All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey — or whisky, depending on where you’re from — is bourbon.
By federal law, bourbon must be made in the United States, whereas whiskey can be distilled anywhere in the world. Scotch is technically whisky that has been distilled and matured in Scotland; Irish whiskey is made in Ireland. Canadian whisky is made in…you get the picture.
Bourbon must be made with a fermented mash of at least 51% corn. That high corn mash bill gives bourbon a distinctive sweetness not found in most whiskeys. Other flavoring grains such as rye, wheat and malted barley are added for flavor complexity. Conversely, Scotch and Irish whiskey are made mostly from malted barley. If they are made from a single distillery — and with malted barley and water — they are referred to as single malt.
In bourbon mash, all the grains are fermented together. In Canada, each grain is usually fermented, distilled and aged separately before being combined in the finished mature whisky product. As with bourbon, corn is usually the primary grain. And while American rye whiskey requires a minimum of 51% rye in the mash bill, there’s no legal requirement for any rye percentage in Canadian whisky.
Bourbon must be distilled at no more than 160 proof, while other whiskies must be distilled to no more than 190 proof. Moreover, bourbon must be stored in new, charred oak barrels, which impart that distinct brown color and mellow taste. Though standard whiskey barrels must be oak, they need not be new or charred.
Not to confuse you even more…straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years, while the cheaper stuff can be distilled, bottled and sold in as little as three months. Scotch and Irish whisky, however, must be aged for at least three years.
Unlike other whiskeys and whiskys — Irish, Canadian, Scotch — bourbon cannot contain any added flavors or coloring. What you get from the barrel is what you get in the bottle. Water is added exclusively to bring down the proof, though you can find rare “barrel proof” bourbons with little to no added water. But be forewarned: You’ll really feel it the next day.