From color to taste, bourbon and whiskey have some similarities. However, while these brown liquors might look the same in the bottle, they possess unique characteristics. A popular explanation to help with the difference between bourbon and whiskey is that all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey, but the difference between bourbon and whiskey is a little more complicated than that.
Whiskey is a spirit distilled from a fermented mix of grains, including barley, corn, rye or wheat. Whiskey is made around the world and there are a ton of varietals such as Scotch, Japanese, Irish, Canadian, and Tennessee whiskey. Bourbon, on the other hand, must be made from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn, though most are closer to 70% corn. As a distinct product of the United States, bourbon can only be made in the U.S. While 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky, and the state has become synonymous with the spirit, bourbon can actually be made anywhere in the U.S.
Bourbon never contains additives, such as color or flavor, and must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels for a minimum of two years. From there, additional rules regulate the alcohol proof, time spent aging-in-barrel, bottling, labeling, mixing and more. Bourbon must be distilled at no more than 160 proof, be stored at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Whiskey can be unaged, but most whiskey is aged in wooden barrels for any amount of time. Other whiskeys can be aged in barrels previously used to age other spirits, and they don’t necessarily need to be whiskey barrels—port, sherry, and rum casks are used in the aging process for non-bourbon whiskeys.
The taste of whiskey varies depending on the style. Whiskey tends to have a woody or oaky flavor profile with notes of spice, fruit, nuts, vanilla or caramel. Although some of whiskey’s flavor notes overlap with bourbon, whiskey tends to have a grainier, sharper mouthfeel than bourbon. Bourbon usually has strong notes of vanilla, oak and caramel, as well as baking spices, black pepper, cocoa and fruit. Bourbon tends to be smoother than whiskey, with a softer mouthfeel and an overall sweet-presenting flavor.
Bourbon and whiskey are both distilled spirits made from fermented grain mash, but what makes the two different from one another is the kind of grain used, the way it is manufactured and aged, and where the spirits are produced.