The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey

Bourbon is whiskey, but whiskey is not necessarily bourbon. Here’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey.

Mash Mix

Distilleries use fermented grain—rye, wheat, barley, and/or corn—to make spirits. The types and proportion of grains in the mash, and the kind of barrel it is ages in, defines whether the result is whiskey or bourbon. The main difference between whiskey and bourbon is that bourbon mash must be at least 51% corn.

The 51% rule isn’t just a tradition—it’s the law. While many nations have regulations on distilleries, such as how long spirits must age and in what type of barrels, as well as what the labels must say, US laws about bourbon are among the strictest.

Country of Origin

Whiskey can come from any country in the world. Bourbon, however, is only made in America, most famously in Kentucky. In Scotland you’ll find whisky without the “e,” and the same is true of Japan and Canada. The biggest producers of whiskey or whisky are Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Japan, and the U.S.


Whiskey makers experiment with various types of barrels to age their products—they may combine required time in new or used oak barrels with time in barrels that formerly held sherry, rum, or port wine. Bourbon, however, must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Alcohol by Volume (ABV)

Along with the 51% corn rule, there are strict requirements for bourbon’s alcohol content. It must be distilled at no more than 160 proof, aged in new, charred oak barrels at 125 proof or less for a minimum of 2 years, and bottled at no less than 80 proof or 40% ABV. Straight bourbon whiskey has no additives other than water.

An even stricter standard applies to “bottled in bond” bourbon: as a result of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, this bourbon must be produced at a single, federally bonded distillery in the same calendar year, aged a minimum of four years in new, charred oak barrels, bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV) and have a label that identifies both the distillery and bottler.

Let’s Review—There’ll Be a Quiz

Be ready when friends with more experience collecting fine spirits want to test your knowledge:

  • Bourbon is only made in America, but not necessarily only in Kentucky
  • Bourbon must be distilled from a mash containing at least 51% corn
  • Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV)
  • Bourbon contains no additives other than water
  • Bourbon must age in new, charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years; if less than 4 years old, the label must contain an age statement
  • Bottled in bond bourbon is made in a single, federally bonded distillery, within one calendar year, aged a minimum of four years, bottled at 100 proof, and bear a label identifying both distillery and bottler.

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