What Is the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?

Untappd Team
Post by Untappd Team
April 30, 2024
What Is the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?
Few topics generate as much intrigue and confusion in the spirits’ world as the distinction between whiskey and bourbon. As bastions of beverage innovation, it's paramount to understand these libations' intricacies effectively to cater to your patrons' discerning tastes. This educational guide will unveil the difference between whiskey and bourbon, delving into their origins, production methods, flavor profiles, and cultural significance. By the end, you'll possess the expertise needed to curate a refined spirits selection and elevate the dining experience for your clientele at your restaurant, bar, or taproom.

Understanding Whiskey and Bourbon

If you run or operate a food or beverage business, it could be essential to have a solid understanding of the differences between whiskey and bourbon. These revered spirits, crafted from fermented grain mash, embody centuries of tradition and craftsmanship. While they share commonalities in their production methods, they also boast unique attributes that set them apart.
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Exploring the Origins of Whiskey and Bourbon

Whiskey barrels in a dimly lit tunnel storage area

To truly appreciate the differences between whiskey and bourbon, you must first delve into their rich historical origins, which trace back centuries and span continents. Understanding the historical context behind these beloved spirits adds depth to their stories and enhances appreciation for their enduring legacy.


The story of whiskey begins in the misty hills and verdant valleys of medieval Europe, where alchemists and monks sought to unlock the secrets of distillation. Drawing inspiration from ancient Arabic alchemy, these early pioneers experimented with transforming fermented grains into potent elixirs, laying the groundwork for what would become known as whiskey.

The term "whiskey" itself is derived from the Gaelic word "uisce beatha," meaning "water of life," a testament to the revered status bestowed upon this spirit by its early creators. Initially crafted as a medicinal tonic, whiskey soon found favor among the masses, spreading throughout Ireland and Scotland and becoming an integral part of Celtic culture and tradition.

In Ireland, whiskey production thrived, with monastic distilleries flourishing across the countryside. By the 17th century, Irish whiskey had gained international acclaim for its smoothness and complexity, becoming a prized export to far-flung corners of the globe.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, whisky (spelled without the "e") emerged as a staple of Highland life, with each region boasting its unique style and flavor profile. From the peaty malts of Islay to the delicate blends of Speyside, Scotch whisky embodied the rugged beauty and timeless allure of the Scottish landscape.


The origins of bourbon are deeply intertwined with the history of colonial America, where European settlers brought a rich tapestry of distillation traditions. As pioneers ventured westward into the untamed wilderness of Kentucky, they encountered abundant natural resources, including fertile soil and pure limestone water, ideal conditions for whiskey production.

In the late 18th century, settlers in Kentucky began experimenting with locally available grains, particularly corn, which thrived in the region's fertile soil. By utilizing corn as the primary ingredient in their mash bill, these early distillers discovered a sweeter, smoother spirit that would eventually become known as bourbon.

Legend has it that the name "bourbon" pays homage to Bourbon County, Kentucky, where people first distilled the spirit. However, the exact origins of the name remain shrouded in mystery, with competing theories attributing it to everything from the French Bourbon dynasty to the bustling port of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Regardless of its etymology, bourbon quickly captured the hearts and palates of Americans, earning a reputation as the quintessential American spirit. With time, bourbon production spread beyond Kentucky's borders, symbolizing American craftsmanship and ingenuity.

Today, both whiskey and bourbon continue to captivate enthusiasts around the world. Their rich histories and enduring legacies testify to the timeless allure of these beloved spirits. As restaurant, bar, and small business owners, embracing the stories behind these libations adds depth and authenticity to your spirits selection, inviting patrons to embark on a journey through time with each sip.

Production Process: Insight into How Whiskey and Bourbon Are Crafted

A persons tests a small sample of whiskey from a barrel

The whiskey and bourbon production process is a fascinating blend of art and science. 

  1. Mashing: The journey begins with the mashing of grains, where a carefully selected combination of cereal grains—such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat—is ground into a coarse powder known as grist. This grist is then mixed with hot water in a process called mashing, allowing enzymes to convert the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars.
  2. Fermentation: Following mashing, the resulting liquid, known as mash, is transferred to fermentation tanks, where yeast is added to initiate the fermentation process. Over several days, the yeast converts the sugars in the mash into alcohol and carbon dioxide, yielding a low-alcohol liquid known as wash or distiller's beer.
  3. Distillation: The next step is to heat the wash in copper pot stills or column stills to separate alcohol from water and other impurities. This results in a high-proof distillate known as "white dog" or "new make spirit," which serves as the raw material for whiskey and bourbon.
  4. Aging: Perhaps the most transformative stage of the production process is aging, where the raw distillate is matured in wooden barrels to develop depth, complexity, and character. During this time, the spirit interacts with the wood, drawing out flavors and aromas from the barrel while also undergoing chemical reactions that mellow harsh flavors and impart rich nuances.

Key Differences Between Whiskey and Bourbon Ingredients

A glass of whiskey sitting on a bed of malt

While sharing a similar production process, whiskey and bourbon ingredients have fundamental differences, contributing to their distinct flavor profiles and legal classifications.

Whiskey Ingredients

Whiskey is a broad category of distilled spirits encompassing diverse styles and flavors. You can make whiskey from various grains, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat, with different ones producing unique flavor characteristics. For example, barley-based whiskies like Scotch whisky often exhibit a malty sweetness, while rye whiskies tend to be bold and spicy.

Bourbon Ingredients

On the other hand, Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey that must adhere to strict legal requirements to earn its coveted designation. According to U.S. regulations, bourbon must be made from a mash bill containing at least fifty-one percent corn, with the remainder typically comprised of malted barley, rye, or wheat. This high corn content contributes to bourbon's signature sweetness and smoothness, distinguishing it from other types of whiskey.

By understanding these nuances in the production process and ingredients, restaurant and bar owners can curate a well-rounded selection of spirits that cater to a diverse range of palates and preferences, whether it's the rich complexity of aged whiskey or the smooth sweetness of bourbon.

Key Differences Between Whiskey and Bourbon Maturation

The difference between whiskey and bourbon during aging is where these spirits genuinely come into their own, acquiring depth and complexity over time. Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels by law, imparting unique caramel and vanilla notes. In contrast, whiskey offers versatility in barrel selection, allowing for a broader range of flavor profiles.

Whiskey Maturation

Whiskey maturation is a multifaceted process shaped by factors such as barrel selection, aging conditions, and environmental influences. Whiskey distillers have many options for barrel selection, with different types of wood imparting unique flavors and characteristics to the spirit.

One of the most significant differences in whiskey maturation lies in the aging conditions. Unlike bourbon, which must be aged in new charred oak barrels, whiskey producers have greater flexibility in barrel selection, allowing for experimentation with a wide range of barrel types, including ex-bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and wine barrels, each contributing distinct flavors and aromas to the final product.

Environmental factors also play a crucial role in whiskey maturation, with variations in temperature, humidity, and altitude influencing the aging process. In Scotland, for example, the cool, damp climate of the Highlands slows down the aging process, resulting in a more gradual extraction of flavors from the wood. In contrast, whiskies aged in warmer climates, such as those in the American South or Japan, may mature more quickly due to higher temperatures and more significant wood interaction.

Overall, whiskey maturation is a dynamic and complex process that allows for a diverse range of flavor profiles, from the rich, smoky notes of peated Scotch whisky to the smooth, mellow tones of Irish whiskey.

Bourbon Maturation

Unlike whiskey, bourbon maturation is governed by strict legal requirements that dictate the aging process. By law, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels, a mandate that sets it apart from other types of whiskey.

New charred oak barrels are integral to bourbon maturation, imparting distinctive flavors and aromas to the spirit. The charring process caramelizes the sugars in the wood, creating layers of rich caramel, vanilla, and spice that infuse the bourbon with its signature sweetness and depth of flavor.

The aging process for bourbon is typically more rapid than whiskey, thanks to the freshly charred oak barrels, which provide ample wood contact and rapid flavor extraction. As a result, bourbon can achieve maturity in a shorter period, although many producers choose to age their bourbon for several years to allow for optimal flavor development.

Additionally, the aging environment plays a crucial role in bourbon maturation, with Kentucky's hot summers and cold winters creating ideal conditions for aging. The fluctuating temperatures cause the bourbon to expand and contract within the barrel, facilitating more significant interaction with the wood and enhancing flavor extraction.

The critical differences in maturation between whiskey and bourbon contribute to their unique flavor profiles and sensory experiences. Whether it's the diverse range of flavors in whiskey or the sweet, caramel notes of bourbon, each spirit offers a journey through time and tradition that captivates the senses and delights the palate.

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Key Differences Between Whiskey and Bourbon Taste Profiles

A person sampling whiskey in a retail store

One of the most captivating aspects of whiskey and bourbon is their diverse flavors and aromas, each imbued with its distinct personality and character. Exploring the taste profiles of these spirits allows us to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship involved in their creation and the unique contributions of ingredients, aging, and production techniques.

Whiskey Taste Profiles

With its broad spectrum of styles and expressions, whiskey offers a kaleidoscope of flavors that appeal to a wide range of palates, from the smoky depths of peated Scotch whisky to the rich sweetness of Irish whiskey. 

Scotch whisky, hailing from the rugged landscapes of Scotland, is renowned for its diversity of flavors, influenced by factors such as region, barley type, and aging process. Islay whiskies, characterized by their peaty maritime notes, evoke images of windswept coastlines and roaring bonfires. In contrast, Speyside whiskies offer a softer, more delicate profile with hints of orchard fruits and honey.

Irish whiskey, known for its smoothness and approachability, boasts a mellow sweetness that appeals to both novice drinkers and seasoned aficionados alike. With its triple-distillation process and emphasis on pot stills, Irish whiskey exhibits a creamy texture and subtle complexity, making it a perennial favorite among connoisseurs.

On the other hand, American whiskey encompasses a diverse range of styles, from the bold spiciness of rye whiskey to the smooth sweetness of wheat whiskey. With its peppery bite and robust flavor profile, rye whiskey evokes images of the Old West and the rugged frontier spirit of early America. 

Bourbon Taste Profiles

Considered America's native spirit, bourbon is celebrated for its sweet, caramel-forward flavors and smooth, velvety texture. Crafted from a mash bill containing at least fifty-one percent corn and aged in charred oak barrels, bourbon offers a rich palate of flavors, ranging from warm baking spices to toasted oak and dark fruits.

Aging imparts unique flavors and aromas to the spirit, including caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, and hints of spice and oak. The charred barrel also serves to mellow the spirit, smoothing any harsh edges and creating a harmonious balance of flavors.

Another factor contributing to bourbon's distinct taste profile is its production method, which typically involves a sour mash process and a lower distillation proof than other whiskies. This results in a fuller, more robust flavor profile with greater depth and complexity than other types of whiskey.

Cultural Significance and Traditions: Impact on Consumer Preferences

A variety of whiskey bottles on a shelf behind a bar

The cultural significance and traditions surrounding whiskey and bourbon play a pivotal role in shaping how consumers perceive and enjoy these spirits. Understanding the differences between whiskey and bourbon’s historical and cultural context provides valuable insights into the factors driving consumer preferences and purchasing decisions.

Whiskey Traditions and Consumer Preferences

With its rich heritage and global appeal, whiskey holds a special place in the hearts and minds of consumers worldwide. From the misty highlands of Scotland to the rolling green hills of Ireland, whiskey is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of its birthplaces, evoking images of ancestral traditions and timeless craftsmanship.

In Scotland, whisky is more than just a spirit—a way of life. From the storied distilleries of Speyside to the rugged landscapes of Islay, whisky production is steeped in centuries-old traditions and rituals passed down from generation to generation. Scots see the whisky-making process as a sacred art form, with each distillery imparting its unique character and flavor profile to the spirit.

Similarly, in Ireland, whiskey holds a special place in the hearts of its people, symbolizing hospitality, conviviality, and the warmth of Irish hospitality. The Irish have a long-standing whiskey-making tradition dating back centuries to the monastic distilleries of the Middle Ages. Today, Irish whiskey continues to be celebrated for its smoothness, approachability, and versatility, appealing to seasoned connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike.

Bourbon Tradititions and Consumer Preferences

As America's native spirit, bourbon embodies the spirit of the American frontier and the pioneering spirit of its early settlers. From the fertile lands of Kentucky to the bustling streets of New Orleans, bourbon has become synonymous with American culture, evoking images of southern hospitality, rugged individualism, and the spirit of the open road.

In Kentucky, bourbon is more than just a drink. The Bluegrass State is home to some of the most iconic bourbon distilleries in the world, including names like Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Maker's Mark. Bourbon production is deeply ingrained in the state's heritage and identity, with each distillery proudly preserving the traditions and techniques passed down through generations.

Beyond its roots in Kentucky, bourbon has transcended geographic boundaries to become a symbol of American craftsmanship and ingenuity. From coast to coast, bourbon enthusiasts gather to celebrate the spirit's rich history and cultural significance, whether it's sipping a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby or sampling small-batch bourbons at a local whiskey festival.

For many consumers, the heritage and authenticity of whiskey and bourbon are essential factors in their purchasing decisions. They seek out brands with a rich history and a commitment to traditional production methods, viewing them as a reflection of quality and integrity. Additionally, the cultural associations and rituals surrounding these spirits add to their allure, providing consumers with a sense of connection to the past and a deeper appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship involved in their creation.

A Final Word on the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon

Mastering the nuances between whiskey and bourbon empowers restaurant and bar owners to curate a sophisticated spirits selection and enrich the dining experience for their patrons. By embracing these esteemed libations' rich history, production methods, and flavor profiles, you can create a beverage adventure that resonates with your clientele and leaves a lasting impression.

Note: This article was generated with the help of ChatGPT. It was edited, enhanced, and published by humans.

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Untappd Team
Post by Untappd Team
April 30, 2024
These blogs are from various members of the Untappd for Business team!