• Barrell Craft Spirits

WHY DOES BOURBON TASTE SO MUCH LIKE WHISKEY?


WHY DOES BOURBON TASTE SO MUCH LIKE WHISKEY?

Short answer: Because bourbon is whiskey.


In the market for a longer answer? Well, read on!


Bourbon is a uniquely American style of whiskey. It’s made from at least 51% corn, distilled to no higher than 165 proof, and aged in new, charred oak barrels.


With dozens of small batch bourbon releases under our belts, plus hundreds of single barrels and the multi-award-winning BCS Bourbon, we’re clearly big bourbon fans at Barrell Craft Spirits. But bourbon is just one style of whiskey, and it shares many characteristics with global whisk(e)ys, from other American styles like rye, to Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky.


OAK

Perhaps the most important unifying factor between global whiskeys, from Japanese single malt to Canadian rye, is the use of oak barrels. In most places around the world, you can’t even call a spirit whiskey unless it has spent some specified amount of time in oak casks.


Distillers don’t use oak barrels just because they’re attractive or convenient. The oak actually plays a key role in the finished flavor of the whiskey. It’s so important that you can think of it as an ingredient, as well as a storage material.


When any whiskey goes into a barrel, bourbon included, it immediately begins to pick up flavor, color, and aroma from the wood. Temperature swings help that process by driving the spirit into the pores of the oak as it expands in high temperatures. When temperatures drop again, the spirit retreats back out of the barrel, taking flavor compounds with it.


Spirit takes on flavor from the barrel in other ways, too. At first, it’s simply a matter of infusion, much like tea leaves are infused into hot water. But over time, evaporation helps to concentrate the flavor of the spirit. Other, slower chemical reactions also take place in the presence of oxygen, creating those rich, fruity flavors beyond just oak that characterize a mature whiskey.


GRAIN

The other important commonality between global whiskeys is that they’re all made from grain. Bourbon prominently features corn, but it also includes other grains, typically some malted barley plus either wheat or rye.


Each grain has its own unique contribution to the finished flavor of the whiskey, and there’s plenty of overlap between bourbon’s grains and those of other whiskeys. Malted barley is an important flavor in Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky, while rye features–no surprise here– in American and often (although not always!) Canadian rye. Wheat is also a frequent player in blended and grain whiskies. So there are plenty of grain-based flavor overlaps between bourbon and other styles of whiskey.


WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THAT MISSING “E”?

Whenever we talk about global whiskey–or whisky–the case of the great disappearing “e” always comes up. Why do some countries, like Scotland and Japan, spell it “whisky,” while other countries, like Ireland and the United States, spell it “whiskey?” And is there any difference?


The second question is easier to answer: Nope, there’s no real substantive difference between the two words. Both refer to a spirit distilled from grain and aged in oak.


The first question has a murkier answer. Ireland and the U.S. are the orthographical outliers. The rest of the world goes with the “whisky” spelling. Why? Perhaps because of links between the Irish and early American distilling industries. Or perhaps because Irish whiskey was once the most popular style in North America, and American distillers emulated their spelling in an effort to win over consumers.


Barrell Craft Spirits is an American company, so we stick with “whiskey” unless we’re talking specifically about a spirit from a country that favors the “whisky” spelling.