Understanding Scotch Vs. Whiskey Vs. 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, each has characteristics and manufacturing practices that make them unique.


Whiskey is the main category into which bourbon and Scotch both fall.

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 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. While it is similar in distillation practices, aging, and flavors to bourbon, Jack Daniels notes that Tennessee whiskey distillers use a charcoal filtration process.

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. According to Liquor.com, Irish whiskey tends to be sweet and smooth because it often goes through triple distillation.

Canadian Whisky

Canadian whisky is distilled in Canada. According to CanadianWhisky.org, although Canadian whisky is primarily made from corn, people often refer to it as rye or rye whisky. 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.

Rye Whiskey

Liquor.com notes that rye 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.

Whiskey Versus 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.


Bourbon is a type of whiskey. According to whiskey manufacturer Jim Beam, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. U.S. laws regulate what manufacturers can label as bourbon. These laws state:

  • The mash used to make the whiskey 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.


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

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.

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.

Finding Your Flavors

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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Understanding Scotch Vs. Whiskey Vs. Bourbon