What Is the Difference Between a Whiskey and a Bourbon?

Two of the most popular liquors in the world are whiskey and bourbon, with both drinks carrying a smooth flavor and a strong character that makes them the go-to drink for so many liquor aficionados. But what exactly is the differences between whiskey versus bourbon, and how do you know which one would match the occasion you’re trying to make the perfect drink for?

To help you out with your search for the right drink, we broke down the differences between these two popular liquors and provided some background information on both of them. Read on and you’ll also get some of the most popular drinks that use whiskey or bourbon as the main ingredient, giving you some ideas that you can use next time you need the perfect cocktail for your next get-together.

What Is the Difference Between a Whiskey and a Bourbon?

Whiskey vs Bourbon

The common answer to the question of comparing whiskey versus bourbon is that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. But what does that common saying actually mean? The first thing to understand is that whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains that have fermented and are then aged in wooden barrels. Corn, rye, barley, and wheat are some of the common grains used in this process, each giving its own flavor to the whiskey.

Bourbon, on the other hand, is a type of whiskey that has to meet certain requirements. It must be distilled in America and must be made from 51 percent corn. Bourbon also must meet specific requirements regarding the alcohol content both when it enters into a barrel and for the finished product. The oak-charred barrels used in this process impart a unique flavor to the bourbon, making for a smooth and distinctive drink.

How to Choose the Right Drink

When deciding between whiskey versus bourbon, there are a few things to consider. Whiskey is often a popular choice for those making mixed drinks, with all of the different types giving the drink plenty of versatility. Any number of classic drinks use whiskey as the key ingredient that makes them so special.

While bourbon also is used for a number of signature drinks, it is also often enjoyed on its own due to the high standards of quality bourbon has to be made to by law. The distilling process also imparts bourbon with a sweet note that fans of the drink love. The lack of any additives lets you enjoy the flavor of the bourbon without anything getting in the way.

History of Whiskey

Whiskey distilling has a history that can be traced back to ancient times, with some historians speculating that the ancient Babylonians distilled whiskey spirits as early as the second millennium BC. The ancient Greeks developed more methods of chemical distillation, which were preserved by medieval Arab cultures. The practice spread worldwide, becoming especially prominent in 15th century Scotland and Ireland, where whiskey became the national drink of choice.

Whiskey played an important role in history in the years to come, leading to unrest in the United Kingdom over taxes on malt and being used as a currency during the revolutionary period in America. Alcohol sales were of course banned in the United States during prohibition, but whiskey was given an exception when sold medicinally through a pharmacy. It remains one of the most popular forms of liquor worldwide to this day.

Background of Bourbon

Since bourbon originated in the United States in the 1800s, but there is still some mystery about its origins. One thing that is open to debate is where the name bourbon comes from. Some claim that the name comes from the so-called inventor of bourbon from Bourbon County in Virginia. However, this story seems unlikely, as there is no one single inventor of bourbon. Another theory is that the drink is named after the county itself.

The bourbon industry was devastated during the prohibition period, but the tradition came back strong with the lifting of prohibition in the 1930s. These years saw a refinement of the standards that bourbon had to adhere to, with bourbon being declared a “distinctive product of the United States” by Congress in 1964. Recent years have seen an explosion in the popularity of bourbon and Tennessee-style whiskey, with the drinks now being shipped all over the world.

Common Whiskey Drinks

Want to craft some iconic whiskey drinks that are sure to wow anybody that you’re entertaining? Here are some of the signature cocktails you can create using quality whiskey as the main ingredient. Each one of them brings out the character of this popular liquor in its own unique way.

Whiskey Sour

This timeless classic combines the smooth flavor of whiskey with citrusy lemon for a contrast in flavors that is perfect for anything from a fancy night out to a laid-back cocktail hour. Add some simple syrup to bring out the sweeter notes in your whiskey. If you’re feeling adventurous, add an egg white to the shaker when you mix up the drink to give the cocktail a unique mouthfeel.

John Collins

Put a fizzy twist on the classic whiskey sour by adding some club soda to the mix and you’ll have your new favorite drink, a John Collins. This refreshing drink brings some energizing carbonation into the mix to make for the perfect happy hour drink. This recipe can also easily be adapted to other liquors, such as tequila or gin, to put a different twist on the flavor you enjoy.

Mint Julep

A little bit of fresh mint, some sugar, and your favorite whiskey of choice together in a muddler make this traditional southern drink. The sharpness of the mint gives every sip a refreshing edge that makes this the perfect drink for a nice day out. Some common variations add peach juice or apple cider as ingredients to reinvent the traditional mint julep.

Manhattan Cocktail

This icon of the whiskey world combines rye whiskey, bitters, and sweet vermouth for a combination of flavors that create a one-of-a-kind sensation with every drink you take. Try out any new type of whiskey you want to experience with this signature cocktail to see if it’s up to your tastes. You have to try this staple of whiskey mixed drinks to call yourself a true whiskey connoisseur.

Rusty Nail

Scotch whiskey combined with the herbal honey flavor of Drambuie creates the unique profile of a Rusty Nail. The combination of the smooth flavor of your favorite whiskey with some sweet honey notes is a match made in heaven. Try it out next time you’re looking for a new cocktail to try out with your whiskey.

Common Bourbon Drinks

While all of those different whiskey-based cocktails give you plenty of variety to work with, what about cocktails made from bourbon? Bourbon makes a great drink to sip all on its own, but there are plenty of mixed drinks you can make with it too. Here are some more cocktail ideas that you can bring to your next social occasion to really get people talking.


There aren’t many drinks that can compete with the simple perfection of an Old-Fashioned. The recipe is simple and straightforward to make, bringing out the natural flavors of the bourbon with the addition of sugar and bitters. With the simple list of ingredients, the flavor of the bourbon is allowed to come out and really shine as the star of the show.

Bourbon Sidecar

You might have made a sidecar with brandy before, but switch that brandy out for bourbon to put a new twist on a classic drink. Add orange-flavored triple sec and lemon juice to your favorite bourbon and you’ll get the ideal drink for any night out.  Some sugar on the rim adds a sweet tang that puts the finishing touch on your sidecar.

Kentucky Coffee

Want a little pick-me-up with your favorite bourbon? Pour bourbon into your favorite coffee brew and you’ll find out what a perfect pair this duo makes. If you’ve got a sweet tooth and also want to make this concoction a bit boozier, add a whiskey-based honey liqueur for a new twist on things.

Blind Pilot

Equal parts bourbon, sweet vermouth, and the unique flavor of Galliano liqueur make a Blind Pilot, one of the best things to sip on to pass the night.  The Galliano liqueur brings notes of vanilla and anise to the mix for an unforgettable combination of flavors.

Melon Splash

While melon may not be the first thing you think of to complement your favorite bourbon, the combination works surprisingly well. The bright green color is almost as fun to look at as the sweet, citrusy flavor is to sip on.

If you want to experience the highest quality of whiskey and bourbon, get a taste of what we’re serving up at our distillery. The passion and tradition we put into every bottle we craft shows through in the flavor you’ll enjoy. Visit Town’s End Stillhouse today!

Share this Post:

Related Posts