April 16, 2020 3 min read

If you’ve ever stood in front of the selection at your local liquor store, you’ve probably noted that bourbon and whiskey are stored in the same place, often mixed up on the same shelf. Don’t let this fool you, though – the two are not the same. Below, you can discover the surprising differences between bourbon and whiskey before deciding which one you’ll add to your rocks glass this evening.

What is Whiskey?

Whiskey is a spirit, or alcoholic beverage distilled from a fermented grain “mash”, exposed to oak, and never distilled to more than 190 proof. The “mash” is essentially mashed-up grains, and it can include corn, wheat, rye, barley, or even a mix of these. You can find Scotch whisky (spelled without the “e” in Scotland), Irish whiskey, and even American whiskey; all of these are slightly different in their own right. 

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon, on the other hand, is solely American. It is not produced anywhere else in the world, and even in the US, the vast majority of bourbon production occurs in Kentucky. Whereas a whiskey mash can contain a proprietary blend of grains to give each brand its own unique flavor profile, bourbon mustcontain 51% corn. What’s more, while the only requirement for whiskey is exposure to oak, a bourbon must be stored in new charred-oak barrels. That charring is what gives bourbon its unique smoky taste. Finally, bourbon must enter the oak barrel at 125-proof and cannot be distilled beyond 160-proof, and it must not be bottled at anything less than 80-proof.

What about Blended Whiskey?

Some of the whiskeys you’ll find on the market are blended, which means they are blends of different types of whiskeys. In some cases, they’re made by mixing a quality whiskey product with lesser-quality spirits or other ingredients. The goal is to create a smooth, enjoyable finished product without a high price tag. However, this is not always the case. Canadian Mist is quite affordable, but others, such as Chivas Regal, which is a premium blended scotch, can be rather pricey.

When Should You Serve One or the Other?

By and large, whether you choose to serve whiskey or bourbon is a matter of preference. It can be said that all bourbons are a form of whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon has a unique set of flavors, so it’s more common in foods – including rich meals like beef tips and desserts with ice creams – than whiskey. Before adding an ounce to your favorite mixed drink, though, consider the flavors. Bourbon is smokier, so it will have a much stronger flavor profile that can overpower more delicate ingredients. If you’re looking for something milder, go with whiskey.

Which One is Best Straight or On the Rocks?

Again, whether you’re pouring your bourbon into a shooter or sipping whiskey on the rocks from a sophisticated Shakespeare rocks glass, it’s all a matter of preference. Some people prefer whiskey and water, in which case the water simply mellows the whiskey flavor and makes it smoother to drink. Others like their scotch whiskey on the rocks just as it is, and still others prefer Maker’s Mark or Woodford Reserve shooters. Jack Daniels – which is not a bourbon at all and is in fact a Tennessee whiskey – is a popular mixer, hence the classic “Jack and Coke”.

Understanding the differences between whiskey, bourbon, and even blended whiskey can help you make better choices for yourself and your guests the next time you host a gathering. Sometimes, choosing whiskey over bourbon – or even vice-versa – can have a tremendous impact on the quality of your drink. It never hurts to have this information stored away as a bit of trivia, either.