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The Distinct Differences Between Bourbon and Whiskey: A Comprehensive Guide

Aidan ToborAuthor

Bourbon vs Whiskey: Difference Between The Two

Whiskey: An Overview

Whiskey is a broad category of distilled alcoholic beverages made from fermented grain mash. The grains used can include barley, corn, rye, and wheat, and the production process involves mashing, fermenting, distilling, aging in wooden barrels, and bottling. There are several types of whiskey, distinguished by their place of origin, ingredients, and production methods. Common types include Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, and American whiskey.

Bourbon: A Specific Type of Whiskey

Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey with strict legal requirements that set it apart from other whiskeys. Here's a detailed breakdown of these requirements:

  1. Geographical Origin: While bourbon can technically be made anywhere in the United States, it is most famously associated with Kentucky. In fact, about 95% of the world's bourbon is produced in Kentucky.

  2. Mash Bill Composition: Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% can be a combination of other grains like barley, rye, and wheat.

  3. Distillation Proof: The distilled spirit must not exceed 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume). This helps retain more of the flavor from the grains.

  4. Aging Process: Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. This imparts distinct flavors and a characteristic amber color to the spirit. The aging process does not have a minimum time requirement, but for a product to be labeled "straight bourbon," it must be aged for at least two years.

  5. Bottling Proof: Bourbon must be entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume) and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).

  6. Additives: No flavoring or coloring additives are allowed in bourbon, unlike some other types of whiskey where additives may be used to adjust flavor and color.

Key Distinctions Between Bourbon and Other Whiskeys

  • Ingredients: While bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, other types of whiskey may have different dominant grains. For example, Scotch whisky is typically made from malted barley, and rye whiskey must be made with at least 51% rye.

  • Production Techniques: The use of new, charred oak barrels is a hallmark of bourbon production, contributing to its unique flavor profile. In contrast, Scotch whisky is often aged in used barrels, including those previously used for bourbon or sherry.

  • Geographical Indications: Bourbon is predominantly associated with the United States, particularly Kentucky, whereas Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland, and Irish whiskey must be made in Ireland.

  • Flavor Profiles: Bourbon tends to have a sweeter, fuller-bodied flavor due to the high corn content and new charred oak barrels. Other whiskeys, such as Scotch, can range from light and floral to rich and smoky, influenced by the type of grain used and aging processes.

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Exploring the Different Types of Bourbon and Whiskey

Whiskey, as a broad category, encompasses various types, each with unique characteristics derived from their ingredients, production processes, and places of origin. Similarly, bourbon, as a subset of whiskey, includes several styles. Here’s a detailed look at the different types of bourbon and whiskey:

Types of Bourbon

  1. Straight Bourbon:

    • Definition: Straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years and contain no additives other than water.

    • Characteristics: This type is known for its rich and robust flavor, often with strong notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak.

  2. Kentucky Bourbon:

    • Definition: While bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., Kentucky bourbon is specifically produced in Kentucky. It follows the same production rules as regular bourbon.

    • Characteristics: The limestone water in Kentucky is often credited with giving this bourbon a distinct, smooth flavor.

  3. Wheated Bourbon:

    • Definition: In the mash bill, wheat replaces rye as the secondary grain after corn.

    • Characteristics: Known for a smoother and sweeter profile, with soft, mellow flavors of honey and bread.

  4. High-Rye Bourbon:

    • Definition: Contains a higher percentage of rye in the mash bill.

    • Characteristics: Offers a spicier flavor profile with pronounced notes of pepper and baking spices.

  5. Small Batch Bourbon:

    • Definition: Produced from a limited number of barrels, usually hand-selected for quality.

    • Characteristics: Often more complex and nuanced, reflecting the careful selection of barrels.

  6. Single Barrel Bourbon:

    • Definition: Bottled from a single barrel rather than blended from multiple barrels.

    • Characteristics: Unique flavor profile from each barrel, with potential variations in taste from one bottle to another.

Types of Whiskey

  1. Scotch Whisky:

    • Definition: Produced in Scotland, primarily from malted barley. It must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks.

    • Types:

      • Single Malt Scotch: Made from malted barley at a single distillery.

      • Blended Scotch: A blend of malt and grain whiskies from multiple distilleries.

      • Blended Malt Scotch: A blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries.

    • Characteristics: Can range from light and floral to rich and peaty, often influenced by the region of production (e.g., Islay, Speyside).

  2. Irish Whiskey:

    • Definition: Made in Ireland, typically distilled three times and aged for at least three years.

    • Types:

      • Single Malt Irish Whiskey: Made from malted barley at a single distillery.

      • Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey: Made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley in a pot still at a single distillery.

      • Grain Irish Whiskey: Made from various grains, usually in a continuous still.

      • Blended Irish Whiskey: A mix of different types of whiskey from multiple distilleries.

    • Characteristics: Known for its smooth and light profile, with hints of fruit and honey.

  3. Canadian Whisky:

    • Definition: Made in Canada, often containing a mix of grains and typically aged for at least three years.

    • Characteristics: Usually light and smooth, with a range of flavors depending on the blend.

  4. Japanese Whisky:

    • Definition: Inspired by Scotch whisky, produced in Japan using similar methods.

    • Characteristics: Known for its precision and balance, with flavors ranging from delicate and floral to rich and complex.

  5. Rye Whiskey:

    • Definition: Made primarily from rye grain. In the U.S., it must contain at least 51% rye.

    • Characteristics: Spicy and robust, with distinct notes of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

  6. Tennessee Whiskey:

    • Definition: A type of American whiskey made in Tennessee, similar to bourbon but with an additional charcoal filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process.

    • Characteristics: Smooth and mellow, with a slight charcoal-infused sweetness.

The Best Ways to Enjoy Bourbon and Whiskey

Whether you're a novice or a seasoned aficionado, the way you choose to drink bourbon and whiskey can greatly enhance your appreciation of these spirits. Here are some popular methods and tips for enjoying bourbon and whiskey to their fullest potential:

Neat

Drinking Neat

  • Description: Sipping whiskey or bourbon neat means enjoying it straight from the bottle at room temperature without any mixers, ice, or water.

  • Best For: High-quality, aged whiskeys and bourbons where the nuances of the spirit can be fully appreciated.

  • Tasting Tips: Pour a small amount into a glass, observe the color, swirl gently, inhale the aroma deeply, and take small sips to savor the flavors. Let the spirit linger on your palate before swallowing.

On the Rocks

Drinking On the Rocks

  • Description: Served over ice, which chills the drink and can slightly dilute it as the ice melts.

  • Best For: Bourbons and whiskeys with strong, robust flavors that can handle a bit of dilution without losing their character.

  • Tasting Tips: Use large ice cubes or a whiskey stone to slow the melting process and prevent over-dilution. Sip slowly and enjoy how the flavors evolve as the ice melts.

With a Splash of Water

Adding Water

  • Description: Adding a few drops or a small splash of water can open up the flavors and aromas of bourbon or whiskey.

  • Best For: High-proof whiskeys and bourbons, where the alcohol content might initially overpower the subtler flavors.

  • Tasting Tips: Start with a few drops and taste, then add more water gradually until you find the balance that enhances the spirit’s profile to your liking.

In a Cocktail

Classic Whiskey and Bourbon Cocktails

  • Old Fashioned: A mix of bourbon or rye whiskey, sugar, bitters, and a twist of citrus rind. This classic cocktail highlights the spirit's flavor while adding a touch of sweetness and bitterness.

  • Manhattan: Made with whiskey (usually rye), sweet vermouth, and bitters, garnished with a cherry. This elegant cocktail balances the spiciness of rye with the sweetness of vermouth.

  • Whiskey Sour: A refreshing blend of whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup, often served over ice with a cherry and an orange slice for garnish. This cocktail brings out the whiskey’s tart and sweet notes.

Modern Cocktails

  • Bourbon Smash: Bourbon, muddled fresh fruit (like berries or citrus), mint, and simple syrup shaken and served over ice. This cocktail is vibrant and refreshing, perfect for warmer weather.

  • Gold Rush: A mix of bourbon, honey syrup, and lemon juice, served over ice. This modern classic offers a sweet and tangy profile that complements bourbon’s natural flavors.

Whiskey Flights

Exploring Varieties

  • Description: A whiskey flight is a selection of several different whiskeys or bourbons served in small tasting glasses, allowing for comparative tasting.

  • Best For: Those looking to explore different styles, brands, or ages side by side.

  • Tasting Tips: Start with the lightest whiskey and progress to the heaviest or most robust. Take notes on the aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and finish of each sample.

Glassware

Choosing the Right Glass

  • Glencairn Glass: Specifically designed for whiskey tasting, its tulip shape concentrates the aromas and directs them towards your nose.

  • Rocks Glass (Old Fashioned Glass): A sturdy glass with a wide mouth, ideal for drinking whiskey neat or on the rocks.

  • Copita (Nosing Glass): Similar to a Glencairn, but with a stem, allowing you to hold the glass without warming the whiskey with your hand.

Final Tips

  • Temperature: Room temperature is typically ideal for tasting whiskey and bourbon neat to fully appreciate the flavors and aromas.

  • Pacing: Sip slowly to savor the complex flavors. Drinking whiskey is about the experience and not just consumption.

  • Clean Palate: Use water or plain crackers between different drinks to cleanse your palate.

How the Flavor Profiles of Bourbon and Whiskey Differ

Bourbon and whiskey each have distinct flavor profiles influenced by their ingredients, production processes, and aging methods. Understanding these differences can enhance your appreciation for each type of spirit.

Bourbon Flavor Profile

Bourbon's flavor is predominantly shaped by its primary ingredient—corn—and the use of new, charred oak barrels. Here are the key characteristics of bourbon's flavor profile:

  1. Sweetness:

    • Primary Grain: At least 51% corn, which imparts a natural sweetness.

    • Notes: Vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and honey are common sweet notes in bourbon, thanks to the high corn content and the caramelization that occurs during barrel aging.

  2. Oak and Wood:

    • Aging Process: New, charred oak barrels contribute significantly to bourbon's flavor.

    • Notes: Rich oak, toasted wood, and charred notes. The charring process caramelizes the wood sugars, adding depth and complexity.

  3. Spices:

    • Secondary Grains: The inclusion of rye or wheat can influence spiciness or smoothness.

    • Notes: Rye-heavy bourbons often have spicy notes like cinnamon, black pepper, and cloves. Wheated bourbons tend to be softer and mellower with subtle spice.

  4. Fruity and Nutty:

    • Esters and Compounds: Created during fermentation and aging.

    • Notes: Dried fruit, cherries, apples, and sometimes nuts like almonds and pecans.

  5. Mouthfeel:

    • Texture: Typically, bourbon has a rich, full-bodied mouthfeel with a lingering finish.

Whiskey Flavor Profile

Whiskey encompasses a broad range of styles, each with unique flavor profiles based on their ingredients, region of origin, and production methods. Here are the general characteristics of some major types of whiskey:

  1. Scotch Whisky:

    • Primary Grain: Often malted barley.

    • Notes:

      • Single Malt: Complex and varied; can include flavors like malt, smoke, peat (especially in Islay Scotch), honey, fruit, and floral notes.

      • Blended Scotch: Generally smoother and more accessible, with balanced flavors that may include sweet grain, fruit, and subtle smoke.

  2. Irish Whiskey:

    • Primary Grain: Mix of malted and unmalted barley.

    • Notes:

      • Single Pot Still: Rich and oily with notes of orchard fruits, nuts, and spices.

      • Blended: Light and smooth, with flavors of vanilla, toasted wood, and fruit. Often triple-distilled, leading to a cleaner taste.

  3. Canadian Whisky:

    • Primary Grain: Often a mix, including corn, rye, wheat, and barley.

    • Notes: Generally light and smooth, with flavors of caramel, vanilla, and sometimes a hint of rye spice. Blended for consistency and smoothness.

  4. Japanese Whisky:

    • Primary Grain: Often malted barley, similar to Scotch whisky.

    • Notes: Delicate and refined, with flavors ranging from light fruit and floral notes to richer, more complex flavors including smoke and spice. Known for precision and balance.

  5. Rye Whiskey:

    • Primary Grain: At least 51% rye.

    • Notes: Bold and spicy, with dominant notes of black pepper, clove, cinnamon, and sometimes mint. Rye whiskey often has a drier finish compared to bourbon.

  6. Tennessee Whiskey:

    • Primary Grain: Similar to bourbon (at least 51% corn), but undergoes an additional charcoal filtering process.

    • Notes: Smooth and mellow, with a slight charcoal-infused sweetness. Flavors of caramel, vanilla, and toasted oak are common.

Comparing Bourbon and Whiskey

  • Sweetness: Bourbon is generally sweeter than most whiskeys, particularly Scotch and Irish whiskey, due to its high corn content.

  • Spice: Rye whiskey and high-rye bourbons are spicier compared to the often smoother Irish whiskey and the varied Scotch whisky.

  • Smoke and Peat: Scotch whisky, especially from the Islay region, is known for its smoky and peaty flavors, which are rarely found in bourbon.

  • Fruitiness: Both bourbon and various whiskeys can have fruity notes, but the type and intensity can vary widely. For instance, Irish whiskey often has a light, fresh fruitiness, whereas bourbon may exhibit deeper, dried fruit notes.

  • Mouthfeel: Bourbon typically has a fuller, richer mouthfeel, while other whiskeys can range from light and smooth (like Canadian whisky) to rich and oily (like single pot still Irish whiskey).

The Processes for Making Bourbon and Whiskey

The processes for making bourbon and whiskey share many similarities but also have distinct steps and requirements that contribute to their unique characteristics. Here’s a detailed look at how each is made:

Bourbon Production Process

  1. Mash Bill Preparation:

    • Ingredients: At least 51% corn, with the remainder being a mix of barley, rye, and/or wheat.

    • Grinding: The grains are ground into a coarse flour.

  2. Mashing:

    • Cooking: The ground grains are cooked with water to convert the starches into fermentable sugars.

    • Mixing: The corn is cooked first at a higher temperature, followed by the addition of rye or wheat, and then malted barley at a lower temperature to activate enzymes.

  3. Fermentation:

    • Yeast Addition: The mash is transferred to fermentation tanks, where yeast is added.

    • Fermenting: The yeast ferments the sugars into alcohol, producing a liquid known as "distiller's beer" or "wash," which is typically around 6-10% alcohol by volume (ABV).

  4. Distillation:

    • First Distillation: The wash is distilled in a column still (beer still) to produce "low wine" at about 25-30% ABV.

    • Second Distillation: The low wine is distilled again in a pot still (doubler) to produce "high wine" or "white dog" at a maximum of 160 proof (80% ABV).

  5. Aging:

    • Barrel Entry: The high wine is diluted to no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) and transferred into new, charred American oak barrels.

    • Aging: The barrels are stored in warehouses, often for several years. The aging process imparts flavors and color to the bourbon from the charred oak.

    • Minimum Aging: Bourbon must be aged for at least two years to be labeled "straight bourbon."

  6. Bottling:

    • Filtration: The aged bourbon is filtered to remove any charred wood particles.

    • Proofing: Water is added to adjust the bourbon to the desired bottling proof, which must be at least 80 proof (40% ABV).

    • Bottling: The bourbon is bottled and labeled for sale.

Whiskey Production Process

The production of whiskey varies depending on the type, but here are the general steps common to most whiskeys:

  1. Mash Bill Preparation:

    • Ingredients: Depending on the type, whiskey can be made from barley, corn, rye, and/or wheat.

    • Grinding: The grains are ground into a coarse flour.

  2. Mashing:

    • Cooking: The ground grains are cooked with water to convert starches into fermentable sugars.

    • Mixing: The specific process and temperatures vary depending on the type of whiskey.

  3. Fermentation:

    • Yeast Addition: The mash is transferred to fermentation tanks, where yeast is added.

    • Fermenting: The yeast ferments the sugars into alcohol, creating the wash with an ABV of 6-10%.

  4. Distillation:

    • Single Distillation: For some whiskeys, a single distillation is performed using pot stills or column stills.

    • Double or Triple Distillation: Irish whiskey is often triple-distilled for smoothness, while Scotch and other whiskeys may be double-distilled.

  5. Aging:

    • Barrel Entry: The distilled spirit is placed in barrels for aging. The type of barrel and aging duration vary by whiskey type.

    • Barrels: Scotch whisky is typically aged in used oak barrels, including former bourbon or sherry casks. Irish whiskey also uses various types of barrels.

    • Minimum Aging: Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey must be aged for at least three years.

  6. Bottling:

    • Filtration: The aged whiskey is filtered to remove impurities.

    • Proofing: Water is added to adjust the whiskey to the desired bottling proof.

    • Bottling: The whiskey is bottled and labeled for sale.

Key Differences in Production

  • Grain Composition: Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, while other whiskeys can have different dominant grains.

  • Barrel Requirements: Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Other whiskeys, like Scotch, are typically aged in used barrels.

  • Geographical Indications: Bourbon is predominantly produced in the United States, particularly Kentucky. Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland, and Irish whiskey must be made in Ireland.

  • Distillation Proof: Bourbon is distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV), while other whiskeys may be distilled to different strengths.

  • Aging: Bourbon is usually aged for a minimum of two years, while Scotch and Irish whiskey require a minimum of three years of aging.

In summary, while the fundamental processes of mashing, fermenting, distilling, aging, and bottling are similar, the specific requirements for ingredients, barrel usage, and aging periods create distinct differences in the production of bourbon and various types of whiskey. These differences contribute to their unique flavor profiles and characteristics.

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