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Bourbon vs Whiskey – What’s the Difference?

Bourbon vs whiskey – what are they, and what’s the difference between them? You might be interested to know that each of these popular spirits originated from opposite sides of the world during two different centuries. It seems people have had an affinity to ferment grains for hundreds of years, and today, we get to sip the benefits. So let’s explore these two spirits, what makes them different and similar, and the best way to enjoy them. 

Bourbon Vs. Whiskey – What Is It?

Whiskey (or whisky if it’s produced in Scotland) is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash, including various grains like wheat, rye, barley, and corn. It’s then aged in wooden barrels or casks. Whiskey can be made worldwide, and there are many popular styles, including American Whiskey, Bourbon Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, and Irish Whiskey. Scotland is the original home of whisky, and it’s been produced there for hundreds of years- though you’ll find various tales of who produced it for the first time. We may never know the true story, but it’s fun to hear all the legends that have evolved over time.

If you’re curious about the details on how to make whiskey, check out our blog on the techniques, ingredients, and process that goes into producing it.

Bourbon, made of grain, yeast, and water, is the namesake of its birthplace- Bourbon County, Kentucky, in the 1700s. It was produced in Kentucky and shipped down the Mississippi River to Louisiana, making its way to Bourbon Street. By tradition, true bourbon comes from distilleries in Old Bourbon County, but new laws allow the bourbon to be made anywhere in the US. However, the limestone water in Kentucky and the climate are two primary factors in determining the flavors. In honor of the tradition of real bourbon, most distilleries outside of Kentucky won’t use the term “bourbon” in their whiskeys.

If you’re looking for a premium sipping bourbon, we’ve got you covered in our Bourbon of the Month Club.

Bourbon Vs Whiskey – What’s the Difference?

So you might be wondering what the difference is between bourbon and whiskey? If they’re both made from grains, aren’t they the same thing? Well, not exactly. Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey, and it’s also the most popular form of American whiskey.

It’s typically sweeter than other whiskeys and offers flavors like charred vanilla and spice. Every distiller has its own methods of producing bourbon, but the spirit must pass six specifications by law to qualify as bourbon.

  • It must be made in the United States of America.
  • It must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. Any other grains can be used in the other 49%, and those are usually a combination of wheat, rye, and malted barley.
  • It must be aged in “new” charred American oak barrels. There is no specification of how long a bourbon must be aged, but if it’s labeled as a “straight” bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years.
  • It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV.
  • When it enters the barrel, it can’t be more than 62.5% ABV.
  • At bottling, it must be at 40% ABV or more, which is standard for other whiskeys as well.

There are many types of bourbon, including rye, corn, wheated, straight, and blended. You can learn more about each type in our post How to Drink Bourbon.

How to Drink Bourbon Vs Whiskey

To begin with, there is no wrong way to drink bourbon or whiskey, and each person should drink it however they enjoy it. That being said, there are a few guidelines before your first sip. First, familiarize yourself with the label. Find out if it tells you where it came from, where it was bottled, whether it’s straight or blended. Why is this important to know? If you find a “straight” bourbon whiskey, then you know there are no additives that would alter its original flavor and quality. A “blended whiskey” blends different whiskeys and/or neutral grain spirits, colors, and flavorings.

You’ll also want to check the age statement. This will tell you how long the spirit rested in casks before bottling. If there’s no age statement, it usually means that the bourbon or whiskey is on the younger side. As a note, if it’s straight bourbon, it’s been aged for at least two years. Also, check the bottle’s proof, which will usually be listed as the Alcohol by Volume or ABV. Keep in mind though that just because a bottle has a high proof, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or stronger- only that it has more alcohol.

Can’t choose? You’ll receive a full premium bottle of whiskey each month in our Whiskey of the Month Club. It’s easy to join, and you can choose to be a member for as long as you like.

Next, decide what type of glass you’d like to sip out of. Special bourbon glasses aren’t required, but some shapes help enhance the experience. For example, glasses with wider mouths, like a Glencairn glass (made famous by Scotch drinkers), allow you to detect more aromas and cue up your other senses. You could also use a glass with a broad base and a tapered top to capture the aromas and funnel them towards the top. A shot glass generally won’t offer you this experience.

Notice the colors of your bourbon or whiskey as you pour it. The older the whiskey, the darker it is, as it soaks up color while being aged in the oak barrel. Younger whiskeys will be bright and caramel in color. Sip just enough to coat your tongue, allowing it to linger for a moment before swallowing. Observe how it feels in your mouth. Is it thick? Does it taste like it smells? Do you detect a variety of flavors? After you swallow the first sip, notice the “finish” or the flavors that linger on your palate. They may be spicy, sweet, oaky, floral, fruity, smokey, or a combination of any of these. Take another sip and notice if you detect anything new or different. Oftentimes, you’ll pick up another layer of flavors and aromas, and this is all part of the beautiful journey of sipping whiskey and bourbon.

There’s not much of a difference between how you sip bourbon vs whiskey. Generally speaking, you’ll pour, swish, and taste a whiskey the same way as a bourbon. Of course, as we mentioned before, there’s no wrong way to drink whiskey either. But most distillers (as well as the Taster’s Club team) recommend that you sip your bourbon or whiskey “neat” the first time, meaning you don’t add any water or ice to your glass. This is so that you can fully appreciate the juice without any dilution or changes, and you’ll be able to enjoy it as the makers intended. However, once you’ve tasted it, you might choose to add a tiny splash of water or an ice rock to your glass. Sometimes, this opens up other flavors you may not have detected before, and it can also tone down the heat in a spicier bourbon.


  • Is whiskey or bourbon better?

This depends on your preference. Bourbon has a sweeter flavor than other styles of whiskey, with notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel. Other types of whiskey offer different flavor profiles. For example, Irish whiskey is more light and fruity, with floral scents and hints of nuts and vanilla. Rye whiskey has more flavors of grass and pepper with spicier characteristics.

  • Is bourbon smoother than whiskey?

Bourbon is generally considered to be smoother than other whiskeys. However, if you’re new to drinking whiskey, bourbon is a little gentler with a softer composition, whereas whiskey often has strong, complex flavors.

  • Are there any good bourbon or whiskey cocktails?

Yes! You can mix your bourbon in any of these bourbon cocktails, and whiskey is an excellent base for some of these delicious whiskey cocktails. Happy sipping!

In Summary…

  • In the question of bourbon vs whiskey, you’ll find that there are more similarities than differences.
  • There are various types of whiskey produced around the world, and Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey.
  • Bourbon must meet six specific criteria by law to be considered a bourbon.
  • Your sipping experience begins with familiarizing yourself with the label and the bottle.
  • Choose a glass that enhances the aromas and flavors.
  • Both bourbon and whiskey should be sipped neat at first to taste as the distiller intended. After that, tasters can experiment with various sipping methods from here.

Taster’s Club members receive specially curated premium bottles of bourbon and whiskey as members. Join our Whiskey of the Month Club or our Bourbon of the Month Club to begin your unique spirits journey.

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