What’s the difference between bourbon and whisky?
Bourbon drinkers swear by Bourbon. Whiskey drinkers swear by whiskey. And they both swear at each other, proclaiming the indisputable superiority of their drink over the other. The rest of the world stands back, bemused, wonders what all the fuss is about, and hopes that matters don’t turn violent. In honor of Bourbon Month, Drinking 101 examines the differences, and the debate between these two similar, yet wholly incongruous spirits.
Devout bourbon drinkers will instinctively dispute the following blasphemy, but bourbon and whiskey share a similar derivation: whiskey. Bourbonites are not moved by the fact bourbon is, in truth, called bourbon whiskey, and thus the speed at which rational discussion breaks down is not terribly surprising.
So what is the difference? It has to do with preparation, though as described in the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, the differences are subtle:
Whiskeys are distilled from a fermented mash of grain (usually corn, rye, barley or wheat) and then aged in oak barrels.
Bourbon Whiskey is distilled from a mash of grain containing not less than 51 percent corn and is normally aged four years in new charcoal oak barrels.
So why the empassioned contention? It’s mostly territorial. Bourbon gets it’s name from “Old Bourbon” County, Kentucky, whence this type of whiskey first gained popularity and general distribution (circa 1800). In a demonstration of regional pride, and jealousy, distillers in neighboring territories developed their own whiskeys. The characteristic sugar-maple, Tennessee whiskey is one that survived, and in 1941 received legal recognition in the US as a separate style. Distinct from bourbon simply because of how it is filtered, and where it is made, yet you couldn’t convince a Kentucky bourbon loyalist that Tennessee whiskey is anywhere similar in color, viscosity or taste, and certainly not quality.
While the inherent differences are slight, it is the philosophical disparity that keeps whiskey and bourbon at odds. Those who favor Kentucky bourbon do not necessarily despise whiskey for being whiskey, or for not being bourbon, they hate it for it’s association with Tennessee whiskey. And by birthright, Tennessee whiskey drinkers hate bourbon for not being Jack Daniels.
So, the argument makes as much sense now as it ever has, and as much sense as it will make the next time you here two bar-rags hashing it out in your local saloon. The best advice is to move away from the combatants, order a beer, or some neutral spirit, and accept that there are some issues you may never understand, and in which you needn’t participate.