Bourbon vs. Whiskey: Why Are Some Whiskeys Considered Bourbons?

by Jim Casey

Every bourbon is a whiskey. But not every whiskey is a bourbon. Confused? Let’s sort this out with a spirited history lesson. Don’t worry, we won’t bore you to death with names and dates (although there are a few). And there won’t be a quiz. Now, pour yourself a neat sip of your favorite whiskey (which may also be a bourbon).

After Prohibition (1933) and World War II (1945) came to an end, the American bourbon industry began to boom. So much so that it became the top-selling liquor in the United States in the 1950s. The bourbon boom peaked when the House of Representatives passed H. Concurrent Resolution 57 on May 4, 1964. The resolution made bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States.” The resolution noted bourbon would be recognized as a U.S. product, much like Cognac in France, Scotch Whisky in Great Britain, and Canadian Whisky in Canada.

The resolution offered trade protection against other “bourbons” produced overseas or in Mexico. In 1974, Mexico did the same thing by protecting tequila as a distinct product of its country.

Bourbon Standards

According to the Code of Federal Regulations (5.143), bourbon must be:

  • made in the United States.
  • fermented mash of at least 51 percent corn
  • distilled at 160 proof (80 ABV) or less
  • aged in charred, new oak barrels
  • barreled no higher than 125 proof
  • aged for a minimum of two years
  • bottled at 80 proof or higher
  • pure (no color/flavor additives other than water)

While most bourbon is produced in Kentucky (95 percent), technically it can be produced anywhere in the United States. But we do have Kentucky Representative John C. Watts and Kentucky Senator Thruston B. Morton to thank for introducing the aforementioned resolution in the House and Senate, respectively.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Whiskey

Whiskey Standards

Whiskey, on the other hand, is much less regimented.

To be classified “whiskey” or “whisky” (the spelling generally used in Scotland, Canada, and Japan), the spirit must be:

  • fermented grain mash
  • distilled at less than 190 proof
  • stored in oak barrels with no minimum time requirement
  • free of neutral spirits

However, whiskey does allow blending and additives of coloring and flavoring.

Since “bourbon” meets all the requirements of “whiskey,” it can be considered a whiskey. So, all bourbon is whiskey.

Keep in mind, there are a lot of subcategories under the whiskey umbrella, each with its own specifications, including Tennessee Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Canadian Whisky, Japanese Whisky, Rye Whiskey, and more.

Sazerac Rye Whiskey