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Bourbon or Whiskey: What’s The Difference?

Bourbon and whiskey are very similar drinks, and for a good reason: bourbon is actually a specific variety of whiskey, just like how a ham sandwich is a type of sandwich. Even still, a lot of people prefer to keep them distinct from one another, especially if they are a big fan of getting their drinks right or following some of the more exclusive alcohol varieties.

But what is bourbon compared to generic whiskey, and why is it so popular? Here is a quick comparison between your standard whiskey options and a typical glass of bourbon.

Bourbon uses Corn

All whiskey types can be made differently, but they generally follow the same fermenting process: you put grains in a barrel, ferment them, and then age them until you are ready to bottle and sell them. This means that the grains used can have an impact on the type of whiskey you get, as can the specific shape, size, or materials of the barrel.

Bourbon is a result of fermenting a mixture of different grains with a majority of corn: 51% corn is the minimum possible requirement for it to be considered bourbon by the American Bourbon Association. This is meant to be what gives the bourbon a sweeter flavor and taste.

Of course, that still leaves 49% or less to be filled up with other grains, which is why there are different kinds of bourbon. The exact grains used can alter the kind of flavor you get, even if the majority is still regular corn grains.

Bourbon Needs a Certain Barrel

Since the barrel impacts the results of the fermenting process, bourbon is almost always created using the same container. These are new charred oak barrels, and most bourbons specifically need to be kept away from additives or colorings during the process. In contrast, many whiskeys are fermented in used barrels that contained other spirits, which gives them a different taste.

The most popular and well-known form of bourbon is straight bourbon whiskey, which has been kept in one of these specific barrels for at least two years. Other types exist, but they are not always produced on the same scale or at the same rate. Since the barrel types matter, it is also possible for local wood to create a different flavor to similar types in another country.

Bourbon Comes from Certain Areas

Well, not really. A common claim is that bourbon has to come from Kentucky to really be considered bourbon, but that is not exactly true unless you are specifically looking for ‘Kentucky bourbon.’ This is the same principle as certain cheeses needing to come from certain towns: it is not really true, but a lot of people like to stand by it either way.

Remember that whiskey is quite a common drink in many countries across the world, and as long as there is corn available, it is technically possible to brew bourbon. This means that any bottle of bourbon could have come from almost anywhere in the world, and it is practically impossible to tell the difference if the general ingredients and grains are the same.

Bourbon Needs Certain ABV Levels

ABV (alcohol by volume) is a good indicator of how alcoholic a drink is. In the case of bourbon, it has to hit a certain proof/alcohol content by the time it gets barrelled: the mash of grains needs to be distilled at 160 proof (roughly 80% ABV) and reach about 125 proof (62.5% ABV) before it is bottled.

When the bourbon is actually being bottled, the mixture needs to be diluted down to somewhere above 80 proof, which is 40% ABV. This is in contrast to other whiskey types, which either have no limits or other ABV ranges that they have to hit. This is not just something that a bourbon club would notice since it changes the fundamental ingredients and strength of the drink itself.

This is important since the ABV of a drink changes how alcoholic it is by adding more or less alcohol to the mixture. Bourbon, in this case, is around 40% alcohol, whereas other types might be best around 36% ABV. Personal preference matters, of course, but pushing the ABV too high or too low generally makes it into a different drink entirely.

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