What’s the Difference Between Whiskey, Scotch, and Bourbon?
In the most basic sense, all scotches, bourbons, etc. are whisk(e)ys, but the reverse is not necessarily true. It’s like the old “all squares are rectangles” thing.
When we are talking about whiskey, scotch, and bourbon, we are talking about alcohol that is distilled from a fermented grain mash. Beyond that, in a certain way, we are venturing into the areas of national pride, varied spellings, regional bragging rights, archaic legal definitions, and personal preferences. Let’s get to know them so you can enjoy (and discuss) them better.
[bctt tweet=”…all scotches, bourbons, etc. are whisk(e)ys, but the reverse is not necessarily true.” username=”@LiftedSpirits”]
In the United States whiskey is spelled with an “e” but the Scottish omit that and spell it “whisky.” (Read more about countries where it’s spelled whiskey vs. whisky) The Scots are also allowed to call their whisky “Scotch” as, protected by international law, only whiskies (or “whiskys” as it mae be, laddie) which are 100% made in Scotland from Scottish ingredients (normally malted barley) and barrel-aged a minimum of three years can have the special title of “Scotch.”
So, if you ask us on a tour “Why aren’t you making Scotch?” it’s at least partly because we love Kansas City and the regular commute from KC to Scotland would be exhausting.
Taste – The taste of scotch can vary widely by distillery and by region, but scotches, more than American whiskeys, are often defined by rich, bold flavors, smoke, and peat.
“Single Malt” is a term you’ll hear most commonly with scotch, as in “I’d like a single malt scotch.” A single malt is a whiskey from a single distillery, distilled exclusively from malted grain. In Scotland, that’s typically barley. By contrast, blended scotch may be sourced from multiple distilleries and blended together. Johnny Walker is the best-known example – they blend scotches from different sources, rather than from a single distillery.
While bourbon is quintessentially an American whiskey, many would not know that the name itself is from one of the royal families of France. In gratitude to King Louis XVI for his decisive intervention against the English and on the side of the American Revolutionaries, the westernmost counties of what was then Virginia (which would later become a large part of eastern Kentucky) were named “Bourbon County.”
Now, Kentuckians would have you believe that, as with whiskey made in Scotland being called scotch, only whiskey made in Kentucky can be called bourbon. But that’s not true.
As long as the whiskey is…
- made from at least 51% corn
- aged in new American oak charred barrels
- distilled at less than 160 proof
- bottled at no less than 80 proof
- free of additives
- and made in the United States
… it can be called bourbon. So, if you hear someone say “Whiskey? No, I only drink bourbon,” please, try to educate them.
(Most of these requirements apply to all American whiskey – a rye must be at least 51% rye, and meet all of the other requirements)
Taste – The taste of a bourbon really depends on two things: 1) the mash bill (what grains are in it, aside from corn), and 2) the aging process. A high-rye bourbon aged for years in small barrels will be spicier and oakier than, say, a 100% corn bourbon.
Remember what we mentioned about brands and regional pride. South of Kentucky, in Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s markets itself as “Tennessee Whiskey” even though it meets the legal standards for bourbon – though one could also argue that their final step – filtering through sugar maple charcoal – creates an additive. JD prefers to be “Tennessee Whiskey” which is simply bourbon made in Tennessee. So, in large part it’s marketing and hometown pride.
Another term that is often misunderstood is “straight”, as in Straight Bourbon, Straight Rye, etc. This has nothing to do with a whiskey’s romantic preferences. Rather, a straight whiskey is whiskey from a single batch (not blended) which has been aged in oak barrels for at least 2 years.
[bctt tweet=”Straight Whiskey: From a single batch which has been aged in oak barrels for at least 2 years.” username=”@LiftedSpirits”]
How Do You Like Your Whiskey?
All of these variations of whiskey can of course be served in their most elemental form, “neat,” which means with no ice, but many connoisseurs of whiskey encourage adding a drop or two of water, at least, to “wake” the whiskey and unlock smell and flavor.