Differences: Bourbon vs. Whisky? « (The Best Guide)

Recently I stumbled upon the rather vast world of whiskeys and how they are different.

A question that was on the top of my mind was, what is the difference between Bourbon and whiskey?

What Makes Bourbon Different From Whisky? Bourbon is a whiskey, however, it is made in a special way. To label a Whiskey a Bourbon, it must be made of at least 51% corn, be aged in new charred oak barrels and made on United States soil. This are some key factors that make bourbon different from a normal Whiskey.

Read on as I explain the many differences between different whiskeys and help you understand what makes them different.

So, What Makes Bourbon Different From Whisky?

First of all, let’s state the facts. The spelling of the word whiskey/whisky dictates where its made. Whiskey is the Irish way of spelling it, which they took with them when they migrated to the USA.

Because of this the US also calls it whiskey rather than whisky. This is an easy thing to keep in mind when talking about the origin of a whiskey.

For the sake of this blog post, the overall spelling of the word will be the American style “whiskey”. I may slip every now and then, but hey, the world of whiskey is quite complicated and everyone makes mistakes!

No matter the spelling whiskey is still a distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from fermenting grain mash.

The process of making whiskey remains the same in general, and the brown color often happens due to the way whiskey is aged, typically in oak casks of different sizes.

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What is a Bourbon?

The unaware person may see a bottle labeled “Bourbon” right next to a bottle labeled “Whiskey” and assume they are different.

They are different, but on a ground level, they are both whiskeys.

To understand why bourbon is different from other whiskeys, the first part is actually the legal side of things.

The simple answer to what makes Bourbon a Bourbon and thereby different from traditional whiskey is actually the law.

By law in the US, for a whiskey to be called a bourbon, it must have a mash consisting of a minimum of 51% corn.

  • The mash also has to be distilled at 160 proof or less and in the barrel at 125 or less. After this is upheld there are also rules regarding the aging process.
  • Bourbon must be aged in a charred white oak barrel that has not been in use previously.
  • The barrel used for aging a whiskey considered a bourbon must be a charred white oak barrel by law, and a completely new one too.
  • On top of this, there is bad news for international bourbon makers, because for a whiskey to be considered a bourbon, it has to be made in the US.

Bourbon is considered by many a man’s drink, and vodka a ladies drink. Is that even a thing? Take a look at this article where we discuss about the topic and other interesting facts.

Differences in Whisky, Whiskey or Scotch

So as we now know bourbon is named granted its properties and those properties must be met to legally label a whiskey as a bourbon.

The same thing goes for the 3 main whiskey types, Whisky, Whiskey, and Scotch.

Things might get confusing, but hold on.

Okay so if you are confused, fear not, I’m about to explain it in the simplest way possible and help you understand why these are different.

Depending on where you go to a bar and ask for a whiskey you might get completely different results.

Going to a bar in England and asking for a whiskey will probably give you a scotch, but going to a bar in Ireland will give you an Irish Whiskey. Overall the reason for all the different spellings is quite simply the geographic location where its made.

Alright so, to make it easy, keep these 3 bullet points in mind:

  • Whisky. This spelling is used for most Whisky made outside the US or Ireland, the Scottish also use this version of the word, though their whisky is usually called Scotch.
  • Whiskey. This spelling is used in Ireland and the US for any type of whiskey made. For a longer list of different types check out the last section of this blog post.
  • Scotch. This is the name for Whisky made on Scottish soil. Labeling something as Scotch that isn’t distilled on Scottish ground is Illegal in most countries.

Alright, I know this is all a bit much, but hopefully, I made it simple enough to understand the key differences between Bourbon and other whiskeys.

Just keep in mind the different spelling of the word and remember bourbon is only made on US soil and Scotch in Scotland.

If you are interested in a more detailed list of various types of whiskey, check out the last section of this blog post. I happen to have a book with all details about all varieties of whiskey. Check it out here (Amazon link) if you want to know a bit more, is good material.

Types of Whiskey

The world of whiskey is vast, and to help you differentiate between the different types of whiskey you can find a simple table below with a list of different whiskey types and their specific attributes.

Type of whiskyContentAttributes
Malt WhiskeyPrimarily malted barleyMade from fermented mash of malted barley, if made at a single distillery called single malt.
Grain WhiskeyAny type of grainA Typical name for a whiskey made in part with a type of grain other than malted barley, often corn wheat or rye
Single MaltOne particular malted grainMade from a single distillery using one malted grain. Often has the name of the distillery it is made in.
Blended MaltMixture of single malt whiskiesA mix of whiskeys from a range of distilleries.
Blended WhiskiesMixture of different types of whiskeysMix of different whiskeys. May be from different distilleries, or a blend of different whiskeys within the same distillery.
Bourbon WhiskeyMash of minimum 51% cornBorn in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Probably the most iconic American whiskey
Corn WhiskeyMash of minimum 80% cornMade of a minimum 80% corn and is not usually not aged.
Rye WhiskeyMash of minimum 51% ryeSimilar to bourbon, but using rye for a different taste experience
Rye Malt WhiskeyMash of minimum 51% malted ryeMade from malted rye, and is similar in process to the traditional bourbon
Wheat WhiskeyMash of minimum 51% wheatUsually aged the same way a bourbon is, in new charred oak barrels. Can be labeled as Bourbon but often labeled just as “Wheat Whiskey”
Irish WhiskeyUsually Unpeated maltUsually distilled over three times. Very traditional in its manufacturing. Once the most popular spirit in the world.
Scottish Whisky(Scotch)Malt and grainUsually distilled twice with some brands being exceptions. It Requires distilling in Scotland to be labeled “Scotch”. Aged a minimum of three years in oak casks.
German WhiskyVariesResembles whiskeys made in Ireland, Scotland and the US. Includes types such as single malts, blends, wheat, and bourbons. Uses both spellings of the word “whiskey” or “whisky”
Indian WhiskeyNeutral spirits/maltsSeen somewhat of an insult to traditional whiskey. Made of a blend of different spirits with an added portion of malt whiskey. Outside of India a “whiskey” of this type would be more likely to be called a Rum.
Cask StrengthAny type of whiskeySomewhat rare whiskeys that are bottled in a certain way. They are transferred from cask to bottle with minimum to no dilution.
Single CaskAny type of whiskeyWhiskeys bottled from a single cask, often labeled with specific bottle and barrel numbers. These types of whiskies can be very unique from cask to cask and bottle to bottle.

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Hello, my name is Simon. Together with a group of writers I write about brewing beer and making wine. We all share a passion for the great things in life, such as making stuff from scratch.

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