Brushing up on Bourbon

Quick quiz: what’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey? It’s easy to tell the difference when you’re drinking them, but many connoisseurs of spirits can’t explain the distinction between the two.

Whiskey is distilled from fermented grain mash and can contain barley, corn, wheat and rye. After it’s distilled, it’s aged in charred-oak barrels, with European oak lending a spicy and bitter taste to the spirit and American oak imbuing a smoother taste that’s characterized by vanilla and caramel notes.

The confusion’s somewhat understandable, as bourbon is a type of whiskey—the most popular type of American whiskey, in fact. But where whiskey is distilled from fermented grain mash and can contain barley, corn, wheat and rye, bourbon’s mash must be 51 percent corn. Additionally, it must be 125 proof when it enters the barrel, the finished product can’t be more than 160 proof, it has to be aged in charred-oak barrels, it can’t be colored or flavored by additives and it must be made in the United States.

Pretty exacting for liquor, right? Well, there’s a good reason behind that.

After a spate of American whiskey makers were caught tampered with their bourbon in the 19th century, the government set regulations for the spirit with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. The act’s rules require bourbon to be sourced from a single distillery produced in one distilling season before being bottled and stored in a government-supervised warehouse. If the whiskey doesn’t meet the standard, it can’t be sold as bourbon.

To understand why the distinction matters, try these whisky and bourbon cocktail recipes from two of the top bars in New York City to see which suits you better.

The Moga

Bar Moga, New York City

.75 oz. plum liqueur
1 oz. Toki Japanese Whisky
1 oz. JM VO Rhum
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Build in a whiskey glass over ice and garnished with a fresh lemon twist.

Curbside Service

Wallflower, New York City

2 oz. Elijah Craig Bourbon
1 oz. Granny Smith apple juice
.75 oz. lemon juice
.5 oz. orgeat
.25 oz. honey syrup
1 dash Bar Keep Baked Apple Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake. Fine strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with an apple fan.

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