nutmeg and black pepper.
Bourbon can come in a great variety of mixes, just like other whiskies. Blended whiskies are quite popular, as well.
What about Tennessee whisky?
The difference between Tennessee whisky and bourbon is more than just a state border. Tennessee whisky goes through a unique filtering process known as the Lincoln County Process. During this filtration, the whisky is steeped in charcoal before going into the casks. Tennessee whisky brands like Jack Daniel’s never label themselves as bourbon, but their similar taste leads many people to refer to them as such.
Bourbon: then and now
Bourbon has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Once upon a time, bourbon had quite the P.R. problem. It was considered a cheap commodity, and it was known for having a bad, bitter taste. But then, a quiet revolution happened. A new recipe was created, bourbon regulations were put into place, and soon bourbon grew to become the iconic American spirit that it is today.