Here’s How To Tell The Difference Between Bourbon And Tennessee Whiskey

Life Writer
04.10.19

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Picking the best whiskey is never an easy task. And the first obstacle to finding the whiskey you love is understanding the regional differences that make each whiskey (or whisky) unique. First, there’s “whisky” from Scotland, Canada, Australia, mainland Europe, India, and Japan. Then there’s “whiskey” from Ireland and America. Then there’s a long list of variables within those regional constraints. Single malts, blends, single casks, bourbons, ryes, corn, white dog … the list goes on. It can all get a bit overwhelming.

We’ve parsed what makes Irish whiskey great; so, now, let’s dive into American whiskeys. Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon whiskey feel like very similar commodities. The two states are neighbors after all. Yet, Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are very different beasts. These are just different drinks that have rabid and divergent fan bases.

So, what makes Tennessee whiskey different from Kentucky bourbon? We’re here to break that down for you in detail so that next time you’re standing in the whiskey aisle at the liquor store you’ll be more informed. Let’s dive in.

What is Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey?

It should be noted that there’s probably no single “inventor” of Kentucky bourbon. It’s way more likely that many of those living in Kentucky in the early 1700s were all tinkering with corn and grain distillate to varying degrees until some order shook out in the 1800s. The stories of Elijah Craig and Jacob Spears being the first distillers to age a corn-fueled spirit in charred oak may be true. It may not.

Either way, what we now know as “Kentucky bourbon” was born through those settlers around the late 1700s in Kentucky. And what was born was alcohol that’s has a specific set of factors that make it “bourbon” (according to loose trade laws). Those factors run deep. First, to be called bourbon, the distillate has to be at least 51 percent maize (corn) mash. That means the mash bill (the recipe for the cereals and grains used for the initial fermentation) has to be majority corn. Now, that doesn’t mean it can all be corn. When the mash bill hits the 80 percent mark with corn, it’s no longer bourbon. It becomes “Corn Whiskey.”

So, corn is a crucial element, but not too much corn. Next is the aging process. Bourbon needs to be aged in a new American oak barrel that’s been freshly charred. If the distillate is aged in anything besides new American oak, it cannot be called bourbon. Lastly, to be called bourbon, the spirit has to meet specific alcohol by volume (ABV) requirements. These are the numbers you need to know: 80 percent, 62.5 percent, and 40 percent. Simply, the booze is distilled to a point no higher than 80 percent ABV, goes into the aging barrel at 62.5 percent ABV, and is bottled at 40 percent (or slightly higher) ABV.

Straight bourbon means that there are no other additives in that whiskey. And, most bourbons have to have been aged for a minimum of two years. That’s not as strict a requirement as you may think. A whiskey can still be called bourbon as long as it’s aged for any amount of time. But to be called “Straight bourbon” it needs to rest for a minimum of two years in a barrel.

Lastly, and maybe most confusingly, bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States (or world) technically. As long as it meets the above requirements, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s made in Kentucky. Though, according to estimates, at least 95 percent of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky.

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