Bourbon vs Brandy: What’s the Difference?

You’re looking to branch away from your usual. You know you want something sweeter. Brandy? Bourbon? Which is which! Have no fear! We’ll take you through all the ins and outs of Bourbon and Brandy to help you determine exactly which you ought to serve your guests tonight when they ask for something a little sweet!

The Main Differences Between Bourbon and Brandy

bourbon 3

  • Bourbon is a whiskey
  • Brandy is a distilled wine
  • Bourbon is produced in the United States
  • Brandy can be produced anywhere
  • Bourbon is made from corn mash
  • Brandy is made from fermented fruits
  • A good Bourbon can be found fairly cheaply
  • A good Brandy tends to be pricier

The Main Similarities Between Bourbon and Brandy

  • Both are on the sweeter side of the spectrum
  • Both can be used in cocktails
  • Both can be used in cooking
  • Both are often used in desserts
  • Both are distilled spirits
  • Both are aged in wood casks

Bourbon

evan bourbon

Rich brown and full of sweet spices, put this one in the same category as your whiskies and scotches. Imagine sipping it over the rocks with a cigar.

What is Bourbon

Long story short: Bourbon is a whiskey. Specifically, it is a whiskey made from corn.

“Okay,” you say incredulously, “then why isn’t it just called whiskey?”

Good question! Bourbon is a whiskey that is made in America. In order to retain the definition of bourbon, it is one of the most regulated spirits in the world. In fact, there are federal laws determining exactly what needs to happen for a bottle to call itself “bourbon.”

  • Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn mash
  • Bourbon must be a product of the United States of America
  • Bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof
  • Bourbon must be poured in the barrel at no higher than 125 proof
  • Bourbon must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels only
  • Bourbon must be aged in a government-approved warehouse
  • Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof
  • Bourbon must have no additives like coloring or flavoring except water
  • Bourbon aged less than 2 years must have its age labeled on the bottle, with the age labeled as the youngest bourbon used

What a list! Just remember Bourbon is whiskey from America. The key note really is the grain, or mash, used in Bourbon is corn. Other grains in the mash can include barley, rye, and wheat.

The second note is Bourbon is aged in new oak casks that have been recently charred. We’ll get to flavor points behind these two choices below!

Where is Bourbon From

japanese whisky barrels

The United States. Anywhere in the United States. “Okay,” you agree, “but what about Kentucky Bourbon?” Kentucky Bourbon is the old name for bourbon. And in the past, only Bourbon coming out of Kentucky could be called Bourbon or “Kentucky Bourbon.” Now, of course, that labeling has changed, as you’ll see below!

But to this day about 95% of the world’s bourbon still comes from Kentucky! Corn is a reliable and wide-spread in the New World. So early colonists who had a background in distilling decided to try their hand and corn-whiskey! By the 1800s, a number of brands you’ve heard of today had already gotten their start.

Prohibition in the 1920s destroyed much of the Bourbon industry. But slowly and surely bourbon distillers have reopened, some as recently as the 1990s! Today, it is the most widely exported American spirit.

How is Bourbon Made

1. Making “sour mash:” A mash of 51%-80% corn and supplemental other grains is mixed with water, and cooked, fermented, distilled and collected after the alcohol has left. This is set out to sour overnight.

2. A new batch of mash goes through the same process but is combined with the sour mash created the day before in part 1. This new mash then proceeds through this process

2. This beer of fermented mash, water, and yeast is put through distillation in column stills. Most bourbons run through double distillation from the column stills into the copper doubler pot.

4. The collected alcohol, called “white dog,” is then poured into new charred American white oak barrels for aging.

Note: Malted Barley can ferment without additional help, but corn, rye, unmalted barley, and wheat all need a different process to begin fermenting. They are cooked for 30 minutes to get things started!

  • Different yeast strains will produce different effects on whiskey. Many distilleries keep their yeast strains separate so they only use one type with one type of whiskey to keep things consistent
  • The purpose of souring the first mash is to create an acidic environment for the yeast to flourish when it is added to the next batch of mash!
  • White oak casks are lit on fire and toasted for about 12 minutes to caramelize the wood sugars and impart flavor to the wood

What does Bourbon Taste Like?

bourbon glass

 

Bourbon, in general, tends to be a little sweeter and heavier in texture than most other whiskies. Some are stronger (those mixed with rye) and some are softer (those mixed with wheat.) So, whether you like a strong alcoholic presence or not, you’ll still be able to enjoy the sweet notes of bourbon.

There are three big flavors: Vanilla, Caramel, and Oak. These come from the base mash and the wood aging. But secondary flavors will come through as well! Remember, by law, no flavor or color can be added to your bourbon. So whatever you are tasting in your drink, comes from the process of making whiskey!

General Flavor Profile of Bourbon:

The Big Three:

  • Vanilla
  • Oak
  • Caramel (caramel apples or candy)

Secondary:

  • Grains (oatmeal, cornbread, or toast)
  • Fall Spices (nutmeg, pumpkin pie, nuts)
  • Strong Spice (cinnamon or pepper)

What does Bourbon Pair With?

Bourbon pairs well with most southern dishes and can handle fatty, rich foods. But, as usual, don’t overwhelm with too many rich dishes in one meal or you’ll overwhelm the bourbon. (And probably your tummy too!)

Savory:

  • Nuts and Dates
  • Bacon, Ham
  • BBQ dishes

Sweet:

  • Chocolate
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Sweet Potato Pie

Cooking:

  • Appetizer: Chili with bourbon caramelized onions
  • Entree: Brisket with Bourbon Glaze
  • Vegetable: Bourbon glazed carrots
  • Desserts: Brownies, Maple Cakes, Sautéed fruit

Bourbon Cocktails

orange cocktail

 

Bourbon finds its way into many different cocktails, but below are the top three you’ll be guaranteed to find!

The Old Fashioned – a class: bourbon, bitters, sugar, and orange

Manhattan – another classic: bourbon, bitters, vermouth, and orange

Mint Julep – a throwback: mint, bourbon, sugar

John Collins – highball with fizz, lemon, soda, syrup and bourbon

How to pick the best Bourbon

bourbon

Chances are, if you have had some whisky in your college days, you’ve probably already had a bourbon.

But figuring out which is perfect for you can be a bit tricky!

A way to simplify it? Think of your whisky palate. Depending on your taste for rye, smoke, spices in scotches, you can easily figure out which bourbon to try first.

If you don’t have a whiskey palate yet here are a few tips to consider:

  • Rye – very strong, with a spicy kick, hints of cinnamon
  • Spices – Full of hints of nutmeg, nuts, allspice, fall vibes like pumpkin pie
  • Sweeter – Softer and more like candy like caramel, vanilla, or candied apples
  • Grain Flavors – Full of oatmeal, cornbread, rye toast, wheat toast

Now, which bourbons contain which flavors…well it depends on aging and mash content!

Spicy, Strong, Cinnamon Bourbons

These spices come from rye grains in the mash. Cinnamon and kicking pepper are the notes in something like Bulleit Bourbon.

Caramel and Vanilla Bourbons

Wheat in the mash tends to soften the whiskey and add in sweeter notes like strong caramel or vanilla (which are in most bourbons) but also apples and pears. These are easier to sip without ice, like Maker’s Mark.

Fall Spice Bourbons

We’ve covered rye and wheat, so what’s left? Barley! Barley, typically used in Scotch, tends to add a fall-spice characteristic with hints of sweat cream and nuts. Some people say they taste pumpkin pie or even eggnog in bottles like Ezra Brooks.

Grainy Bourbons

The grain notes in bourbon come from mash that hasn’t aged in wood long enough to lose that characteristics. You’ll find these in younger bourbons or bourbons with lower corn content and more barley or wheat percentage! A good example would be Johnny Drum Private Reserve.

For Beginners

All the whiskies above are tried-and-true popular brands. Look at the different flavor profiles and choose one that interests you. Further options are below!

Traditional Caramel:

  • Jim Beam
  • Knob Creek
  • Evan Williams
  • Wild Turkey

Rye:

  • Woodford Reserve
  • Four Roses Single Barrel
  • Old Forester

Wheat:

  • Larceny
  • Old Fitzgerald
  • W.L. Weller

Nutmeg:

  • Buffalo Trace

Grain:

  • Basil Hayden

Best Bourbons of 2019

evan wiliams

Below are my selections for the top Bourbons in 2019. These are excellent bottles across a range of prices and flavor profile, whether you are a beginner or not!

1. Four Roses Single Barrel $40

A mainstay in my cupboard. Plum and other stone fruits make for a full-flavor. There are also deliciously rich notes of cocoa, chocolate, butterscotch, and winter spices. Very smooth and easy to drink as you relax after work. It also works wonderfully well in winter cocktails like hot toddies! (You all know how much I love winter cocktails…)

2. Angel’s Envy $50

A really delicious blend. It’s finished in a port pipe so there are hints of ripe berries even though the majority of flavors are toffee, maple syrup, and tangerine peels. It certainly has some complexity and seems to change character with every sip.

3. New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon $40

Definitely the new kid on the block, as their name suggest, New Riff has created a very high-rye sample with this bottle. Bursting notes of butterscotch, oranges, and cinnamon spices it has a long oak and vanilla-y finish. Also, it is bottled-in-bond without chill filtration, so all those edgier rye/oak flavors are retained.

4. King’s County Bottled-in-Bond Straight Bourbon $65

This is about as pure as it gets for bourbon. As we discussed, bottled-in-bond means it was entirely produced on one distillery. Strong maple notes, very fruity. It is 100 proof so it’s very alcohol-forward, just a warning! Add ice or water to smooth or combine in a cocktail.

5. Wild Turkey Longbranch $40

Full disclosure: I bought this as a joke. It’s Matthew McConaughey’s new bourbon released in conjunction with Wild Turkey.  (He’s been their creative director since 2016.) Since I’m from Texas and I work in entertainment, I figured it was a lark but…it was good! Really good!

It’s aged for 8 years and filtered through Texas mesquite, which adds a lovely spice to the smooth oaky liquid. (Without being a rye.)

Brandy

brandy

Brandy is a full and rich spirit, aromas of wood and fruit. Imagine drinking it at room temperature as you relax on the couch after a full, rich meal.

What is Brandy

Simply put: Brandy is a wine. “Okay,” you dubiously remark, “why don’t we just call it wine?”

Because it isn’t just wine, it’s actually distilled wine. Distilling the wine raises the alcohol content from the usual 18-20% in regular wine all the way to 40-50%!  This means that Brandy is, by definition, not a wine but a spirit.

While early Mediterranean traders first brought a version of wine to Europe in the 13th century, most people ascribe the first brandy to Dutch merchants. In the 16th century, Dutch traders began removing water from French wine for transport. The reason? Saving money, saving space, and saving the cargo from spoiling!

They called this “brandewijn” or “burnt wine” and transported it in wooden casks. They had every intention of adding water back in at the end of the journey, but customers seemed to really enjoy the newly formed spirit. And thank goodness they did!

Brandy was actually one of the first spirits distilled in America since there is so much natural fruit on the east coast. In 1780 Laird’s opened and produced apple brandy and in 1797 even George Washington joined in the fun!

How is Brandy Made

To make brandy, grape wine is distilled (Though other fruit wines and juices can be used as well including pears, apples, plums, cherries.) These whole fruits are mashed and fermented. Then distilled in copper stills.

The boiling temperatures of alcohol and water differ by about 40 degrees. If you heat wine to 173 degrees Fahrenheit, all the steam released will be alcohol. Voila! You’ve just distilled your wine. The subsequent liquor is 70-120 proof meaning up to 60% of the drink is alcohol.

Many clear fruit brandies are actually not aged, the notable exceptions being apple and obviously grape! The clear fruit brandy is often used as a palate cleanser between meals.

What does Brandy Taste Like

brandy in glass

Brandy is a sweeter spirit, full of rich woody, caramel aromas. But the prevalent taste in any brandy should be the fruit at its base. Obviously younger, clear fruit brandies are strongly associated with fruits. But aged brandies, which is what you’ll likely get at a liquor shop when you buy a cognac, tend to deepen in flavor.

  • Grape, plums, and cherries turn into raisin and jam flavors
  • Apples and Pears develop into rich caramel and cream

Wood tends to add vanilla, caramel, spices, rancio, and sweet toasted nuts! Older aging does produce more complex, smooth, and balanced brandies.

General Tasting Profiles for Brandy

  • Fruit
  • Caramel
  • Spices
  • Rancio (in older brandies)
  • Nuts

Does it taste like wine? No. Brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac are about as close to wine as whiskey is to beer. (That is, nowhere near!) But they have a rich flavor, sweet caramel overtones, a base of ripe fruit, and subtle notes of nuts and spice from wood.

What does Brandy Pair With

Brandy can be used in many similar ways as wine, but keep in mind it is stronger than most wines! You’ll need to use less to achieve the same effect.

Savory:

  • Oily fish
  • Strong Cheese
  • Gamey meats

Sweet:

  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate mousse
  • Chocolate brownies

Cooking:

Use it in smaller amounts in recipes because it is stronger than wine!

  • Entree: Gravy for turkey, Mushroom sauce for chicken, Goat with brandied cherries
  • Dessert: Flambé desserts, chocolate sauces, Brandied Fruits, Christmas Cake

Brandy cocktails

cocktail with brandy

Brandy cocktails have gone a little out of fashion, but some of them are just so good. Give them a shot and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe together we can start a comeback?)

Hot Toddy – honey and lemon flavors

Sidecar – a “brandy sour” with lemon and orange flavors

Sazerac – the original included cognac and bitters

Japanese Cocktail – almonds, cognac, and bitters…oh my!

How to pick the best Brandy

I’m going to be totally honest, most low price-point brandies are not great. Certainly not great for sipping. You could probably throw them in a cocktail or use them as a sort of mixer, but I don’t recommend buying a $12 bottle of brandy to drink on its own.

For one thing, brandy is very strong. To counteract the alcohol levels you need lots of flavors and expert distilling skills. Lower-end brandy is often full of color additives since it isn’t aged long enough to develop the brown coloring from wood alone.

When you are looking for a brandy, consider aging to be positive. You want an older brandy that has had time to mature and develop flavors outside of just the fruit and strong alcohol. Your best bet is to look for Cognacs and Armagnacs, though they are expensive. Common aging rankings are below.

Brandy Labels

  • VS or Three Stars – Very Special, Brandy that has been aged for at least 2 years. (The most common you will find!)
  • VSOP or Reserve or Five Stars – Very Special Old Pale, Brandy that has been aged for at least 4 years.
  • XO or Napoléon – Extra old, has been aged for at least 6 years. (Though new regulations will likely push it up to 10 years.)
  • Hors d’âge – Beyond Age, at least 10 years old but can be beyond the official age scale

Types of Brandy

brandy bottle

Grappa – Italian

Generally made from the pomace made after wine is produced.

Pisco – Peruvian

Is not allowed to be aged in wood, but in clay pots. Is not diluted by water, just distilled at bottling proof instead.

Armagnac – France

High-end brandy! Single distillation via column stills. It also has a slightly different and fancier labeling system

Cognac – France

The highest of all brandies…goes through double distillation and has aging and location requirements. (Trust France to protect its labels!)

For Beginners

Classic good, well-known, and easily accessible brands are listed below! You can find these nearly anywhere and they usually have reasonable price points.

As usual, I recommend trying a glass before a bottle!

  • Hennesey – very smooth, fruity and rich with a hint of spice
  • Rémy Martin – long and silky, toffee, licorice and vanilla with dry apricot
  • Martell – smooth and spicy, pear, citrus, cinnamon, a chocolate-covered almond

Best Brandy of 2019 under $75

Below is my selection of the top brandy options in 2019. They are ranked based on the suggestions for picking brandy listed above. Most are cognacs since they tend to have the best flavor.

(This should be a good place to get started if you want to do a taste test opposite Bourbon!)

1. Copper and Kings Butchertown Brandy $60

Copper and Kings Butchertown Brandy

Copper and Kings, an American company, are creating some really unique new brandies for the world. Their Butchertown bottle is high proof and is aged in ex-bourbon barrels to impart some of the rich caramelized wood notes. (They also create a delicious pear brandy!)

2. Courvoisier VSOP Cognac $40

Courvoisier VSOP Cognac

The real-deal cognac. Rich, full-bodied, and smooth. Couvoisier delights with peach, almond and caramel. It is surprisingly perfumed with jasmine, though the taste is more dried fruit and toffee than floral. You can drink alone or add to sangria!

3. Pierre Ferdinand 1840 Cognac $40

pierre brandy

The 1840 Formula is supposed to be used in cocktails, but they made such an exquisite brandy you could sip a little as well. Almond, dried dates with hints of wood. It’s the perfect mix for the cocktails above!

4. Paul Masson Grand Amber VSOP $15

Paul Masson Grand Amber VSOP

Surprising to find such a lovely brandy for such a low price. Hazelnut, espresso and cigars mix with spices like allspice and nutmeg. Overall delicious, the added cognac elevates the American brandy a step above.

5. Emperador Brandy $15

Emperador Brandy

As the world’s #1 selling brandy, Emperador needed a spot on the list. This has a much more caramelized flavor like crème brûlée or tiramisu, yet it’s tempered by dark chocolate and mocha notes.

Brandy FAQ

Brandy vs. Cognac?

Every Cognac you drink is a brandy. But Cognac is a special type of brandy that only comes from France.

Legally, something can only be labeled Cognac if it comes from grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. (The specific varietal is Ugni Blanc.) It then follows a specific distilling and aging process to increase the already high quality of the grapes. Cognacs are aged for two to twenty five years in French oak.

In essence, when you buy Cognac, you are paying for the label and the legal quality control.

How to serve Brandy?

Brandy should be served room temperature to warm (never iced!) in a snifter glass. (Seriously, invest in the snifter glass. Half of the fun of brandy is the aroma and the snifter is the only way to really appreciate it. You can even enjoy scotch or bourbon in a snifter!)

Brandy is generally served as an after-dinner drink or palate cleanser.
How long does Brandy have to age to be good?

This is largely a matter of taste, but many people prefer brandies that have been aged for at least 4-6 years. These bottles have a more mature and developed palate.

But you should note that buying a young bottle of brandy and keeping it in your cupboard will not age it. Brandies, like ports and whiskies, don’t improv or age in once they are bottled! (They are different from wines in that way.)

Can you substitute Bourbon for Brandy?

Yes. If your recipe calls for brandy, or vice versa, you can replace it with an equal amount of Bourbon or Rum. It may change the flavor a bit and Bourban can have a spicier, smokier, and grainier flavor. And rum has a richer molasses flavor.

What alcohols taste like Brandy?

Cognac and Armagnac are the top two, since they are actually types of brandy.

Other brandy-like alcohols would include Grapa and Pisco which are both also made from distilled fruit juices.

Bourbon FAQ

Bourbon vs. Whiskey?

Remember that bourbon is a whiskey. It differs from whisky in its base mash composition, which is a majority corn. The corn is what makes it a little sweeter. And the requirement that bourbon be aged in charred new oak casks increases it’s caramel, vanilla, and oak flavors!

While there are slight taste differences, some bourbons taste like whiskies just as some whiskies taste like scotches (another whiskey subset.)

Whiskey, bourbon, scotch, and rye are all in the same family of liquors.

What is Straight Bourbon?

Straight Bourbon is any bourbon that has been aged over 2 years. However, something may have been aged over 2 years and not called “straight.”

What is Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon?

Bottled-in-Bond is another legally defined term for Bourbon. (Think of it like Scotch from Scotland, it bears a seal of quality.)

These bottles must be:

  • Aged at least 4 years
  • Bottled by the same master distiller
  • Bottled in the same distilling season
  • Bottled in the same distillery
  • Bottled at 100 proof
  • The label must include the name of the distillery.

Is Tennessee Whiskey different from Bourbon?

jack daniels

Tennessee whiskey (like Jack Daniel’s) technically counts as bourbon. But don’t let them hear you say it! Tennessee characterizes its whiskey as different from Bourbon. In fact, there are some legal requirements that set it apart.

  • Distilled in Tennessee
  • Made from at least 51% corn
  • Filtered through charcoal from sugar maples (The “Lincoln County Process”)
  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels

You’ll note that many of these are identical to the federal requirements regarding bourbon. The Lincoln County Process is really the main difference. After distillation, the liquid is poured through sugar maple charcoal to remove impurities and mellow the whiskey. The whiskey is then aged

The state recently declared that any whiskey not aged in Tennessee couldn’t have the label either. George Dickel’s brand has been lobbying to relax some of these requirements. There is precedent, Pritchard’s is exempt from the Lincoln County Process.

How long does Bourbon have to age to be good?

Bourbon is required to be aged for at least 2 years. You can find decent bourbon at the 2-year mark, but most of the premium bourbons are between 5-12 years. But like Scotch, Bourbon can be aged for decades as well!

What can you substitute for Bourbon?

It is best not to substitute a brandy for bourbon if you have the option. Bourbon has a unique flavor, and you’d be better off substituting an equal amount of scotch or whisky within a similar flavor profile! But brandy and bourbon both have vanilla flavors, so if that is the key note you want to highlight, you should be okay!

What alcohols taste like Bourbon?

Top alcohols similar to bourbon would be Tennesee Whiskey, American Whiskey, Rye Whiskey. Most of these even use similar processes.

From around the world, Japanese or Irish Whisky have similar spice and sweet notes in some bottles. And even scotch, like Speyside, has some similarities. Since it is a whiskey, you can find many bottles that will remind you of bourbon!

How to serve Bourbon?

Bourbon can either be served neat (room temperature in a glass) or over the rocks (with ice). Adding water brings out the subtle flavors and widens the aromas.

Bourbon can be enjoyed before dinner, with food, or after a meal. Think of it as a whiskey or scotch.

Final Thoughts

While they have some similar tasting characteristics, bourbon and brandy are two entirely different spirits. But if you are looking for a casual after-dinner drink or even a little something extra to add to a cake, both will suffice.

But next time your drunk uncle asks you what you’re having after Thanksgiving dinner, at least now you’ll be able to give him an answer!

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Kathryn Loveless

Kathryn Loveless is a freelance writer for hire who delights in all things delectable. You can find her perfecting a roast chicken recipe, hunting down a new bottle of scotch, or hosting a wine and cheese soirée somewhere in New York. My passion for Scotch started in college when my conniving parents gave me their best whisky for my "first taste." Needless to say, the stuff my friends had at school didn't compare. They had a joke "If Kathryn comes to a party, you need a whiskey that's over $40." My first job in NYC was hosting several fine-dining establishments where I learned everything I could from bartenders and mixologists. Now that I work in writing and development full-time, I continue my education in classes around the city and explore the newest whiskeys on the market. (Still trying to find a bottle of Compass Box No Name if you have any leads...) Newest in my collection: Compass Box Peat Monster and Port Charlotte Islay Single Malt (I love peat if you can't tell.) Most interesting thing on the market right now: Japanese whisky! (No "e" since much of the trade was learned in Scotland.)
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