What is the difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?

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You may have heard the saying that “all bourbon is whiskey, but whiskey is not always bourbon.” If you’re a whiskey (and especially bourbon) drinker, you need to know what that means.

 

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The simple answer is that a strict set of federal trade regulations defines what’s what. While whiskey is made all over the world, American whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain and usually aged in an oak barrel. The various types (rye, rye malt, wheat, bourbon and corn) each include different ingredients in accordance with alcohol trade regulations known as the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits.

The history of bourbon is uniquely American. It was traditionally distilled in and around present-day Bourbon County, Kentucky. The area takes its name from the Bourbon dynasty, a royal family that ruled over various countries at different times over the last 500 years. Bourbon is the most popular type of whiskey in the US, but in the 1900s it was considered a “commodity” spirit: cheap, bitter and almost universally bad. The introduction of the federal standards improved the taste and reputation of bourbon and it is now considered the most distinguished form of US whiskey.

To classify their spirits as bourbon, manufacturers must stick to a strict set of standards: their bourbon must be made in the US from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn, it must be distilled to a maximum strength of 160 proof, bottled at a minimum strength of 80 proof, and barreled for aging at no more than 125 proof. It must be aged in new charred oak barrels. To be considered “straight bourbon,” it must meet all the above requirements as well as contain no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits.

The top selling brands of bourbon whiskey in the US are Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey. Some whiskeys, including Jack Daniels, qualify as whiskeys but are not marketed as such.

What Makes a Bourbon: A Cheat Sheet
• Must be made in the United States.
• Must contain 51 percent corn.
• Must be aged in new oak charred barrels.
• Must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and entered into the barrel at 125 proof.
• Must be bottled at no less than 80 proof.
• Must not contain any added flavoring, coloring or other additives.

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