Spirits Around the World: Bourbon

Do you know what makes bourbon, well, bourbon?

Bourbon has long been an American favorite—so much so that in 1964, the U.S. Congress declared it “America’s native spirit.” But over the years, there has been confusion about the amber-colored liquor and its relation to its larger category, whiskey. Let’s investigate. 

True or false: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

The answer? True. In other words, bourbon is a type of whiskey, but unless it follows the rules of bourbon, a whiskey is not a bourbon. Here’s why: 

When Congress deemed bourbon as “America’s native spirit,” they ruled that in order for an alcohol to be considered bourbon, it had to be made on U.S. soil—unlike whiskey, which can be distilled anywhere in the world (hence Irish and Scotch whiskey, among others). Now, there is a common misconception that bourbon is solely distilled in Kentucky, and though the state does do most of the heavy lifting—95 percent of the world’s bourbon is created there—bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky to be considered bourbon. The spirit is distilled in many other states, including Illinois, New York and Texas, among others, though on a much smaller scale.

Other than being made in the U.S., bourbon rules dictate that it also has to be aged in new, charred white oak barrels and that its grain content has to be at least 51 percent corn. The liquor must also be distilled at no higher than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume) and entered into a barrel at no higher than 125 proof. Artificial coloring and flavoring also aren’t allowed—the use of either would make the spirit a whiskey.  

But like whiskey, bourbon is good any way you drink it—straight, diluted or mixed into cocktails—due to characteristic flavors of caramel, vanilla and oak. And because of its versatility, bourbon is also fit for any season: Mix it with fruit, such as orange or grapefruit, for a refreshing summer take, or play up fall flavors in a maple-infused drink. 

Here are some bourbon cocktails to try at your event, no matter the season, courtesy of Food & Wine:

Vanilla Old-Fashioned


  • One 1-inch piece of vanilla bean, split
  • One 1-inch piece of orange zest
  • ¼ ounce simple syrup
  • 2 dashes of orange bitters
  • 2 ounces of bourbon
  • Ice
  • Orange wheel, for garnish

In a rocks glass, muddle the vanilla bean and orange zest with the simple syrup and bitters. Add bourbon and ice, stir and garnish with orange wheel.

Maple-Bourbon Smash


  • ½ ounce pure maple syrup
  • ½ ounce fresh orange juice
  • ¼ ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 4 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • ½ orange wheel 
  • 2 ounces of bourbon
  • Ice
  • 1 ½ ounces chilled seltzer

In a rocks glass, combine maple syrup with orange juice, lemon juice and bitters. Then, add in the orange wheel and lightly muddle before adding the bourbon. Stir well. Fill the glass with ice and top with the chilled seltzer.