Whiskey is one of the most popular drinks in the world, with different countries and regions around the world producing their own unique varieties. Many of these products are given different names, which can seem confusing for newbies. Generally speaking, names are given to products based on the grains used and geographical location, with some countries and regions passing laws to protect their unique qualities of their whiskey.
Differences in nomenclature are often down to tradition, and whisky distilleries and regions of course want to distinguish their products from those of the competition. One of the major differences you'll encounter is between bourbon and whiskey. While bourbon is a regional classification for products made in the United States, whiskey can be produced anywhere in the world. Generally speaking, the term "whiskey" is used for products made in Ireland and America, with "whisky" used in all other countries.
What makes it bourbon?
In order for a whiskey product to be classified as bourbon, it needs to be produced in America and made from 51 percent corn. Unlike many Scotch whiskies, which are made from pure malted barley, bourbon and other American whiskeys are made from corn and other grains. Bourbon also needs to be stored in new charred-oak barrels, and distilled to no more than 160 proof before entering the barrel at 125 proof.
While oak barrels are integral to the flavour of all whiskeys, non-bourbon whiskey barrels don't need to be new or charred. This difference is responsible for the distinctive flavour of many bourbon whiskeys, which often have a smokey taste and aroma that many people love.
Bourbon regulations are undeniably strict, with the Bottle in Bond Act of 1897 designed to regulate the industry after distillers spend most of the 19th century trying to make cheaper products. To highlight just how strict the act is, bourbon whiskey must be bottled and stored in bonded warehouses for at least four years under government supervision.
Bourbon vs whiskey?
In contrast, whiskey is a much broader term used to describe a range of different production methods, grains, and locations. Whiskey has a long and rich history around the world, with the Irish and Scottish inventing the drink in the 15th century. The Guild of Barber Surgeons in Scotland originally held a monopoly on whisky distillation, with the production of this drink moving slowly out of a monastic setting into the homes and farms of independent monks as they engaged with the general public.
Whisky was originally translated from the Classic Gaelic word uisce or "water", which was then transformed into the Old Irish term uisce beatha or "water of life". In the beginning, all whisky was spelt without the e, whether it was made in Scotland or Ireland. Today, only Irish and American products add the e, whether they are bourbon whiskeys, Tennessee rye whiskeys, or something else entirely.
Just like Scotch, all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.