by Jason Lowder July 12, 2022 4 min read
There are few things in life more enjoyable than sitting back with a glass of your favorite spirit. Whether you prefer it neat, on the rocks, or mixed into a cocktail, there's nothing quite like kicking back and savoring the flavor of your drink of choice.
But with so many different whiskey types on the market, it can be hard to decide which one is right for you. Do you want something sweet or smoky? Fruity or spicy? Light or dark? The options are endless. But if you're looking for a truly unique and classic flavor, you can't go wrong with bourbon or whiskey.
Both of these spirits are smooth, complex, and perfect for sipping. But what's the difference between them? Is one better than the other? In this bourbon vs whiskey guide, I'll explore the key differences between bourbon and whiskey, discussing the production process, flavor profile, and history of each.
By the end, you'll have a better understanding of these two classic spirits and be able to decide which one is right for you.
The main difference between bourbon and whiskey is the grain used to make them. Bourbon is made from a mash of corn, barley, and rye. Whiskey can be made from any grain, but legally in the US has to be aged in new oak barrels.
The legal definition of bourbon states that it must be made from at least 51% corn. The rest of the mash can include malted barley and rye. Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the US but must be aged in new charred-oak barrels for at least two years (some distillers age their bourbon for up to eight years).
In contrast, whiskey is simply an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented grain mash made with malted barley or rye grain and usually aged in wooden casks or containers. This process may take place in Scotland (Scotch), Canada or America (among other places).
Whiskey is made all over the world, while bourbon is only distilled in America. This distinction matters because of two things: first, different countries have different regulations about what whiskey can be made from and how it must be produced; second, whiskeys develop their unique flavor profiles based on where they’re made (the climate, the type of water used, etc.), so a Scotch whiskey will taste different than an Irish or American whiskey.
In short: Bourbon is a specific type of Whiskey that can only come from America and must follow certain guidelines during production.
American white oak - that's the official name for the species of tree - is used to make bourbon barrels, and that wood imparts a distinctive flavor to bourbon it matures.
The staves of the barrels are charred before they're assembled, and that's where a lot of bourbon's signature flavor comes from. In fact, bourbon cannot be aged in old barrels; it has to go into fresh, new barrels for each distillation. As for whiskey, it can come from anywhere, and the barrels used for aging can be reused. Moreover, the years of aging are not set in stone for whiskey.
As a result, the quality and taste of whiskey varies wildly from one distillery to another. The aforementioned rules about bourbon production make it more predictable when it comes to flavor, but also less diverse.
Once the aging process is complete, the bourbon is diluted with water to bring it down to a lower alcohol content (usually around 40% ABV). This step also allows for any sediment that has collected in the barrels during maturation to be filtered out.
However, it crucial to know that before the aging process begins, the ABV must be at 62.5% or 125 proof, as this allows the spirit to properly interact with the wood and bring that much appreciated bourbon flavor to the final product. As for the whiskey, the highest ABV it can be bottled at is 68%.
However, such high ABVs are usually reserved for cask strength versions of whiskey that are sold in limited numbers and are often highly sought after by collectors. 40% ABV is your standard bottling strength for both bourbon and whiskey.
Now comes the most subjective part, the taste. When it comes to bourbon, I personally look for a well-balanced spirit that is not too sweet with a healthy dose of wood and vanilla flavor from the barrel aging process. A good bourbon should also have a bit of spice to add some complexity.
As for whiskey, I find that I enjoy the peaty/smoky flavors imparted by certain Islay whiskies such as Laphroaig or Ardbeg. These bolder flavored whiskies often have less sweetness than their Lowland or Highland counterparts.
I personally find that I enjoy both bourbon and whiskey. Bourbon is great for mixing, but it’s also fantastic when enjoyed neat or on the rocks. Whiskey is best enjoyed neat but can also be mixed in certain cases (whiskey sour anyone?). That said, I am a big fan of both scotch and Irish whiskeys as well. So, what do you think? What are your thoughts on bourbon vs whiskey?
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