What’s the difference between Whiskey and Bourbon, anyway? 

Highlights from Tennessee bourbon country

Depending on where you grew up, you may not know much about bourbon or whiskey other than knowing it’s what your dad drank from his easy chair after a long day, and you weren’t to disturb him. Or it was the gift your parents gave your favorite uncle for driving half way across the country for Christmas (Jim Beam).

Prior to this trip, my palate was more inclined to prefer a good syrah over bourbon or whiskey, but just as travel tends to do to a person, I got educated, in a good way.

Tennessee WhiskeyTraveling from North Carolina across the smoky mountains from Ashville and into Kentucky, you would swear that you stepped into God’s country. Taking the back roads, I found thick forests and gurgling streams, and ribbons of limestone-stacked walls, all in picture postcard color.  Modest houses with open porches bedecked with rocking chairs and American flags, had decorated mailboxes and John Deere tractor mowers humming from lush fields.

Driving without your head stuck in your phone, gives you a chance to see and feel the pace of the lifestyle out the window.

The southern states know their hospitality. Having designed and owned a few hospitality projects, I know a bit about the subject. In the west, hospitality with few exceptions is just plain customer service. They’re “just not that into you.” In the south, every person you meet makes an effort to look you in the eye and greet you, smiling broadly. The smile is usually always followed up with conversation. Every ‘Y’all’ makes you feel good (especially when accompanied with a shot of shine! But, I digress). Even if it’s just “a southern thing,” this attitude mixed with some good stories over handcrafted whiskey or bourbon, is just about as sexy as hospitality can get y’all.

Tennessee Whiskey History

Tennessee WhiskeyThe history of American whiskey began when the founders of America, Scotch, Irish and German settlers, brought with them the art of distillation from Europe. Whiskey at the most basic level is distilled alcohol produced from fermenting mash of grain or corn. Initially the techniques share similarities with beer. It starts by steeping a mixture of grains in hot water (mash) in large wooden vats. That process triggers the release of natural sugars. The yeast eats the natural sugars and turns it into alcohol. The mash mixture a.k.a. “wort,” bubbles and “burbs” at the surface in the large vat, picture as a giant bubbling cauldron of witches brew.

Tennessee WhiskeyThis mash mixture is then put into giant copper stills and heated with steam until the vapor turns to liquid alcohol, which is then extracted into tanks. To make whiskey, the liquid alcohol is then filtered over layers of charcoal to “mellow.” This mellowing over charcoal, is the only difference between bourbon and whiskey in Tennessee. Thus, distilling bourbon doesn’t include the mellowing process. After the alcohol is mellowed, it is poured directly into wooden barrels to age. At Jack Daniels, the barrels are made out of white oak staves that they’ve made onsite, then charred to impart a distinct taste to the whiskey. The grains, the distilling method, the taste of the water (a significant factor at the Jack Daniels Distillery, as it is sourced from a prolific underground spring around which, the distillery is founded), the type of wood used in the barrels, along with the temperature in the rick houses (the barn structure where the barrels are stored), give the whiskey it’s varying tastes. The changes that occur to the whiskey left in the barrels for a certain length of time is called “aging.” When the whiskey in the barrels is done “aging” it is finished. The plug to the barrel is broken, and the whiskey is bottled.

Tennessee Whiskey- an off- shoot of American Whiskey- isn’t defined federally in a legal sense like other American whiskey styles.

Check out the Tennessee Whiskey Trial!

Made in the same manner as bourbon (see below) Tennessee whiskey is differentiated by one crucial step: pouring the distilled product through a charcoal filter to remove impurities and mellow the whiskey before barreling.

So What about Bourbon?

Legally, Bourbon, the quintessential American whiskey, must be made with at least 51% Corn, and aged in new white oak barrels, the insides of which have been charred with a torch before being filled for aging. Bourbons cannot have any flavor or color additives. The ingredients are simple: corn, water, wheat or rye, malt and the color effects from the inside of the charred barrel. Typically the aging process is 1½ to two years. Finally, bourbon has to be between 80 and 160 proof. The name Bourbon comes from a French Royal Dynasty and has been distilled in the Kentucky region since European pioneers first settled in the area. Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky to be called Bourbon, however, currently, 96% of all bourbon comes from Kentucky.

Yummy Warm weather recipe:  2 oz lemon juice, 1 oz simple syrup, 2 oz. of Jack Daniels Whiskey or Woodford Reserve Bourbon, shaken and strained into a mason 10 oz mason jar filled w/ ice, splash of sprite. Garnish with a lemon wedge.


Brenda CloustonBrenda Clouston, owner of COLT Bar & Grill in Old Town Cottonwood, Arizona. Interior Designer & Restauranteur.