To the naked eye, some liquors may not look different when compared to each other. Imagine having a glass of rum sitting next to a glass of whisky. Would you be able to tell which one is which? How about a glass of vodka next to a glass of gin? Would you know the difference? In the same way, whisky and bourbon are often mistaken for each other, with one term used to refer to the other all the time. Is there really a difference between the two? Or can we use “whisky” and “bourbon” interchangeably to mean the same kind of liquor? Let’s try to answer these questions.
What is whisky?
To be able to differentiate between whisky and bourbon, we need to know what each liquor is. Whisky is a distilled spirit made with the base ingredient of grain mash. Any grain can be used to make whisky, from barley, rye, wheat, or a combination of these grains together.
What is bourbon?
Bourbon is not technically its own type of liquor. It’s actually a type of whisky. Bourbon is used to refer to American whiskey which is largely made of corn.
There are several terms and conditions to be met before a spirit can be dubbed a bourbon. First, it needs to be produced in the United States. Second, the mash that it’s made of needs to be made of at least 51% corn. Lastly, it needs to be aged in new charred oak barrels.
What sets bourbon apart from whisky?
Now that we know what each of these spirits are, we can begin to compare them to each other. Several factors set them apart from each other.
Although both whisky and bourbon are made by distilling mash, whisky is made of distilled grain mash while bourbon needs to be made of mostly corn.
The location of aging
The next difference between whisky and bourbon is the region of production. Any distilled grain mash produced anywhere in the world is eligible to be called whisky. However, it can only be called bourbon if it’s made in the USA.
The barrels used for aging
Aging is part of the production process for both whisky and bourbon. However, the barrels used to age these spirits slightly differ.
While both spirits are most commonly aged in oak, whisky is more lenient as to the kind of oak used. Distillers age whisky in any kind of cask, from virgin oak, charred oak, ex-port and ex-wine barrels, to even ex-bourbon barrels. Meanwhile, it’s a requirement for bourbon to be aged in new charred oak barrels, meaning the casks cannot be previously used to age another kind of alcoholic drink.
As whisky and bourbon are aged in different barrels, they will each pick up different flavours from the wood during the aging process. Bourbon is identical to hints of vanilla, caramel, and oak, with older bourbons picking up the charred nose from the oak. Bourbon also has a smoother feel on the palate compared to whisky.
On the other hand, whisky is often spice-forward, with notes of nuts and fruits in the background. As it’s made of more grains, whisky also has a grainier feel on the palate compared to bourbon.