Try this little trick the next time you're dusting off a bar stool with your softening posterior. Ask the bartender, real nice like, "What kind of bourbon do you have?" If the answer starts with "Jack Daniels..." just get up and leave. Don't even bother waiting to hear the rest. Now, if the bartender lists something like Crown Royal, Seagram's Seven or, god forbid, Canadian Mist, consider stronger action. I'm not going to coach you on your social skills, but where I'm from, a man that thinks a blended Canadian Whiskey is the same as bourbon, is just asking for an ass whupping.
While mistaking a blended Canadian for bourbon is a gross display of willful ignorance, the differences between a Tennessee sipping whiskey and bourbon, aren't as apparent and it's something of a widely held misunderstanding that the two are the same. The error, I presume, arises from both whiskeys being crafted in the same general geographical region, and sharing a very similar rich amber color. Any bar(wo)man or imbiber worth their salt knows that the two aren't the same though, and while it may be perfectly acceptable for a honky with a backwards hat to swill both in the back room of his frat house while listening to Matchbox 20, those of us with taste and dignity should really be appraised of the differences.
Bourbon, by an act of Congress in 1964, is "America's native spirit," and later legislation restricted the labeling of spirits as Bourbon, to those produced in the United States. It is not, however, restricted by law to production in Kentucky; although by tradition most bourbons are produced there, and since Bourbon County itself has gone through some considerable rearrangement in the last hundred years or more, no bourbon is currently distilled in Bourbon County.
By law, bourbon is a whiskey consisting of at least 51% corn, with the remainder wheat and or rye, and malted barley. Bourbon is distilled to no more than 160 proof and aged in charred new oak barrels no less than 2 years to earn the label "Straight Bourbon." All the details thereafter are subtle twists to increase flavor and color. The corn content can be higher, or the bourbon aged in the barrel longer. A surprising number of American markets still have legislation about the amount of alcohol per volume that can be sold legally. This is stupid puritanical horse shit and for one reason or another 80 proof is about the standard for this nincompoopery. In order to reduce alcohol content to the appropriate level, water is added.
Really good bourbon is unfiltered, unblended, and cask strength, which means it has no water added to it, is not blended with other barrels, and more or less is poured straight from the barrel into a bottle. As one might imagine, the flavor and aroma of these cask strength bourbons are exceptional, as is their alcohol content. Bookers, available from Jim Beam, is an excellent example of this type of bourbon.
So what's the difference between Tennessee sipping whiskeys and bourbon? The sole difference is that Tennessee whiskey goes through an additional filtering process called the Lincoln County Process. This process employs a filtering column of charcoal chips made from charred sugar maple that has been primed with the unfiltered whiskey, prior to being aged in the barrel. It's a small change that introduces a significant change in flavor, color and aroma. Named for Lincoln County, Tennessee where the process was first developed by the Daniel's distillery, another redrawing of county lines has left the only two distilleries to use the process outside of Lincoln County.
Now, there's nothing wrong with Tennessee sipping whiskey, don't get me wrong. It makes for a good drink, whether neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, but brother, it ain't bourbon and if the bartender doesn't know the difference between these two staples of American booze history, do you really want to accept a drink from him? Now, if all you're after is $5 pitchers of PBR, then go ahead, trust the guy, but I won't.