Popular around the planet (and definitely in our houses), bourbon and whiskey are adored for their flavorsome characteristics and storied background. Though there are plenty of resemblances between them, crucial distinctions between these two spirits exist that can have a big impact on your tasting experience. If you’re new to bourbon and whiskey, understanding where to get started and which drink best suits your palate can be an overwhelming process. That’s why we created this article – to break down the major, yet subtle, differences between these two wonderful drinks and help you make an educated choice about your next pour. Whether you’re an experienced whiskey drinker or taking your first sip, we’ve got information for anybody. So sit back, raise a glass, and embark on a journey into the enchanting realm of bourbon and whiskey!

Bourbon vs Whiskey: What’s the Difference?

The terms bourbon and whiskey are often used interchangeably, but they are actually two different species of spirits. Understanding the difference between the two will help you appreciate your bourbon and whiskey a bit more and help you impress your friends when you catch them using the words incorrectly (or annoy them, either way it’s a win for you).

Whiskey is the broad category of distilled spirits. Whiskey can also include bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey. Plus, whiskey doesn’t need to be made in the US. There are incredible whiskies made around the world including Scotland, Ireland, and Japan. The term “whiskey” is derived from the Gaelic term (we had to Google this as well) “uisge beatha,” which means, “water of life.” We couldn’t agree more.

An important characteristic for the type of whiskey you’re drinking is the “mash bill” or, more easily understood as the recipe. The mash bill of a whiskey includes grains like barley, wheat, rye, and corn. It is then distilled and aged in oak barrels to give it its characteristic flavor and color. The barrel aging process is what gives whiskey its distinct golden, amber color. While bourbon has specific requirements many other varieties of whiskey will be aged, or oftentimes finished, in barrels formerly used in the production of other libations such as port, sherry, cognac and rum casks to invoke a unique set of flavors.

Legal Requirements of Bourbon

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from grains that are at least 51% corn in the mash bill (the mix of grains used in the fermentation process) and it can’t include any additives or colorings. A Bourbon whiskey has a strict set of legal requirements that it must follow during the distillation and fermentation process. 

These legal requirements for labeling a whiskey as bourbon are what set it apart from other types of whiskey. To be considered bourbon, a whiskey must meet a few specific criterias:

  • The mash bill must be at least 51% corn.
  • It must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Straight bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years. 
  • It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV.
  • It can’t enter the barrel at more than 62.5% ABV.
  • It must be bottled at no less than 40% ABV.
  • It must be made in the United States (Not just Kentucky)

Other types of whiskey have their own specific legal requirements and flavor profiles that make them unique. If all else fails just remember, while all bourbons are whiskey, not all whiskies are bourbon.  

Bourbon and Whiskey Tasting Notes

Tasting and evaluating bourbon and whiskey can be a fun and exciting experience. Here’s a brief overview of how to taste and evaluate these spirits:

  • Look: Begin by observing the color and clarity of the spirit in your glass.
  • Swirl: Swirl the glass gently to release the aromas.
  • Smell: Take a deep breath and identify the different scents you detect. As you are smelling, be sure to keep your mouth slightly open. This stops the alcohol from burning the inside of your nose which prevents you from really smelling the individual notes of the whiskey and bourbon. 
  • Sip: Take a small sip and let it coat your tongue. If you’re brave enough we highly recommend swishing the whiskey around your mouth for about 10 seconds until it’s coated your entire mouth. This will prepare your taste buds for a better tasting experience.
  • Savor: On your next sip, pay attention to the flavors and textures on your tongue and how they evolve over time. Once you swallow the whiskey, smack your lips together and breathe in. This helps give you a full appreciation of the finish. This whole process is referred to as the “Kentucky Chew” 
  • Repeat: Feel free to repeat this process again, but this time add a drop of water to the whiskey and see how it changes the flavor profile. 

Flavor Profiles of Bourbon and Whiskey

Aside from its sweet, oaky flavors, bourbon typically has notes of vanilla, caramel, and honey (yum!). By changing the mash bill just a little, you can create bourbons that are spicy or fruity. The beauty of bourbon is that subtle changes in the mash bill and aging process can result in dramatically different bourbons.

The flavor profile of whiskey varies depending on its type and origin. Whisky made in Scotland (Scotch whisky), for example, is known for its smoky, peaty taste with sea salt and iodine notes. This is due to both the location of the distillery, usually closer to the sea, and because the producer will often dry and malt their barley by burning peat. The flavor of Irish whiskey is generally smoother, with notes of honey, vanilla, and floral notes. Rye whiskey’s flavor is spicy and peppery with hints of fruit and grain. Japanese whisky’s primary grain is malted barley, oftentimes imported from Scotland, and will resemble Scotch whisky as a result. 

Ultimately, the flavor profiles of bourbon and whiskey can appeal to different palates depending on personal taste preferences. What you like won’t always be what your friends or clients like and vice versa. Part of the fun is finding what fits your personal taste. We got a few tips to help with that. 

How to Pick the Right Bourbon or Whiskey

Now is the fun part! Trying different bourbons and whiskeys in order to determine what you like. Here are a few things to consider when trying both bourbon and whiskey. 

  1. Personal Taste: As with any drink, your personal taste is the most important aspect. If you prefer sweeter, smoother flavors, bourbon might be the better choice. If you prefer more complex, varied flavors, a rye or Scotch might be the way to go.
  2. Budget: Bourbon and whiskey can range in price from relatively inexpensive to very expensive. Determine your budget and choose a bottle that fits within it. A decent bourbon price point will start around $40 based on your location. Once you decide to spoil yourself we encourage comparing an entry   level option, such as Buffalo Trace, to an exciting Booker’s Small Batch. 
  3. Occasion: Consider the occasion for which you’ll be drinking. If you’re celebrating a big promotion, you might want to splurge on a higher-end bottle. A more budget friendly option is likely more appropriate if you are just having a casual hang with the guys. 
  4. Pairings: Think about what you’ll be pairing your bourbon or whiskey with. If you are looking to pair bourbon with a food, we recommend finding a food that is sweet or savory. On the other hand, whiskey is going to pair well with salty or spicy dishes.
  5. Drinking Glass: Choose a glass that enhances the aromas and flavors. We recommend using a glass with a broad base and a tapered top. This will help capture the aromas and funnel them up towards your nose. The Glencairn glass is the standard for whiskey tasting and they also make fantastic gifts! 
  6. Drinking Neat: Starting out, we recommend drinking bourbon or whiskey neat (no ice, water, etc. added). You want to start out tasting your drink in its purest form. From there, feel free to add some ice or even just a drop or two of water to your drink. It will blow your mind how much a single drop of water can change the flavor profile!

A Bourbon Starter List for Beginners

Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskey

  • Region: Kentucky
  • ABV: 45%
  • Notes: Vanilla, brown sugar, toasted oak and hints of fruit. 
  • Our thoughts: Maker’s Mark is a distillery that has been around since the early 1950’s. These guys know how to make some incredible bourbon. Smooth, sweet with a nice warm and long finish. Our favorite way to drink this is neat, but it also makes one heck of an old fashioned.

Wild Turkey 101

  • Region: Kentucky
  • ABV: 50.5%
  • Notes: Spice, Vanilla, Char
  • Our thoughts: Honestly, it’s hard to beat Wild Turkey 101 for the price. It is a very smooth bourbon that has very distinct vanilla and oak flavors on the finish. This is one I always keep on my shelf. Great for Bourbon beginners and your more experienced drinkers. If you want to make a cocktail, this is a great bourbon to use in a mint julep.

Jim Beam Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

  • Region: Kentucky
  • ABV: 54%
  • Notes: Honey, vanilla, orange and oaky.
  • Our thoughts: You can find this at almost any liquor store. Jim Beam is one of the largest producers of whiskey and bourbon in the world. Their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a great bourbon for beginners. It’s also a great bourbon if you are looking to make any whiskey cocktail. 

    A Whiskey Starter List For Beginners (We will avoid bourbons on this list)

    Whistlepig Piggyback Rye

      • Region: Canada 
      • ABV: 48.2%
      • Notes: Brown sugar, caramel and vanilla with a rye spice and white peppercorn finish. 
      • Our thoughts: This rye gets better and better to me every time I have it. A sweet profile that is complimented perfectly by the spicy notes typically found in a rye. In my opinion, it’s one of the best starter rye’s out there for someone looking to get into the Rye game for the first time.

      Ardbeg 10 year Islay Scotch

      • Region: Scotland
      • ABV 46%
      • Notes: Dried fruit, salty, smokey
      • Our Thoughts: One of our favorite Scottish whiskeys to sip on. Produced from local malted barley on the Isle of Islay. This scotch has everything you want in a scotch whiskey. A great balance of sweet vanilla with the peat and smokiness we have all come to love with a great scotch.

        Rittenhouse Rye: Bottled in Bond

          • Region: Kentucky
          • ABV: 50%
          • Notes: Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Vanilla and Citrus. 
          • Our Thoughts: I know, two Ryes? What can I say, I’m just a rye guy. And plus, it’s just an incredible American whiskey. Distilled by Heaven Hill right in the heart of bourbon county this rye checks all our boxes. It’s a great rye to use a mixer or to drink neat. If you don’t know what “Bottled in Bond” means check out our article here.

          Conclusion and Wrap Up (Have you Finished Your Drink Yet?)

          We can’t stress this enough, no matter what your dad says, there is no wrong way to drink bourbon or whiskey, the only wrong way is not drinking it at all! Research and try out different methods and tasting experiences to figure out what you like best. 

          All in all, bourbon and whiskey are both drinks we love. They both have stark distinctions in their production, flavors, and regional origins. Although bourbon is a type of whiskey, not all whiskeys conform to this category. When selecting between these two drinks, it’s essential to think about your taste preferences, budget, the occasion at hand, and food pairings. Bear in mind that there is no good or bad option; the main point is to have a good time. So go ahead and relish a standard bourbon libation or indulge in a single malt whiskey – spend some time getting acquainted with the sophisticated tastes of these prized beverages! Here’s to finding your next beloved drink!

          Watch our video recap