Bourbon Vs. Whiskey: They’re Not Necessarily The Same

Whiskey is one of those liquors with an endless number of variants and specific ways to classify each product. One of the most popular types of whiskey is bourbon, a versatile liquor that can be great in a cocktail or on its own.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the unique qualities that bourbon has, what sets it apart from other kinds of whiskey, and give you some fun recipes for cocktails that make use of America’s national spirit.

Bourbon is a term for any American whiskey that follows strict regulations regarding its recipe. For a whiskey producer to label their product as bourbon, it must be made from a mash consisting of at least 51% corn, and it must be distilled at 160 proof or less. It must also contain no additives. Interestingly, American law states that “bourbon” is whisky produced in the United States,” meaning that no whiskey made outside of the United States can be labeled bourbon.

To learn more about bourbon, how it compares to other kinds of whiskey, and some great cocktail recipes, continue reading.

The history of whiskey and bourbon

Whiskey has been around for a long time. The first whiskeys were made in Ireland and Scotland between 1100 and 1300 CE by people who learned about the distillation process through travelers and monks from mainland Europe. In Europe, distillation was mostly used for making wine and ale by fermenting local crops. In the northern United Kingdom, locals used what they had available. What they had was grain mash, and the result was whiskey.

It was originally referred to as aqua vitae by those living in Great Britain at the time, which is Latin for ‘water of life.’

As whiskey grew in popularity and was spread worldwide by British Colonists, other countries began making variants of the original ‘scotch’ whiskey. In Canada, for example, a mash of fermenting rye was often used, so Canadian whiskey is usually referred to as ‘rye.’

The name ‘Bourbon’

In America, they made bourbon. However, bourbon doesn’t take its name from grain or its country of origin like other varieties of whiskey. The origins of the name bourbon are uncertain, but there are two main theories that opinions are split between.

One opinion is that bourbon was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Bourbon Street is thought to have been the ‘finishing line’ for American bootleggers bringing their spirits to port.

The other opinion is that the name comes from Bourbon County in Kentucky. Apparently, the county produced corn spirits labeled as ‘Old Bourbon County Whiskey,’ which was eventually shortened to ‘Bourbon Whiskey’ by Jacob Spears in 1840.

Likely, a combination of both stories led to the name sticking as well as it has. In 1964, the American Government declared bourbon the official spirit of America and laid out the legal guidelines for a product labeled as ‘Bourbon Whiskey.’

How is bourbon made differently from other whiskeys?

Different kinds of whiskeys have different rules governing how they are made and the ingredients used to create them.


As mentioned above, bourbon uses at least 51% corn mash, must be made and distilled in the United States, and can contain no additives (only water and the distilled mash). Additionally, to be called ‘straight bourbon,’ it must be aged in charred new oak barrels for at least two years.

A big question is whether Tennessee sour mash whiskey (like Jack Daniels) is considered bourbon.

The answer is yes, Tennessee sour mash is bourbon but is governed by additional regulations. Sour mash must be between 51 and 79 percent corn and must be filtered through pieces of maple charcoal before aging.

Scotch And Irish Whiskey

Scotch and Irish whiskey are very similar, but they are not the same thing. The best Scotch and Irish whiskeys are single malts, meaning that the mash used is made from 100% barley. They are both aged for three years in oak casks, and both variants make use of a ‘pot still.’ A pot still is an old-fashioned tool for distilling and has reportedly been in use worldwide since 790 CE for distilling purposes. The main difference between Irish and Scotch Whiskey is that Irish techniques include roasting the mash to give a clearer barley flavor. Japan also makes many high-quality whiskeys and uses very similar techniques to the ones used to create Scotch.

Rye Or Canadian Whiskey

Rye is often referred to as Canadian Whiskey. However, rye can be made outside of Canada as long as it is not labeled as ‘Canadian.’ In Canada, the only hard and fast rules are that a whiskey must be mashed, distilled, and bottled within the country and that it must not be aged in small wood for less than three years. It often contains additives like caramel or other flavorings as well.

More generally, rye is a whiskey that primarily uses rye grain instead of corn or barley in its mash. It has tons of variants, but generally, it is considered an easy-to-drink whiskey produced in many different countries.

What can you use bourbon for?

Whiskey, in general, is often served neat (just whiskey in the glass) or ‘on the rock’s (with ice). However, whiskey (and especially Bourbon) is the primary ingredient in many cocktails and mixed drinks.

One note: Scotch is one type of whiskey usually not used in cocktails or mixed drinks. The only exception would possibly be a scotch and soda.

Below are three great recipes for cocktails that use Bourbon as a central ingredient. You can adjust the ratios slightly depending on how you like your drink, so use the ingredient lists and experiment with how much of something you need to make the perfect cocktail.

Old Fashioned

Perhaps the most classic cocktail in the world, an Old Fashioned is easy to make and delicious. Some people use a whole slice of orange, and some prefer a more bitter drink that only uses a slice of orange peel. Experiment to figure out what you prefer.

You’ll need:

  • 1 Teaspoon Simple syrup
  • 3 Dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 2 ounces Bourbon
  • 1 slice orange
  • 1 maraschino cherry
  • Ice

Combine the simple syrup, bitters, and water into a glass and stir them before adding the ice. Then add your favorite bourbon and add the cherry and orange slices as a garnish.

New York Sour

It is just as easy and just as classic as an old-fashioned or a traditional whiskey sour, but it looks a little more impressive. This is a great cocktail to serve your friends. The egg whites are technically optional for this one, but they definitely add a little extra something.

You’ll need:

  • 2 Ounces Bourbon
  • 1 Ounce Lemon Juice
  • 1 Ounce Simple Syrup
  • ½ Ounce Red Wine
  • 1 Egg White

Combine all the ingredients except for the wine into a shaker and give it a good shake to whip up those egg whites. Pour the mixture into a glass that has ice in it, then add the red wine. When adding the wine, pour slowly or over a spoon to help it float on top of the rest of the mixture.

Hot Toddy

Hot Toddys are a classic winter cocktail, and they’re so easy. The lemon slices and cinnamon stick are an optional garnish, but it makes your drink feel so much more refined.

You’ll need:

  • ¼ Cup Boiling water
  • 1 oz Bourbon
  • 1 Tablespoon Honey
  • 2 Tablespoon Lemon juice
  • 1 Lemon slice
  • 1 cinnamon stick

Boil the water and pour it into a mug. Then add the whiskey, honey, and lemon juice. Place your garnishes in your mug, and you’re done.

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