Ah, the great debate of "bourbon vs whiskey" has been the subject of countless spirited conversations amongst whiskey enthusiasts worldwide. It's not unusual to hear the clinking of glasses in a Kentucky tavern as patrons engage in a lively exchange about the distinctive characteristics of these two beloved drinks. As an avid bourbon fan, I've developed a fondness for diving deep into this discussion and debunking some of the most common misconceptions. To that end, I decided to shed some light on the topic with this informative post, comparing and contrasting bourbon vs. whiskey. So, let's take this journey together, shall we?
In the fascinating world of spirits, bourbon holds a special place. Named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, bourbon has specific legal requirements it must meet to be called bourbon. The primary rule is that bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels, providing it with its distinct, rich color and unique flavor profile. You might be surprised to learn that bourbon is more than just a drink; it's a reflection of American heritage and craftsmanship.
Now, let's talk about the mash bill, the recipe of grains used to make bourbon. By law, it must be at least 51% corn, but most bourbons contain even more. The rest of the mash bill is usually a mix of malted barley and either rye or wheat. Each grain contributes to the final bourbon taste, creating a perfect symphony of flavors that delight the palate. Bourbon is a dance of sweetness from the corn, spicy notes from rye, or a soft, gentle sweetness if wheat is used.
Bourbon Making Process
From selecting the perfect grains to the final bottling, the bourbon-making process is an art form. The process starts with the selection and milling of the grains, primarily corn, which is then mixed with water and malted barley. The barley is essential because it helps convert the grain's starch into fermentable sugars.
The next step is the fermentation of the grain mash, where the sugars are turned into alcohol. Once the fermentation process is complete, the fermented grain mash is distilled, effectively concentrating the alcohol and flavor compounds. The clear spirit produced, known as "white dog," is then ready for the barrel aging process.
The true magic happens when the bourbon is aged in new charred oak barrels. These barrels aren't just containers; they're vital contributors to bourbon's final flavor and color. As the bourbon ages, it absorbs compounds from the charred oak, leading to its caramel and vanilla notes, its amber color, and that slight smoky hint that's truly enticing. The aging process in these wooden barrels really is what makes bourbon distinct.
Understanding American Whiskey
American whiskey is a broad category that includes a diverse array of spirits, including bourbon. But while all bourbon is American whiskey, not all American whiskey is bourbon. Confused? Let's break it down.
American whiskey can include rye whiskey, blended whiskey straight bourbon, and others, each with its own set of regulations and unique characteristics. Unlike bourbon, not all American whiskeys need to be aged in new barrels. They can be aged in used barrels, which gives them a different flavor profile than bourbon.
For example, rye whiskey, another type of American whiskey besides old bourbon, is made primarily from rye grain, providing it with a spicier and more robust flavor compared to the sweeter notes of bourbon. The mash bill, the recipe of grains used in American whiskey, can vary greatly, leading to a diverse range of flavors and styles.
American Whiskey Making Process
Just like bourbon, the American whiskey making process starts with selecting the grains. However, unlike bourbon, these whiskeys can use a wider variety of grains in their mash bill, not just corn. The chosen grains are milled, mixed with water, and malted barley, much like in the bourbon-making process.
After fermentation, the mash is distilled to create a clear spirit. This spirit is then aged in barrels. However, these aren't always new barrels like with bourbon. American whiskeys can be aged in used barrels, which means they can take on flavors from whatever was previously in the barrel, such as rum or wine. This creates a wide array of flavor profiles and sets American whiskey apart from bourbon.
Comparing Bourbon and American Whiskey
At first glance, the difference between bourbon and American whiskey might seem negligible. After all, both are born from the humble grain, distilled, and matured in barrels. However, when you delve deeper into the world of these spirits, you discover a fascinating array of distinctions, nuances, and regulations that differentiate them.
One of the key differences lies in the aging process. As we already know, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels. This aging process imparts a distinctive sweet flavor that is often described as having notes of caramel and vanilla. In contrast, American whiskey does not necessarily have to be aged in new barrels, and can be matured in used barrels that previously housed other spirits, like rum casks. This variation influences the flavor of the final product, creating a unique taste for each American whiskey, depending on the type of barrel used.
Furthermore, while bourbon's mash bill must be at least 51% corn, American whiskey has no such stipulations. This difference allows American whiskey distillers more liberty in their grain selection, resulting in a diverse array of flavor profiles.
Another distinctive factor between bourbon and American whiskey is their geographic association. While bourbon is traditionally associated with Kentucky, American whiskey can be produced anywhere in the United States, each with its regional influences and styles.
Not All Whiskeys are Bourbons thanks to Charred Oak Barrels
Many whiskey beginners mistakenly believe that bourbon and other types of whiskey often are one and the same. However, this isn't the case. Not all whiskey is bourbon, but all bourbon is indeed a type of whiskey. The distinguishing factor is that bourbon must meet strict legal requirements, including the mash bill composition, aging process, and the use of new charred oak barrels. These unique characteristics set bourbon apart from other whiskeys, say like a Scotch Whiskey (Scotch Whisky for the purist) or Irish Whiskey, and give it its unmistakable identity.
Bourbon & Whiskey FAQs
Now, let's answer some commonly asked questions about delicious bourbon and American whiskey:
Is American whiskey the same as bourbon?
No, not all American whiskey is straight bourbon whiskey. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey with specific legal requirements.
Can American whiskey be called bourbon if it is made?
No, to be called bourbon, the spirit must meet specific criteria, including being made from a grain mixture that's at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, and distilled to no more than 160 proof, among other rules.
Is there a difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Yes, bourbon is a type of whiskey, but it must meet specific legal requirements that distinguish it from other whiskeys including things like the grains and age statement. Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Why is Jack Daniels not considered a bourbon?
Jack Daniels is made in a very similar way to bourbon, using whiskey barrels but it's filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging, which is known as the Lincoln County Process. This process is not part of the requirements for bourbon, so Jack Daniels is classified as a Tennessee whiskey.
Understanding the difference between a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of American whiskey is a fascinating journey through the diverse landscape of these beloved spirits. The key takeaway from our discussion on "bourbon vs. American whiskey" is that while all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon.
Whether you're a whiskey enthusiast or a novice just starting to explore these delightful spirits, knowing these differences between bourbon, and non bourbon whiskeys, can truly enhance your appreciation of what's in your glass. As always, the best way to understand and appreciate bourbon and whiskey is to taste them. So, why not head over to your local liquor store and grab a bottle of each and see if you can spot the differences we've discussed here?