Bourbon vs. Whiskey: What’s the Difference?

All bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbon.

June 24, 2022

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Photo by: David Crockett/Getty Images

David Crockett/Getty Images

By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.

Bourbon and whiskey are both popular spirits among mixologists and home bartenders alike. While these brown liquors might look the same in the bottle, they each possess unique characteristics. Whether you like to sip whiskey or bourbon, mix them into cocktails or simply want to quench your curiosity, it pays to know which spirit you’re imbibing and discussing. Here, we break down the differences between bourbon and whiskey. Hint: all bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbon.

What’s Bourbon?

Bourbon is an American whiskey. As a distinct product of the United States (as recognized by U.S. Congress), distillers can only label a spirit bourbon when its mash bill (or grain mix) is made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, charred-oak barrels. From there, additional rules regulate the alcohol proof (or ABV, alcohol by volume), time spent aging-in-barrel, bottling, labeling, mixing and more. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but Kentucky is associated with being famous for its bourbon and Mint Juleps, a classic bourbon cocktail synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. For more information on bourbon, check out our What is Bourbon? article.

Food Network Kitchen’s Sazerac, as seen on Food Network.

Food Network Kitchen’s Sazerac, as seen on Food Network.



What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is a type of spirit distilled from a fermented mix of grains, including barley, corn, rye or wheat. Whiskey is produced around the world, including in Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Canada and the United States. Whiskey can be unaged (as with moonshine), but most whiskey is aged in wooden barrels which darkens its color, imparts oak and wood flavor characteristics, and mellows out the harsh taste of alcohol. There are many different types of whiskey, including rye whiskey and single malt whiskeys. To be considered a rye whiskey, the mash must contain at least 51 percent rye (the same ingredient used in rye bread). Single malt whiskeys are those that are made by one distillery with malted barley, and can be found in Japanese, Irish, Scotch and American whiskeys. Classic whiskey cocktails include the Old Fashioned (often made with bourbon but sometimes with rye whiskey), the rye-based Sazerac (pictured above) and the Scotch-centric Rob Roy.

Bourbon vs. Whiskey: The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey

The main differences between bourbon and whiskey are the kind of grain used and where the spirit is produced. Bourbon is an American made whiskey that must contain at least 51 percent corn in its mash and be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Whiskey can be made anywhere in the world, though there are additional differences depending on production and aging processes. Whiskey’s mash can be made from a blend of grains, such as barley, corn, rye or wheat.


Photo by: Paul Grossmann/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Paul Grossmann/Tetra Images/Getty Images

What Does Bourbon Taste Like vs. Whiskey?

Because bourbon is aged in new, charred-oak barrels, it’s typically described as having notes of caramel, vanilla and oak. Bourbon can also have tasting notes such 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, making it a good entry-level sipper for those new to whiskey. Wheated bourbons have a mash bill with a high concentration of wheat, which creates an even sweeter taste.

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. Rye whiskey, which has a mash that contains at least 51 percent rye, tends to have a spicier flavor profile than bourbon and some other whiskeys.

What's Scotch Whiskey?

Scotch is a whiskey that’s produced and bottled in Scotland (here it’s spelled whisky, without the ‘e’). There are five types of Scotch, but two well-known kinds are single malts and blended whiskeys. Single malts are made by one distillery using malted barley, aged for at least 3 years in oak casks and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Different regions of Scotland are known for their single malt styles, including Islay Scotch (pronounced “ai-luh”), which owes its signature smoky, peaty flavor to the process of drying the malt over a peat-fueled fire. To learn more about malted barley and Scotch, check out What Is Malt?. Blended Scotch whiskeys can either be a blend of malt whiskeys, a blend of grain whiskeys, or a combination of the two, which tends to be the most common (as with Johnnie Walker, one of the most well-known brands).

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