The multitude of whiskey brands on the market tends to over complicate one’s bourbon purchasing decisions. You may find yourself asking, while searching for the perfect bottle,: 

What is bourbon? What is the difference between bourbon and rye whiskey? Or more generally, what is the difference between whiskey and whisky? 

Perhaps, you are curious about the process of creating bourbon. What is distillation? What does fermentation mean? 

Although there are lots of complexities surrounding the world of bourbon and whiskey, Minibar Delivery is here to help. In this Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon, we will answer all of your most pressing questions and help you pick the perfect bottle of whiskey for YOU! 

First, let’s start by answering the age old question:

 “What is the difference between whiskey and whisky?”

The answer to the question “whiskey or whisky?” is largely dependent on where you live. Americans and the Irish generally include an “e” in the spelling of whiskey while Canadians and Scottish people spell whisky without the “e”. Although there is no difference between whiskey and whisky, there are many different types of whiskey including rye, scotch, and bourbon, among others. 

Next, let’s define bourbon. 

Bourbon is a type of whiskey. While all bourbons are whiskeys, not all whiskeys are bourbons. Specifically, bourbon is an American whiskey. What distinguishes this whiskey from other whiskeys is the way it is manufactured and aged. Like all whiskeys, it is a fermented (process of converting sugar into alcohol) spirit made from fermented grain and aged in barrels. In order to be classified as bourbon, however, this spirit must be distilled (a procedure by which two liquids with different boiling points can be separated) from a mash (mixture of grains) composed of at least 51% corn.  Corn is responsible for the sweet flavor of this elixir. Another unique characteristic of bourbon is that it is always aged in new charred oak barrels. Other whiskeys can be aged in barreled previously used to age other spirits. 

Are there other types of American whiskeys? 

Yes there are other types of American whiskeys. Like bourbon, most American whiskeys are made from the same three base ingredients: corn, wheat, and rye. What distinguishes these whiskeys from one another is the ratio of these three ingredients. There are actually six different types of American whiskeys: rye whiskey, rye malt whiskey, malt whiskey, wheat whiskey, corn whiskey, and bourbon whiskey. Rye whiskey, which is made from a mash that is at least 51% rye, is loved by those who crave spice. Wheat whiskey, on the other hand, is made from a mash that is at least 51% wheat. Connoisseurs know this whiskey for being quite smooth and subtlety sweet. 

Now that we have learned a little more about whiskey, let’s educate ourselves on bourbon history.

What is the history of bourbon? 

Many know bourbon as America’s native spirit. In fact, distillers have been crafting bourbon since the 18th century. Although this whiskey can be made anywhere in the United States, it has deep southern roots, namely in Kentucky. While bourbon’s origins are quite murky, it has generally been accepted that the spirit got its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Since corn was a robust and reliable crop in the 1700s and 1800s, it started to be used in mash to create the whiskey. During the 1900s, the sweet elixir’s popularity skyrocketed since it was cheaper than imported liquors and relatively easy to distill due to the abundance of corn. Today, the spirit’s popularity continues to grow. Bourbon is by far the most widely exported American spirit. 

Bottle and glass of Knob Creek Bourbon on a wood surface

Now, you may be wondering:

Are all bourbons the same? 

No, there are actually six different categories: single barrel, cask strength, wheated, high rye, high corn, and small batch.

  • Single Barrel: Single barrel refers to bottles of bourbon that come from one barrel and therefore are not combined with any other barrels. When blending of barrels occurs, there tends to be less uniformity in the color and taste of the bourbon. Single barrel is a premium class of whiskey. Minibar Delivery recommends Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
  • Cask Strength: Cask strength is a high proof whiskey. These bourbons are known for packing a punch and for being among the most flavorful whiskeys in the world. Since these bourbons come straight from the barrels, they tend to be quite spicy and contain notes of char from the barrel. Minibar Delivery recommends Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey.
  • Wheated: Wheated bourbons, or “wheaters”, are bourbons created when distillers use wheat as the secondary mash ingredient behind corn. This tends to make wheaters less spicy, sour, and floral. Instead, wheaters are nutty and soft. Minibar Delivery recommends Jim Beam Signature Craft Soft Red Wheat Bourbon Whiskey.
  • High Rye: High Rye bourbons are distilled using a mash that is more than 10% rye. This additional rye equates to a bolder and spicier spirit. Minibar Delivery recommends Buillet.
  • High Corn: To be classified as bourbon, a whiskey must be distilled from a mash that is at least 51% corn. To be considered a high corn bourbon, the mash must exceed this 51% number. These bourbons are known for being quite sweet. Minibar Delivery recommends Hudson Baby Bourbon

What is the best way to drink this spirit? 

There are a number of ways to enjoy this spirit. 

  1. Neat 

In order to fully appreciate the nuances of a bourbon, it is best to drink it neat. A whiskey neat is meant to be consumed slowly, not consumed all in one sip. 

  1. Add Water

For many, drinking a bourbon whiskey neat is too intense. The high alcoholic content can simply overwhelm one’s taste buds. Adding a little water both lowers the alcohol content and releases the water repellent elements in the glass, allowing the drinker to detect more flavors by smell. 

  1. On the Rocks 

Although this is a popular way to consume bourbon, experts often recommend against this option. Ice tends to numb you palate and dull the flavor of the whiskey. If you do choose “on the rocks” opt for a large ice cube rather than small cubes which tend to melt faster and dilute your drink quite quickly. If you do not want to dilute your whiskey, try chilled whiskey stones. 

  1. In a cocktail 

Whiskey cocktail recipes are seemingly endless. However, whiskey cocktail classics include the Whiskey Sour, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Sazerac.

Want to learn more about whiskey in general? Check out: 5 Refreshing Cocktails with Whiskey