Bourbon vs whiskey: what’s the difference? Here’s a quick guide to what you need to know about this style of liquor (and some cocktails!).
Bourbon vs whiskey: what’s the difference? Perhaps you’ve heard: bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. (Same deal with mezcal and tequila.) You might have already guessed the difference. But here are a few things you may not know about this distilled spirit! Plus, we’ve got some of the best whiskey cocktails and bourbon cocktails to test out your newfound knowledge. Let’s get started!
Bourbon vs whiskey: what’s the difference?
- Whiskey is a family of distilled liquor made by fermenting grain mash: wheat, rye, barley or corn. It’s then aged in wooden barrels, usually made of oak.
- There are many types of whiskey based on country and style of production. Some popular types of whiskey are:
- Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn and aged in oak barrels. The name bourbon comes from Bourbon Country, Kentucky: the region where the spirit was invented. Today over 95% of the bourbon produced is made in Kentucky.
What does bourbon taste like vs whiskey?
The more important question is: what are the flavor differences between bourbon vs whiskey? Of course, bourbon is whiskey. But what distinguishes bourbon in flavor compared to other types of whiskey?
- What does bourbon taste like? Bourbon has a sweeter flavor than other styles of whiskey, with notes of vanilla, oak and caramel. Of course, there’s a wide variety of different flavors between bourbon brands. One expert breaks bourbons into 4 major categories: grain forward, nutmeg forward, caramel forward, and cinnamon forward.
- What does rye whiskey taste like? Rye whiskey tastes grassy and peppery, with a signature spicy finish. (See Rye vs Bourbon for more.)
- What does Scotch taste like? Blended Scotch has a smooth flavor: malty and buttery, with a spicy finish. Single malt Scotch tastes oaky and woody, with signature peaty and smoky notes. (Pro tip: Whiskey made in Scotland is spelled “whisky.” Read more at Scotch vs Whiskey.)
- What does Irish whiskey taste like? Irish whiskey is light and fruity, with a lightly floral scent and hints of nutty and vanilla tones. The finish is smooth and mellow, compared to the spicier finish of bourbon or rye whiskey.
Popular Bourbon and Whiskey cocktails
Now, the fun part is mixing these spirits into cocktails! Of course, bourbon cocktails are whiskey cocktails. But not all whiskey cocktails are bourbon cocktails. In other words, some whiskey cocktails call for bourbon specifically. Other whiskey cocktails you can use any style of whiskey, including bourbon. Usually Irish whiskey cocktails and Scotch cocktails are specific to that type of whiskey, so don’t substitute bourbon.
Popular Bourbon Cocktails
Some of the most popular bourbon cocktails are:
- Bourbon Sour The most famous of them all: a whiskey sour made with bourbon, lemon and simple syrup.
- Boulevardier A spin on the Negroni using bourbon instead of gin.
- Kentucky Mule A spin on the Moscow mule using bourbon instead of vodka.
- Bourbon Sidecar A spin on the Sidecar using bourbon instead of Cognac.
- Bourbon Manhattan A variation on the Manhattan using bourbon instead of rye whiskey.
- Classic Mint Julep A Kentucky classic! Bourbon, ice and fresh mint.
Popular Whiskey Cocktails
Here are the most popular whiskey cocktails where you can use various types of whiskey:
- Best Whiskey Sour One of the greats! Whiskey, lemon and simple syrup.
- Classic Old Fashioned Tied for the most famous whiskey cocktail! Uses bourbon or rye.
- Whiskey Smash Use crushed ice, lemon, mint and any style of whiskey.
- Whiskey Highball Dilute any type of whiskey with soda water or ginger ale for this highball.
- Manhattan Another classic! Whiskey (rye or bourbon), sweet vermouth and bitters.
- Want more? Go to Whiskey Cocktails for using all types, or see Irish Whiskey Cocktails or Scotch Cocktails.
This easy whiskey sour recipe is perfectly balanced and so easy to make! Garnish with an orange peel and a cocktail cherry.
- 2 ounces* bourbon whiskey or rye whiskey
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce simple syrup
- Garnish: Orange peel and a cocktail cherry
- Ice, for serving
- Add the whiskey, lemon juice, and syrup to a cocktail shaker. Fill with a handful of ice and shake until very cold.
- Strain the drink into a lowball or Old Fashioned glass. Serve with ice, an orange peel and a cocktail cherry.
*For converting to tablespoons, 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons.
- Category: Drink
- Method: Shaken
- Cuisine: Cocktails
Keywords: Bourbon vs whiskey
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.