Differences Between Scotch, Whiskey, and Bourbon

Karen Frazier
whiskey bottles

When considering spirits, some people struggle to understand the difference between whiskey, bourbon, and scotch. While there are basic similarities in scotch, bourbon, and whiskey, each has characteristics and manufacturing practices that make them unique.

What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is the main category into which bourbon and scotch both fall. All bourbons and scotches are whiskey; not all whiskey is bourbon or scotch.

Whiskey Is a Distilled Grain Spirit

According to Whiskey Advocate, whiskey is a distilled spirit that is made from grain. All other distilled liquors are made from other sources. For example, brandy, such as Armagnac or Cognac, comes from grapes. Whiskey makers use malted barley or other grains to make the spirit. They soak the grains in hot water to release the sugars and then add yeast to ferment the sugar into alcohol. Finally, they distill the liquor and age it in barrels.

Bourbon, Scotch, and rye are all types of whiskey. There are other types of whiskey as well.

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is a type of corn whiskey made in the state of Tennessee.

  • Contrary to the belief it is a vegetable, corn is a grain and thus distilled spirits made from corns meet the definition of whiskey.
  • While it is similar in distillation practices, aging, and flavors to bourbon, Jack Daniels notes that Tennessee whiskey distillers use a charcoal filtration process.
  • Jack Daniels cocktails are perfect for Tennessee whiskey.

Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey, as the name indicates, is whiskey distilled in Ireland.

  • Alcohol by volume must be less than 94.8 percent.
  • Different distillers use varying grains, but all Irish whiskey must be aged for three years in wooden casks.
  • Irish whiskey tends to be sweet and smooth because it often goes through triple distillation.
  • Try it in Irish whiskey cocktails.

Canadian Whisky

Canadian whisky is distilled in Canada.

  • Although Canadian whisky is primarily made from corn, people often refer to it as rye or rye whisky because some Canadian whisky does have a small amount of rye in the mash.
  • Canadian whisky is not to be confused with rye whiskey made in the United States. The reason people started referring to Canadian whisky as rye is because they liked the flavor that rye added to the whiskey when distillers began adding a little.
  • Manufacturers of Canadian whisky also create their mashes differently than in the US. In the US, distillers mash all the different types of grains together, while in Canada they mash them separately and then combine them after distilling.
  • The whisky is also aged in a combination of new and old barrels of different types of woods to avoid overpowering flavors that might come from new barrels made of a single wood.
  • Try it in a Viper cocktail.

Rye Whiskey

American rye whiskey is made from corn and rye, with at least 51 percent of the grain being rye. It is primarily distilled in Kentucky. It is aged in new American charred oak barrels. Try it in an old-fashioned.

Whiskey vs Whisky

The terms whiskey and whisky come about primarily from geographic differences. In the United States and Ireland, grain alcohols are referred to as whiskey, while in Canada and Scotland, they call it whisky.

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey.

Bourbon vs Whiskey

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Pouring bourbon into glasses

What Makes It Bourbon?

U.S. laws regulate what manufacturers can label as bourbon.

  • The mash used must contain at least 51% corn.
  • The only additive allowed outside of the mash and the yeast is water. No other additives may be used.
  • It must be 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume or ABV) or less.
  • It can only be produced in the United States.
  • It must be aged for at least two years.
  • Aging takes place in new white oak barrels that have been charred.
  • While the main grain in bourbon is corn, other grains may include rye, barley, or malt.
  • Enjoy it in a classic mint julep.

What Is Scotch?

Made in Scotland, as the name indicates, scotch whisky is distilled from malted barley and other grains.

Scotch vs Whiskey

The first difference is that scotch whisky is spelled without the "e" in whiskey. All Scotch is whisky (or whiskey), not all whisky is Scotch.

Scotch Regulations

The UK has legal regulations for the manufacture of Scotch whisky that include:

  • It must be produced in Scotland.
  • It is distilled from a mash of malted barley and other cereal grains.
  • It must be fermented only by adding yeast.
  • It must be 90 proof (94.8 percent ABV) or less, with a minimum ABV of 40 percent.
  • It must be matured in oak casks for at least three years.
  • The only permitted additives are water and caramel color.
  • Try it in a Rob Roy cocktail.

Types of Scotch

Scotch whisky is available in different types, including:

  • Single malt, which is produced in single batches. Single malt contains only one grain: malted barley.
  • Single grain, which is produced in single batches but with malted barley and one or more other grains included.
  • Blended malt, which contains two or more single malt Scotches made in different distilleries.
  • Blended grain, which is made from two or more single grain whiskies made in different distilleries.
  • Blended, which is made from at least one single malt blended with at least one single grain Scotch.

Summary of Scotch vs Whiskey vs Bourbon

The table below summarizes some of the key differences. While the flavors vary depending on who makes the whiskey and how they make it, flavor and color notes are general.

Whiskey bottles without labels
Spirit Origin

Ingredients &

Manufacturing

Flavor
Whiskey All over the world Distilled grain spirit Depends on which you taste
Irish Whiskey Ireland

Different grains

Aged 3 years in wood

40% to 94.8% abv

Triple distilled

Golden color

Smooth

Lightly sweet

Subtle flavors

Tennessee Whiskey Tennessee

51% corn

Charcoal filtered

Aged in charred new oak barrels

40% to 80% ABV

Amber color

Aromatic

Sweet

Caramel, vanilla, and spice notes

Canadian Whisky Canada

Mostly corn with other grains

Aged at least 3 years in wood barrells

At least 40% ABV

Golden color

Smooth

Flavors of butterscotch and spice

Bourbon United States

At least 51% corn

Aged in new charred oak barrels

40% to 80% ABV

Amber color

Can be smooth or harsh

Often has "heat" to it

Flavors of caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, and spice

Scotch Whisky Scotland

Water and malted barley

May contain other cereal grains

Aged 3 years in oak casks

40% to 94.8% ABV

May be peated

Amber color

Smooth

Sometimes smokey

Flavors of caramel, spice, orange peel, vanilla

Difference Between Scotch, Bourbon, and Whiskey

All of these differences result in variations in flavors, sweetness, and smoothness of the spirit. Determining which best suits your tastebuds is a matter of experimentation with various types and brands of whiskey. The next time you're out on the town, try a different type of whiskey on the rocks, or enjoy it in a cocktail or hot toddy to determine what you like.

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Differences Between Scotch, Whiskey, and Bourbon