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Bourbon vs. Whiskey: A Breakdown of the Legislation

Bourbon vs Whiskey: A Breakdown of the Legislation

Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is produced exclusively in the United States. It has specific regulations that must be met for the product to be legally labelled as ‘bourbon’. So, what are these parameters? And what are the differences between bourbon vs. whiskey? Let’s break down the legislation. 

All bourbon is whiskey…

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, American whiskey is any whiskey produced, aged, and bottled in the United States that meets the following requirements: 

  • Made from a fermented mash of grain 
  • Distilled at no more than 190 proof (95% ABV) 
  • Made in such a manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey 
  • Stored in oak barrels (except corn whiskey) 
  • No minimum time for storage/maturation 
  • Bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV) 
  • Can include mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed
  • Does not need to be made in Kentucky (although most American whiskey is made in Kentucky) 
Jack Daniel’s, Sazerac Rye, F.E.W American Straight Whiskey, and High West B.I.B Rye are not bourbons. But they are whiskeys.

…not all whiskey is bourbon 

The above regulations are all-encompassing regulations for American whiskey. There are numerous different types of American whiskey including bourbon, straight, blended, light, oat, rye, wheat, malt, rye malt, corn, and spirit. 

For clarity, let’s focus just on bourbon, straight bourbon whiskey, and bottled-in-bond straight bourbon whiskey. 

Bourbon, according to the American Bourbon Association, must meet the following requirements: 

  • Made from a fermented mash that is at least 51% corn
    • Other grains added can be rye, wheat, and malted barley 
  • Distilled at a maximum of 160 proof (80% ABV) 
  • Must be decanted into barrels at a maximum of 125 proof (62.5% ABV) 
  • No minimum aging period 
  • Must be matured in new charred oak barrels 
  • Must not contain any additives or coloring
  • Distilled, matured, and bottled in the United States 

To be labeled as ‘straight bourbon whiskey’, the bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years. 

For a bourbon to be labeled as ‘Bottled in Bond straight bourbon whiskey’, the whiskey must be distilled in a single season at one distillery (January-June or July-December). It must also be aged for a minimum of four years and bottled at 100 proof. 

Four Roses, Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin all meet the criteria to be labeled ‘bourbon’. They are also all American whiskeys.

Other Types of American Whiskey 

As mentioned above, there are numerous types of American whiskey, most of which are known by the ingredient that makes up the majority of the mash used in distillation (rye, wheat, etc…). These whiskies must meet the legal requirements for American whiskey but need not meet the requirements for bourbon. Some of the categories have their own requirements as below: 

Blended whiskey 

  • A mixture that contains a minimum of 20% straight whiskey or a blend of them 
  • Can include harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials and/or neutral spirits 


Straight whiskey 

  • Can be produced from a fermented mash of less than 51% of any grain (rye, wheat, malted barley, and malted rye) 
  • Must be aged for a minimum of two years 


Light whiskey 

  • Distilled to a high ABV of more than 80% to remove congeners and lead to a lighter spirit 
  • Can be stored in used or uncharred new oak barrels 


Oat, Rye, Wheat, Malt, Rye Malt 

  • The mash must contain at least 51% of the identifying grain 
  • Filled at a maximum of 120 proof in a new charred oak barrel 


Corn whiskey 

  • The mash must contain at least 80% corn
  • Filled at a maximum of 125 proof if stored in oak containers 
  • Must not be subjected to any aging in new charred wood 


Spirit whiskey 

  • A mix of neutral spirits above 190 proof 
  • May not be less than 5% whiskey, straight whiskey, and whiskey combined if the straight whiskey is less than 20% 
  • Water is the only permitted additive 


Tennessee whiskey 

  • For more information on Tennessee whiskey, click here

Shop American Whiskey & Bourbon 

Pappy Van Winkle is a Straight Bourbon whiskey. Sazerac is a rye whiskey.
Pappy Van Winkle is bourbon. Sazerac is whiskey.

We have a wide range of American whiskeys available on the Mark Littler Shop, including Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old Family Reserves and Sazerac 1984 18 Year Olds. Shop the collection here.

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