What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon, and what should I use for making homemade vanilla extract?
The answer is: both will work. Bourbon, however, might help you be a little more scientific because it is made to a consistent standard that is regulated by the US government.
The type of alcohol used during extraction is a place where commercial vanilla extract producers can cut corners to save a few pennies. They can use "cheap whisky" or "moonshine" to extract their vanilla beans. When you're making extract at home, there is no need to cut corners.
As the old saying goes, "All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon."
Whiskey is made all around the world. There are famous styles, such as American whiskey, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey and there are many brands of each that could be great with extract. Bourbon is simply the most popular form of American whiskey...but it has its own defining characteristics or rules.
As regulated by the US government, anything labeled "Bourbon" must have the following characteristics:
- Bourbon must be made in America
- Bourbon must be 51% corn
- Bourbon must be stored in new (never-used), charred-oak barrels
- Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol), and entered into the barrel at 125 proof (62.5% alcohol).
- Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol).
- Bourbon must not contain any added flavoring, coloring or additives.
Why are these regulations so strict? Because in the 1800's, distillers spent a lot of effort adulterating, tampering with and diluting their whiskeys. The 1897 Bottle in Bond Act clarified proper bourbon producing techniques to protect the bourbon industry from "moon shiners". According to the act, "It (bourbon) must be bottled and stored in bonded warehouses under the U.S. government supervision for no less than 4 years." In short, the act made the U.S. government the guarantor of bourbon authentication.
So, when you use bourbon, you know exactly what you are getting. Plus, the use of corn makes bourbon a little sweeter than most whiskeys. Does that make whisky bad? No. It just means there is more uniformity of taste within bourbon than you will find in whiskey. Some whiskeys can be wonderful, but you will want to research how they are made before you use them.
Using Bourbon instead of whiskey ensures adherence to the same high standards with vanilla extract that American bourbon producers do. It's a terrific extractor that adds a smokey taste to your extracts that has many different applications. Here is a list of several bourbons that we have tried, so you can learn from our successes and failures.
Visit our comprehensive extract-making guide center for more essential extract making tips and ongoing education.