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- What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon? -

Man drinkt bourbon whiskey

Bourbon is always called whiskey, but whiskey is not always called bourbon. Why not? What is bourbon? and what is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

Bourbon is a whiskey from America. Bourbon is whiskey but not whisky. This is because it does not come from Scotland (whisky) but from America (whiskey). To be able to call a whiskey bourbon, it must meet 5 requirements:

  • It must be made in America
  • It must consist of at least 51% corn
  • It should not contain any other drinks or dyes
  • After the second distillation, the alcohol percentage must be below 80%.
  • If you want to call it straight bourbon it must be aged for at least 2 years

In the rest of this article I will go into more detail about what whiskey bourbon is, how it originated and what are well-known bourbon whiskeys.

When is it a whiskey bourbon?

Bourbon whiskey is the most popular whiskey type because of its unique production process and origin. Bourbon whiskey can only come from America and since it comes from America, it can never be called bourbon whiskey (without e) and it can never be written without e since this is only allowed with Scottish whiskeys.

Second, the whiskey must contain at least 51% corn. Bourbon whiskey must be stored and aged in new charred oak barrels. Old and non-charred barrels may also be used with other whiskeys. The structure of the barrels is essential to bring out the right flavor and only with the right taste can you call a whiskey bourbon.

In order to officially call the whiskey bourbon, it must be distilled in a certain way. During this distillation process it must be distilled the first time to 160 proof (80%). When the whiskey goes into the barrel to mature, the whiskey must be at 125 proof (62.5%). Proof is a term that expresses an alcohol percentage this comes from the time of the Marines in the 18th century. It was the case that at the time agreements were made about the amount of alcohol per day. By means of a test, the marines could check whether there was enough alcohol in their drink. The test went as follows: The Marines had a small bowl of gunpowder. They poured liquor over this. If the gunpowder could still be lit, she called these 100 proofs. Ultimately it turned out that gunpowder can still be lit from an alcohol percentage of 50%. In short, 100 proof is an alcohol percentage of 50%. So, 160 proof is 80% and 125 proof is 62.5%.

All these bourbon making standards are set out in the ‘Bottle in Bond Act’. This occurred in 1897. The act was once created because in the 19th century a lot of bourbon was forged or diluted. These rules are strict but necessary. For example, the bourbon must also be bottled and stored (maximum 4 years) under the supervision of the US government. In addition, bourbon must be distilled in a single season and may only be distilled in a few distilleries. This is all done to ensure the quality of the American good.

History of bourbon

Bourbon whiskey gets its name from the town of Bourbon County, in the state of Kentucky. This is where the bourbon whiskey was first produced. At the time, Bourbon County had the main harbor on the Ohio River. Through this port the bourbon whiskey was therefore spread all over America and eventually the whole world.

Bourbon was created by the knowledge of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 18th century. These immigrants took their knowledge of whiskey production with them and brought it to the Americans. As mentioned earlier, whiskey is made from grain. There was a surplus of maize in America at the time. Because of this surplus, it was decided to make the whiskey from corn. This is the main difference between American whiskeys and European whiskeys. Bourbon is also known for this unique aspect in the production process.

Bourbon whiskey used to be sold as: Old Bourbon Whiskey. In 1840 it was decided to change this to only bourbon.

Between 1920 and 1933 it was illegal to produce and sell alcohol in America. This was done because there were too many alcoholics in America at the time. During this period, the illegal trade and production of liquor grew rapidly. This period has destroyed many Bourbon distilleries.

In the 80s of the last century there was talk of a great devaluation of whiskey. This means that whiskey was worth much less. The market thus became smaller. This was the toughest period for all whiskey types and brands.

Differences between scotch and bourbon

Scotch and bourbon differ in almost all aspects of whiskey. You can distinguish them on 4 points: origin, distillation, maturation, and taste.


Of course, there is a difference of origin. As you can see in the name with scotch whiskey, this type of whiskey comes from Scotland. Scotch whiskey must be made in Scotland. If the label also says, ‘Scotch whisky’, the whiskey must also be bottled in Scotland. However, there is also an exception to the rule. Blended scotch whiskey does not have to be made in Scotland.

As mentioned earlier in this article, bourbon comes from America. Two-thirds of the bourbon comes from Kentucky and the remainder comes from other parts of America.


The distillation process of scotch whiskey is quite different. Scotch whiskey consists of several categories. Single malt whiskey is often distilled twice, in very exceptional cases this happens three times. In other categories, this may differ. The type of boiler used may also vary by category. For example, single malt whiskey is prepared with ‘pot stills’, but grain whiskeys with ‘column stills’. The biggest difference between these boilers is the shape of the boiler. For example, pot stills are large round copper kettles and column stills oblong steel boilers.

With bourbon, the column still is often used in the first distillation. The pot still is used in the second distillation. Due to the way of distilling, the alcohol percentage of the bourbon will increase. The is an efficient way to perform a double distillation without going through much effort. In addition to that, it is also timesaving.


Scotch can mature in different barrels. For example, old wine and rum barrels would be used. Different flavors are also created by using different barrels. A fun fact is that the bourbon industry is particularly important to Scotch whiskey because of their barrels and flavor. Many used bourbon barrels are exported to Scotland to be used in the aging of the scotch whiskey.


Different flavors are possible with both whiskeys. The flavors of the scotch whiskey are remarkably diverse, and all 4 flavor profiles apply. Both mild and intense whiskeys are possible with the scotch whiskey. The flavors depend on the grain, the ripening time, and the number of distillations.

With bourbon, the flavors are more similar. Nevertheless, there are also differences within the bourbon flavors. Since corn is always used as a grain of bourbon, the taste is always quite sweet. Other flavors that are common in bourbon are cinnamon, caramel, nutmeg, and vanilla.

Which whiskeys are bourbon?

The bourbon whiskey can be divided into 4 flavors. These are: Grain bourbons, caramel bourbons, cinnamon bourbons, and nutmeg bourbons. Below I will give a brief explanation per taste and give an example of a whiskey that matches that taste.

Grain bourbons

Grain bourbons are often young bourbons. They contain flavors similar to cornbread, oatmeal and rye bread. An example of a grain bourbon is the Hudson Baby Bourbon.

Caramel bourbons

The name of this type of bourbon speaks volumes about the taste: Caramel. The taste is created by means of the charred barrels. The technique ensures that the sugars caramelize. In this category, there are big differences in how much caramel flavor is in the bourbon. An example of a caramel bourbon is the Marker’s Mark.

Cinnamon bourbons

Also called the American Rye whiskey. It contains many notes of cinnamon and resembles whiskey made from rye. An example of a cinnamon bourbon is the Bulleit.

Nutmeg bourbons

Nutmeg bourbons not only resemble nutmeg, but also toasted nuts, pumpkin pie and eggnog. It is unclear where the nutmeg comes from. It is striking that in addition to corn, a lot of barley is used. This will certainly affect the taste as well. An example of a nutmeg bourbon is the Buffalo Trace.

Is Jack Daniel’s bourbon?

No, although there is often a misunderstanding about this, Jack Daniel’s is not a bourbon. It is not bourbon because after distillation the whiskey is still filtered through a three meter thick layer of charcoal and maple. Since that is not part of the preparation of a bourbon, you cannot call Jack Daniel’s bourbon whiskey.

By the way, Jack Daniel’s does not want to be called a bourbon either because according to the makers it is more than just a bourbon. For example, the company had to take measures not to fall under the bourbon whiskey. If they had not, they would be bourbon whiskey. This would mean that everything must be done under government supervision. The whiskey brand from Tennessee obviously does not want this.

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