Corn whiskey refers to a variety of distilled liquor produced using a certain percentage of corn mash. Basic corn whiskey, historically a kind of moonshine liquor, contains the highest percentage of corn mash and, unlike other varieties, does not require aging. Another American liquor distilled from corn is bourbon, which is aged in oak barrels for a minimum legally specified period of time, which allows it to develop a more complex flavor and color than that of unaged liquor. All corn whiskeys are distilled to a minimum of 40% alcohol (80 proof), though bourbon is produced under a legal maximum for alcohol and proof.
Moonshine corn whiskey was especially prevalent in the United States during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Its easy production and quick aging were qualities that were highly beneficial to bootleggers who produced and sold alcohol illegally. Its legality has fluctuated throughout different U.S. regions since the end of Prohibition.
Corn-based moonshine is generally produced at a high proof and alcohol content, sometimes as high as 90% alcohol and 180 proof, and is never produced below 40% alcohol and 80 proof. Straight corn whiskey is distilled from a minimum of 80% corn mash mixed with water, a process similar to that used in the production of ethanol fuel. The harsh flavor and burning sensation of many high alcohol corn whiskeys led to the development of a variety of cocktails to ease drinking.
Bourbon whiskey was originally produced in, and takes its name from, the historic Bourbon County, Kentucky. Unlike straight corn whiskey, bourbon is a recognized United States product and has several legal restrictions on its production and distribution. By law, bourbon must be distilled from at least 51% percent corn mash and cannot be bottled below 40% alcohol (80 proof) or above 80% alcohol (160 proof). U.S. law also stipulates that bourbon is aged in oak barrels and cannot contain added flavor or color. Most bourbons exceed these restrictions in terms of quality, and that labeled as straight bourbon whiskey, in general, is aged for four years or more.
Bourbon is one of the most popular and widely produced alcoholic beverages in the United States with its main production areas traditionally lying in Kentucky and Tennessee, though it has been produced in many other regions. It is a flexible liquor that is drinkable straight and mixable in many cocktails. In terms of popularity, legality, and production, bourbon is the corn whiskey of choice.