The main difference between bourbon and whisky is that bourbon can only be produced in the United States of America (US). Similar to how Scotch whisky can only be made in Scotland, bourbon whisky cannot be made outside the US. Some other rules need to be followed to craft bourbon. These rules are that the whisky mash must consist of at least 51% corn, the mash needs to be distilled at 80% ABV (160 proof), the spirits must be aged in new oak barrels, and there can be no added ingredients other than water. Unlike many other whiskies, there is no age requirement for bourbon. However, all bourbon aged less than four years will need to be marked as so on its label. Any bourbon aged over two years can be labelled as ‘straight bourbon whisky’.
There is a bit of a misconception that bourbon whisky comes from Kentucky in the south-eastern part of the US. However, this is not actually true, although approximately 90% of bourbon whisky is produced in Kentucky. With the boutique whisky industry exploding in the US, new whisky distilleries are operating all over the state. Many of these newer distilleries are pushing the boundaries for what it takes to make a premium bourbon whisky.
One requirement of bourbon is that it needs to be aged in new oak barrels. Still, because there are no minimum age requirements, many distilleries transfer their whiskies into other used barrels for the finishing process. This reasonably new development means you can find some intriguing flavours that will add a new experience to the bourbon taste. Many of these whiskies are in limited supply and are considered to rival most top-shelf whiskies.
When anyone is discussing whisky, they are talking about all styles of whisky, and not necessarily just bourbon. If you ask for a whisky in the US, you'll likely only be offered bourbon whisky. If you want to sample a premium Australian whisky in the US, you'll have to be more specific!
What is the difference between whisky and bourbon?
When asking what is the difference between whisky and bourbon, note that bourbon uses corn as the predominant grain. Bourbon also uses new barrels, and most other whiskies use old barrels. In fact, many Scottish and Irish whiskies use old bourbon barrels, so it's clear there is still plenty of life left in those wood fibres.
The majority of a whisky's flavour will come from the type of barrels it was matured in. There is a lot less nuance in the flavour with bourbon because they need to use new barrels. However, certain distilleries are experimenting with barrels made of wood other than oak. You can find bourbon that has spent a portion of its maturation in cherry, ash, and maple barrels.
The tradition of bourbon being only matured in new oak barrels started when the early Kentucky distillers would transport barrels by the Mississippi River. The long journey aided in maturing the whisky but returning the barrel became problematic. The cost of return passage for empty barrels was more than it cost to make new ones, so the tradition started.
While all bourbon is whisky, not all whisky is bourbon, and this is because whisky covers many different liquor styles. Whisky is defined as any spirit derived from distilling fermented grains. In some countries (e.g., Scotland), the rules for whisky are a little tighter, but in others (e.g., Australia), these are more relaxed. As Australia does not have a long history of distilling aged whisky, there is more flexibility for what distillers can accomplish.
The most common whisky in the world is single malt whisky and blended malt whisky. These whiskies are made using malted barley and other grains. Bourbon can use barley as a part of the mash, but corn must be at least 51% of the overall mash.
How to choose between whisky or bourbon?
All good whisky – bourbon or otherwise – should come with tasting notes. These notes may be listed on the bottle or on the distiller's website. You can read through these notes and decide if you like the sound of the flavours. For example, if you enjoy the taste of cinnamon and butterscotch, try to find a whisky that includes those as its flavour profile.
Trying all different types of whisky is the fundamental goal of most whisky enthusiasts. Only by sampling a large variety can you determine which whiskies are indeed the best. At Lark Distillery, we make several different whisky tasting sets that are ideal for this purpose. In these whisky sets, you'll be supplied with one or more bottles of our Australian single malt whisky or our blended whiskies. These are perfect for tasting alongside bourbon whisky, and then you can compare them and make the final decision.
Where to buy the best whisky or bourbon?
You can find bourbon whisky in most retail liquor stores, as it is quite popular in Australia and the rest of the world. However, buying whisky online offers you more choices, especially if you're after rare whisky that is hard to find.
In the Lark Distillery online shop, you can find all our Australian whisky, which can make for the perfect whisky gift pack. If someone you know enjoys whisky, then sharing the delights of a well-crafted Australian whisky can simply hit the spot!