What makes bourbon different from whiskey? Technically, bourbon is whiskey. But other types of whiskey, like Scotch, Irish and Canadian, are not bourbon. So to answer the question of which is better, bourbon or whiskey, we need to fully understand what makes a whiskey a bourbon.
Is it the burnt amber color of a finely aged spirit that deems it a bourbon? Is it the fragrance of vanilla, toffee, or even cinnamon that defines bourbon? Perhaps it’s neither, and it’s the legs it displays when swirled in a glass?
The answer is actually none of these that separates bourbon from other whiskies.
A look at the past to understand the definition of bourbon
The difference in something labeled a whiskey versus a bourbon requires a trip back in time to when monks of the 1100-1300s fermented grains for drink and medicine. Whiskey was born from barley beer that had been fermented too long.
After whiskey spread across Europe, particularly to Ireland and Scotland, it naturally accompanied immigrants from there to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of those Irish and Scotish whiskey makers stopped in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee during the Westward Expansion. It was sometime in the early 1800s that a new recipe for whiskey took on a surprising twist.
What is bourbon?
This new liquor was mostly made of the readily available grain of the midwestern plains—corn. This replaced the previous standard of wheat and barley, giving the finished spirit a slightly sweeter taste. From the 18th and early 19th centuries, any corn whiskey came to be known as “bourbon.”
But corn mash is just the beginning of the differences in bourbon and whiskey. As time went on, distillers worked hard to create a product that was incomparable to its standard whiskey counterpart. Shopkeepers, doctors and others who sold the spirit would reportedly adulterate the barrels by adding water or other flavorings to make it more profitable and palatable.
Distillers responded with a counter to what they considered corruption tainting the taste which led to bourbon’s definition. In 1897, Colonel E.H. Taylor led a group of distillers to convince John G. Carlisle, then Secretary of the Treasury, to support an act of Congress establishing the first set of standards for distilled beverages. The Bottled in Bond Act gave distillers tax incentives to validate that American whiskey was limited to single distillers and single distilleries over one distillation season in federally bonded warehouses for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof. There were label requirements as well. Any whiskey that met the requirement was labeled “Bottled in Bond.” This act separated whiskey made under these new standards from whiskey any that had been adulterated or produced under different policies.
While the Bottled in Bond Act standards applied to any American whiskey, most Bottled in Bond products from that point forward were called “bourbon” because they were corn based. It wasn’t until 1964 that the U.S. Government declared bourbon a unique spirit to America and set legal standards for the qualifying name of “bourbon.”
Bourbon’s Legal Standards
The 1964 Congressional resolution officially defined “bourbon” as only produced in the United States, and set forth instruction for the government to prohibit importation of any spirit labeled as “bourbon whiskey.” It also outlined requirements for a spirit to be called “bourbon” rather than just “whiskey.”
The spirit must be produced in the United States
The mash bill must be at least 51% corn grains.
The distillate could only be aged in unused, charred oak barrels.
The mash would be distilled to no more than 160 proof.
The distilled spirit would go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof.
The spirit would be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof
The label of “straight” bourbon is simply a requirement the aging process be at least two years.
Bourbon Versus Whiskey … in taste
The regulations helped the characteristics of bourbon evolve to be somewhat uniform. While they do differ from brand to brand, there are some constants that can be compared to whiskey.
Thanks to the mash stabilization, bourbon tends to have a sweeter taste than whiskey, making it more palatable without additives and flavorings. The new, charred oak barrels that bourbon must be stored in help the nose and the inherent flavors tend to be more nutty and rich, with hints of vanilla, toffee, or even cinnamon coming through. The aromas, however, don’t tend to tainting the taste of the bourbon, itself. Blends and flavored whiskeys often tend to overpower the peppery taste of the whiskey.
Likewise, the fact that whiskey can be stored in used barrels means the whiskey will always take on the flavor of what’s been stored before it, making the end product less predictable.
Which is better? Bourbon or Whiskey?
If you are of the mind that quality standards and consistency makes for a superior product, you’ll probably lean toward bourbon over something just labeled "whiskey." If you are less concerned about nose and nuance, you might fall on the side of a type of whiskey being a preference.
The magic of the bourbon and whiskey industries presents two inarguable facts: Everyone’s taste is different and no one cares which bourbon (or whiskey) you drink, as long as you’re drinking bourbon (or whiskey).