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What's The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

This question seems like a no-brainer, right? They're one in the same, aren't they? Well, yes and no. There are some key differences.

Pouring Whiskey into Shot Glass

Photo by Meredith

Think of Whiskey as King

To sort out this burning question about brown liquor, I turned to expert mixologist, Jerry Slater, the Atlanta-based co-author of The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails, for the straight-up scoop. "Whiskey is a broad category of alcohol distilled from cereal grains," he explained. Sub-categories include Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey, rye whiskey, Canadian whiskey and bourbon. Tennessee whiskey is distinguished from its boozy bretheren because producers use a technique called the Lincoln process, which means the whiskey is filtered through maple charcoal. "That makes it smoother and sweeter," said Slater, of the famous brands such as Jack Daniels.

Homemade Rye Bourbon Manhattan with a Cherry Garnish

Homemade Rye Bourbon Manhattan with a Cherry Garnish

And Bourbon's the Queen

In 1965, the U.S. government's department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms laid down the law on exactly what can be called bourbon. "Bourbon has to be made from at least 51 percent corn," Slater said. "It must be aged a minimum of two years, and, if it's less than four years, it must say so on the label. It must be aged in new white oak barrels. And it must be made in America." For many years, bourbon fans believed the spirit was produced only in the south, only in Kentucky. But that's definitely not the case. "There's bourbon being made in all 50 states these days."

Rye is The Wild Card

Rye whiskey is experiencing a newfound popularity, especially as the cocktail culture shows no sign of slowing down. Cheers to that! Rye is an essential ingredient in classic drinks like a Manhattan, with its slightly spicy profile bringing a whole lot of character to the party. Here's a little rye trivia: It makes for a very good fermentation starter, so many bourbons use a small amount of rye in their mix.

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Watch This!


This short video walks you through the process of making a Mint Julep, one of the world's most famous bourbon cocktails:

About Leslie Kelly

Always hungry to learn, never had my fill of oysters, Memphis dry rub ribs, wild salmon, chocolate chip cookies or a well-rolled lumpia. Washington state wine lover, bourbon fan. Totally obsessed with brunch!