What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey? Hint: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

The difference between bourbon and whiskey may not seem all that apparent, especially if you don’t drink either regularly, says Margaret Eby on Food & Wine After all, they look very similar, which could add to the confusion.

If you just refer to bourbon as whiskey, you wouldn’t be altogether wrong. “Bourbon is a type of whiskey, much the way that champagne is a type of wine,” she explains. “And all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.”

Let’s look at the obvious differences:

  • Bourbon has to contain at least 51% corn:

What differentiates bourbon from other whiskeys is the way in which it is manufactured and aged. All whiskey is spirit made from fermented grain and then aged in barrels. To be classified as bourbon, a whiskey needs to be distilled from a mixture of grains/mash of which at least 51% is corn. It is this corn which gives bourbon its distinctive sweet flavour.

  • Bourbon is always aged in new charred oak barrels and cannot include any additives or colourings.

Other whiskeys can be aged in barrels previously used to age other spirits: such as sherry, port or rum casks which are used to age non-bourbon whiskeys. To be designated “straight bourbon whiskey,” bourbon has to have been aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.

  • Bourbon has to reach certain ABV percentages

The mash has to be distilled at 160 proof (or 80 % ABV) or less, and aged in barrels until it is no more than 125 proof (62,5% ABV) or less. Before bottling, bourbon is filtered and diluted down to no less than 80 proof (40% ABV). Other whiskeys have different ABV standards for barreling and distilling.

  • Lastly – it doesn’t need to come from Kentucky (although it probably does)

It is often believed that to be called a bourbon, the whiskey has to be from Kentucky, which is not altogether true as bourbon may be made outside that state. Only whiskey to be designated a Kentucky bourbon, has to be both distilled and aged in Kentucky. The name “bourbon” even comes from old Bourbon, what is now Bourbon County, Kentucky. Most bourbon is made in Kentucky, but not all, so it has become synonymous with the spirit, much as the Champagne region in France is synonymous with champagne, even though sparkling wine using similar methods is produced elsewhere.

So next time you order a bourbon, you know that what you’ll be getting in your glass isn’t just a whiskey, but a specific (and delicious) kind of whiskey.


Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana USA