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Bourbon vs Whiskey: What’s The Difference?


Bourbon vs Whiskey: What’s The Difference?


Written by Thomas Adams 
September 27, 2013

“All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” What does that mean, exactly? We’re glad you asked! Bourbon vs whiskey seems to be a great debate, and it sparks many questions when ordering at your local bar. 

There are many kinds of whiskey in the world, just like there are many different kinds of beer. If you know your way around breweries, you would never call an IPA a lager, right? In order to be bourbon vs whiskey, certain criteria must be met.  


“What makes bourbon distinct from other whiskeys is the way it is manufactured and aged. All whiskey is a spirit made from fermented grain and then aged in barrels. But the kind of grain and the kind of barrels determines the variety of whiskey,” (Food and Wine). “Per the American Bourbon Association, in order to be classified as bourbon, a whiskey needs to be distilled from a mixture of grains, or mash, that’s at least 51 percent corn. That corn gives bourbon its distinctive sweet flavor.” So, corn is key with bourbon. That’s your first clue. 

Many think bourbon also has to be from a certain area. However, bourbons can be crafted in any state in the United States, not just Kentucky! As long as it’s made in America – and it meets all other standards – it’s bourbon. (We happen to think that New York State produces some fine whiskey – but we might be just a little biased). 

whiskey vs bourbon


Okay, so it’s not just about the corn. One interesting point of criteria is that all juice must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Mark that as your second bourbon clue. 

“Bourbon also must be aged in new charred oak barrels, and cannot include any additives or colorings. Other whiskeys can be aged in barrels previously used to age other spirits, and they don’t necessarily need to be whiskey barrels—port, sherry, and rum casks are used in the aging process for non-bourbon whiskeys,” (Food and Wine). “To be designated ‘straight bourbon whiskey,’ bourbon has to have been aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.” 


Just like a fine wine, bourbon has some growing up to do with the proper aging conditions. Knowing that bourbon needs to age for at least two years, the conditions it’s aged in have a great impact on the depth of the final product. The temperature extremes between hot summer and cool winter seasons where bourbon is crafted contribute greatly to the aging process in bourbon whiskey. The temperature changes affect how the bourbon reacts with the oak, resulting in an accelerated aging process, relative to other whiskeys” (American Bourbon Association).  

And that’s exactly why we think our New York State bourbon is quite good. It’s all in the climate for distillation. If you know anything about Rochester, New York – you know that we see extreme weather changes over the course of a year. “Every time you get a 20-to-30-degree temperature swing, the whiskey pushes into the wood when it’s warm, and pulls out of the wood when it’s cold. [This causes the whiskey] to extract more of those wood sugars, more of those tannins, more color,” said Founder and President Jason Barrett. 


Here at Black Button, we distill a variety of different kinds of whiskeys. Our signature Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey meets all of bourbon’s requirements – it’s made up of 60 percent Corn, 20 percent Wheat, 9 percent Rye and 11 percent Malted Barley, proofed down to 84 and aged in new charred oak barrels from our friends at Adirondack Barrel Cooperage.  

So, what’s a whiskey we make that’s not bourbon? Our Empire Rye Straight Whiskey actually has zero corn. Made up of 96 percent rye and 4 percent malted barley, it does not meet the requirements of a bourbon! But it sure is a fine whiskey. The big, bold, spicy character captures the true spirit of the Empire State. 


Whether it’s our bourbon or our whiskey, we’d love for you to sip on it. Shop online to have a bottle (or two) delivered directly to your door. And you can always come visit us at our Tasting Room to taste a flight of our entire lineup. We look forward to seeing you soon!  

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Black Button Distilling’s Tasting Room, 1344 University Avenue

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