What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

why is kentucky bourbon different from whiskey? kentucky bourbon festival

Barrel of bourbon at Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky

September is National Bourbon Heritage Month—officially declared as such by the U.S. Senate in 2007—but here in Kentucky, we celebrate bourbon year round. Now don’t go thinking we’re all a bunch of lushes. It’s just that in the Bluegrass State, we have more barrels of bourbon aging in our iconic warehouses than we have citizens of the Commonwealth. There are 7.5 million barrels currently aging and 4.3 million people residing here. Since that’s almost two barrels for every person living in Kentucky, consider it our Southern hospitality that we’re willing to share with all y’all.

Considering our state’s saturation of our famed libation, many of us in Kentucky consider ourselves experts in bourbon (drinkers and thinkers, of course), and we’re happy to spread our knowledge and share our bottle with anyone who saddles up on the next bar stool.

Despite the myth surrounding its origin, in 1964 Congress officially named bourbon America’s native spirit and the beverage became the most regulated whiskey in the world, having to meet strict criteria in order to be labeled “bourbon.” All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. Bourbon distinguishes itself from whiskey in five key ways:

  1. The mash bill, or recipe, must contain at least 51% corn.
  2. Bourbon is distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% alcohol by volume (ABV).
  3. Bourbon is aged in new, charred white oak barrels. Fun fact: Once used, almost all of those barrels are sent to distilleries in Scotland to age their whiskeys. Others are used for wine, tequila and beer!
  4. It must enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% ABV.
  5. It must be bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or higher.

One of the most common misconceptions about the production of bourbon is the myth that the spirit can only be called bourbon if it is produced in Kentucky. In actuality, a bourbon can only be called “Kentucky Bourbon” if it is distilled in Kentucky, and 95% of all bourbon manufactured comes from the Bluegrass State.

Interested in experiencing more bourbon in Kentucky? Visit the Bourbon Festival in Bardstown each September. We also recommend taking a trip down The Bourbon Trail, you can travel to a few in one day using an official tour service or you can tackle the trail yourself. But don’t forget that there are great distilleries not on that single trail. Like one of our favorites, Buffalo Trace. You don’t want to miss their FREE tour. If you’re visiting after dark, take the ghost tour—you won’t be disappointed.

Cover of The State of Bourbon book by My Old Kentucky Road Trip Learn more about the history of bourbon in Kentucky and all of the great road trips you can take across the Bluegrass State to experience (and taste!) our famous corn whiskey. Purchase My Old Kentucky Road Trip’s The State of Bourbon on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

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