There are a few key qualities that make the two distinct.
If you’ve ever stood in the liquor store staring at the sea of brown liquor vaguely labeled “whiskey,” you may have wondered what differentiates bourbon and whiskey. It’s actually quite simple: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Whiskey is a broad category covering grain-based, usually barrel-aged spirits. If it’s spelled with an “ey” at the end, it’s American or Irish in origin. If there’s only a “y,” it’s Scottish, Japanese, or Canadian—with the exception of Maker’s Mark, who use the latter spelling for their American bourbon whiskey.
Bourbon is an American-made whiskey that originated in Kentucky, where the lion’s share of bourbon producers distill. But you don’t have to reside in Kentucky, or even the South, to legally make bourbon. The only geographical requisite is that it’s made in the U.S.—any state can produce a whiskey and name it bourbon.
One of the other factors that sets bourbon apart is that federal law demands more than half of it be made with corn; the rest can be a mix of other cereal grains (rye, barley, wheat). That’s why when you sip a glass of bourbon, it tastes a little richer and sweeter than, say, a Scotch. All bourbon must also be aged in new, charred American oak casks.
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And lastly, the most important question of all: When it comes to the difference between bourbon and whiskey, can you still make a Manhattan with either? As sure as the Brooklyn Bridge still stands, the answer is yes, you can.