Bourbon vs. Whiskey: Understanding the Difference Between Dark Spirits

glass of whiskey sitting on coaster with reading glasses

Whiskey, a true spirit of the world, comes in a variety of individually nuanced forms. Founded in ancient Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C., the art of distillation was mostly used as a way to produce perfumes and aromatics when it first emerged. The process was later harnessed for other uses including purifying drinking water, producing ingredients for religious ceremonies, and eventually, for creating modern whiskey.

Although whiskey is the overarching category of spirits that comprises bourbon, scotch, and rye, there is often confusion over the distinction between each, with common errors even made by seasoned whiskey drinkers. Here, we explore frequently asked questions surrounding dark spirits, the key differences between bourbon and whiskey, and the most expensive whiskeys sold at auction.

What is Whiskey?

flat lay image featuring two glasses of whiskey on a wooden table

Whiskey is a type of liquor that is distilled from a fermented blend of grains such as corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Most distillers refer to this particular blend as mash bill. The mash is typically aged in wooden casks, which gives the liquor the distinct brown color and taste most are familiar with. The ratio of grains used in the mash bill is one of the main determinants in categorizing liquor as bourbon, scotch, or rye.

Where Did Whiskey Originate?

By A.D. 1000, knowledge of the distillation process made its way into Scotland and Ireland by way of travelling monks migrating from mainland Europe. The monasteries in Scotland and Ireland lacked vineyards and grapes, so the monks began fermenting grain, producing the first distillations of modern whiskey. Around 1405, the first written record of whiskey appeared in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, a chronicle that documented events in Ireland from prehistory to A.D. 1408.

oak barrels

By 1494, whiskey distillation in Scotland was fully underway. A record in the Exchequer of 1494 indicates that King James IV of Scotland granted a large amount of malt to make aquavitae, an archaic name for the concentrated aqueous solution of ethanol. When King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries in 1536, a large number of monks turned to distillation to make a living. This propelled the production of whiskey, creating enough supply to make the product available to the general public. As European colonists began arriving in America, the practice of distillation also traveled to the New World, and whiskey consumption spread widely. It was even used as a currency during the American Revolutionary War.

How is Whiskey Considered Bourbon?

The fermentation process is what differentiates bourbon from other types of whiskeys. Bourbon is made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn. Its fermentation process begins by mixing mash from an already fermenting batch, a process known as sour mash, which was developed by Dr. James C. Crow in 1823. (This method of recycling some yeast for the next fermentation revolutionized the way most bourbons are produced.) After the mash criteria is met, the barrel aging process begins. Bourbon must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels and must be distilled to no more than 80 percent alcohol or 160 proof.

The name “bourbon” was officially given in 1840, when a distiller by the name of Jacob Spears was the first to label his product “Bourbon Whiskey.” Prior to this, it was often labeled “Bourbon County Whiskey” or “Old Bourbon County Whiskey.” By the 1960s, the United States Congress had declared bourbon whiskey as the country’s official distilled spirit and established the regulations that had to be met in order to be labeled a bourbon.

bourbon criteria cheat sheet

How Do the Tastes of Whiskey and Bourbon Differ?

Bourbon’s main characteristic is its sweet flavor, but it also has hints of smokiness due to the charred oak aging process. Bourbons made with higher proportions of corn are generally sweeter than those with more abundant doses of rye. Aside from being sweeter than most Scotch whiskeys, bourbons are often heavier in texture and offer notes of toffee, cinnamon, and vanilla.

How Are Scotch and Rye Different?

The other two main types of whiskeys are scotch and rye, each with their own distinct flavor profiles and qualifications. To qualify as a scotch, the spirit must be made from malted barley. Often, barley, water, and yeast are the only ingredients used. The alcohol by volume (ABV) must be between 40 and 94.8 percent, and it must be made 100 percent in Scotland. Rye is a bit more complicated to define. American ryes only need to consist of 51 percent rye grain, while Canadian versions can be labeled rye if it has “some” rye in it.

The Most Expensive Whiskey Ever Sold

bottle of the Macallan 60-year-old whiskey

The Macallan 1926, bottle number 5 of 12. Sold for £848,750 via Bonhams (October 2018).

Whiskey is one of the most expensive spirits on the market. There are many factors that determine a bottle’s price tag, which include age, rarity, and uniqueness. The most expensive whiskey ever sold is the Macallan Valerio Adami 1926.

Bottled in 1986, this 60-year-old whiskey sold at Bonhams in October 2018 for a record price of £848,750. The previous record, also set by Bonhams in May 2018, was a similar whiskey that sold for £814,081. Macallan, a single malt Scotch whisky distillery in Craigellachie, Moray, commissioned two prominent Pop artists, Valeron Adami and Peter Blake, to design labels for a limited edition of 24 bottles. Aside from the exclusivity, The Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 is elegantly presented in a specially commissioned cabinet, which also contributes to its lofty price tag.

Whiskey is an expansive collecting category that encompasses a wide range of dark spirits with similar characteristics. While all are derived from mashes of fermented grains and are aged in wooden barrels, each variety is individually nuanced. Bourbon is one of the United States’ best-known whiskeys, and whiskey enthusiasts worldwide revel in its flavor. Today, decadent bottles of bourbon, packaged in stunning decanters, are sought after by seasoned whiskey collectors for their flavor, rarity, and uniqueness.

Sources: Jim Beam | Southern Living | BBC | Reserve | Men’s Journal