Bourbon: Is It Bourbon, Or Is It Whiskey?

Bourbon: Is It Bourbon, Or Is It Whiskey?

Well the simple answer is YES. Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Think of whiskey as the overall giant category with bourbon as one of the many “sub” categories. Other sub categories include Rye whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, and Corn whiskey.

You may notice the difference in spelling, and no it is not a typo! American and Irish whiskey spell it with an E, while the rest of the world omits it and spells it Whisky.  Whisky/Whiskey is classified as a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash and includes all of the aforementioned spirits.

So what makes bourbon a bourbon? There are quite a few “rules” and those rules are strictly governed by the United States. First and foremost bourbon can only be made in the USA. The common misconception is that bourbon only comes from Kentucky but that is not the case.

Yes, the most famous bourbon distilleries are there, and it is certainly the birthplace of bourbon, but it can be made anywhere in the U.S., including, of course, our two Columbus distilleries, Middle West Spirits, and Watershed Distillery. The other criteria to be called bourbon are :

Bourbon must be made from a minimum of 51% corn in the mashbill, but no more than 79%.
Bourbon must be aged in brand new, charred, American oak barrels
Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of 2 years
Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof

The history of bourbon is largely based on folklore, not specific documentation, but what we do know is that there were many people making “bourbon” in the 1800’s in Kentucky. We also know that James C. Crow perfected the sour mash method which is used to this day in nearly all bourbon production.

Sour mash is the process in distillation of using material from an older batch to start fermentation in a new batch, much like that of sourdough bread) There are also many theories regarding the charring of the barrels, from coopers using fire to remove smells from barrels used for other things (like transporting fish), to a cooperage that caught fire and the barrels that survived were still used.

Regardless, the char levels combined with the flavors and nuances that come from the oak, are what gives bourbons their unique characteristics and its color.

In modern times bourbon is one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world and has seen a huge rise in popularity over the last 5 years. Contributing to this growth is the craft spirits industry, the craft cocktail explosion, and an increase in interest from both millennials and women. In February of 2016, the Distilled Spirits Council said that bourbon sales rose 7.8% to $2.9 billion in 2015.

As a working bartender, I have seen a great resurgence in bourbon sales and bourbon cocktails, and it is such a mixable spirit! Bourbon is not just meant for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. I have traveled the U.S. and Europe and I have seen bartenders mix bourbon with everything from citrus to vegetables to amaros and herbs.

It is a wonderful blank canvas for creative mixology and truly my personal favorite spirit. Below is a recipe for a cocktail you can come enjoy at my bar, M at Miranova. It is a deconstructed twist on a classic old fashioned, one of the most iconic Bourbon cocktails.

Vanilla Old Fashioned
2 oz Vanilla bean/orange peel infused Woodford Reserve
.5 oz Cherry Heering
1.5 oz Fresh Orange Juice
3 dashes Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters
Build all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain over large ice cube, garnish with an orange quarter and a luxardo cherry.

Cris Dehlavi

Cris Dehlavi writes reviews and contributes articles to NID Magazine.