What’s the Difference Between Bourbon, Scotch, and Whiskey?

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The answer to this question might be common knowledge for some people, but not everyone knows how to differentiate the three.

So, what makes bourbon, scotch, and whiskey different from each other?

Malcolm Bucholtz

Consultant, Craft Distilling Industry | Author, From Field to Flask – Fundamentals of Small Batch Distilling

Scotch, Bourbon, and Whisky are all distilled from grain – so on the surface, one could argue that they are all closely related. But, differences do abound. These differences between Scotch, Bourbon and Whisky center around legal definitions, place of manufacture and raw materials.

Scotch is a distilled alcohol that must be made and barrel aged in Scotland

There are two categories of Scotch, namely single malt and blended. Single malt is made using 100% malted barley. Often, single malts are aged for at least 10 years, but periods of up to 25 years can be employed. The longer the age period, the higher the price point and generally the smoother and more elegant the Scotch.

A blended Scotch ( think Johnnie Walker) consists of distilled grain alcohol blended with a number of single malt products. The grain alcohol can be made from wheat or barley. There are a handful of large grain alcohol distilleries in Scotland dedicated to making a product for the blending trade.

As to the single malts that get mixed with the grain alcohol to make a blended Scotch, it is common to employ over a dozen different ones. Example – one of the single malts used in Johnnie Walker Black Label is Lagavulin – hence the element of peat and smoke evident in a dram of Black Label.

Single malt Scotch is double distilled in what is termed a pot still. Think of a copper pot with a graceful neck on it. Except, these stills can be up to 25,000 Liters in size. The distillate coming off the second pot distillation run will be in the realm of 65-70% alcohol and full of flavor. The grain alcohol is distilled on a continuous still that as the name implies runs essentially non-stop for months on end. The distillate coming off a continuous still will be 95-96% alcohol and devoid of many flavors.

Whiskey is made from barley, wheat, corn, rye, oats, and other cereal grains

Whisky (or whiskey as the Irish like to spell it) is also made from barley. But, Whisky can also be made from wheat, corn, rye, oats, and other cereal grains. In Ireland, most whiskey products are triple pot distilled. This is why an Irish whiskey tends to be lighter in body and less complex than a double pot distilled Scotch.

In North America, whiskey is usually distilled on a column still with the distillate coming off the still averaging around 95% alcohol. This distillate is oftentimes then blended with a quantity of distillate from a pot still. The United States has some demanding definitions for Whisky in that it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It also must contain minimally 51% of the cereal reflected in the name of the Whisky.

For example, a Rye Whisky must contain in its recipe formulation at least 51% rye grain with the balance of the recipe being a combination of other cereal grains. Canada takes a very lax approach to Whisky. There are no recipe stipulations and for the most part Whisky in Canada is something of a black box where consumers really have no idea how the stuff is made.

Bourbon recipe must have a minimum 51% corn in its formulation

A Bourbon is arguably a whiskey. If it is made and aged in Kentucky, it can legally be called a Kentucky Bourbon. Technically / legally, a Bourbon recipe must have a minimum 51% corn in its formulation, although corn contents of nearer to 70% are more common. If one is curious as to where the famous brand Jack Daniels fits the spectrum, technically it is a Bourbon.

To distinguish itself from all those Kentucky Bourbons, the folks in Tennessee charcoal filter their distillate prior to aging it in oak barrels. This charcoal process is called the Lincoln County Process and bestows the right upon the distiller to call his product Tennessee Whisky.

The next time someone offers you a Scotch, you can now confidently ask – is it single malt or a blend?

When offered a Whisky, you can ask – what cereal grains is it made from? Is it Canadian Whisky, American Whisky or Irish Whiskey?

When offered a Bourbon, one can ask – is it Kentucky Bourbon? Is it a Bourbon with wheat in its recipe or is it a Bourbon with rye grain in the recipe?

The world of Scotch, Whisky, and Bourbon is a fantastic place full of new experiences and new learning opportunities for your palate. Enjoy the journey!

Andrew Lacayo

Founder, The Whiskey Adventure

In a general overview, Bourbon and Scotch are types of whiskey, not different from whiskey itself. The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic phrase “Usce Beatha” which translates to “water of life”.

To oversimplify the differences in taste, Bourbons are generally sweeter, whereas Scotch is generally smokier and/or peat flavored.

In Scotland, the word whiskey is spelled with no ‘e’ whereas in the United States it is spelled with an ‘e’. In Bourbon, the general aromas and flavors of caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon are highly pronounced. Depending on the mash bill (the composite of grains used) there are a wide array of aromas and flavors.

For example, there is a recent bourbon I purchased called Old Elk. This is a blend of two straight bourbons (meaning each was aged for a minimum of two years) that a spicy flavor profile despite that being unusual for Bourbon. This would account for a high amount of rye in the mash bill.

The scotch aroma and flavor profiles usually fall under smoky, fruity, and peaty. The smoke and peat notes come from the malting process of peat moss, which I will reference later. The fruity notes can come from other assorted grains and even finishes. A finish is when whiskey is aged for a short period in another cask that was previously used for another alcohol beverage such as wine, another whiskey, or beer.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty, there are many legal and production differences.

Scotch must be made, distilled, aged for a minimum of three years, and bottled all in Scotland. Bourbon must be made in the United States. There is no true age requirement for Bourbon but must have an age statement if under four years.

As far as production goes (which is constrained by legality), there are many differences. Bourbon has a mash bill of 51% corn minimum required by law. Bourbon must also be aged in a charred new American white oak cask.

There are 5 different types of Scotch: Single Malt, Blended Malt, Single Grain, Blended Grain, and Blended Scotch.

‘Single’ and ‘Blended’ refer to how many distilleries the spirit came from. All malt Scotch is made from 100% malted barley. All grain Scotch is made from a composite of different grains, generally containing 10% malted barley. As said before, Scotch must age for three years minimum and that three years must be in an oak cask.

One of the biggest differences between Bourbon and Scotch is the use of peat moss.

Peat moss is decaying vegetation that grows in the ground. The peat moss is cut out into bricks and dried out. In terms of the whiskey made process, peat moss is used in the malting process.

Malting is the process of essentially tricking the barley to begin growing. This exposes the fermentable sugars, however, if we let the barley continue on this path it will use up those sugars. So, the barley is put into a kiln where the peat moss is lit on fire. The smoke of the peat gets absorbed into the barley drying it out and ready for use. That smoky character carries over to the finished character.

Gloria Metrick

Owner, GeoMetrick Enterprises

First, there are differences in ingredients and process:

  • Bourbon has to have at least 51% corn in it. You have to use brand new charred white oak barrels – no reusing barrels for these (which is why you now see so many other products buying and using bourbon barrels).
  • Scotch is made mainly from malted barley. You can reuse the barrels. In fact, most Scotch is made with used barrels, often bourbon barrels, but sometimes other kinds, such as sherry barrels, for just one example.

Then, there’s the difference in flavor:

  • Because of the barrels, bourbon is often described as having vanilla, oak or caramel flavors. It also generally tastes sweeter than Scotch or Rye whiskey.
  • Scotch is more difficult to define because different regions have different flavors. One Scotch might taste as if you’ve licked the fireplace ashes, another might have a lighter, sweeter flavor. We often think of the peat flavoring it but that’s not present in all Scotches because they don’t all actually use peat as their heat source for drying the malt.
  • And then, if you wanted to consider the flavor of Rye whiskey, it’s typically more harshly-flavored than bourbon. That softer sweetness in many bourbons doesn’t tend to be in a Rye. In fact, I have one brand of Rye whiskey I’m currently drinking that does, in fact, taste like Rye – yes, I mean the actual grain. Yes, I mean it reminds me a little of Rye bread on the initial flavors.

But then we get to the stills. Bourbon is typically made by starting with a column still. But that’s not required either by law nor by recipe. There are some producers that aren’t using column stills. The same can be said for the other types of whiskey, too, where it will depend on the product and the distiller.

Tim Delaney

Tim Delaney

Proprietor, Elma Wine & Liquor

My favorite way to describe this category is by relating it to cheese.

First of all, Bourbon and Scotch are both types of Whisk(e)y. (As an aside, we use the ‘e’ in Whiskey in the U.S. while Scotland spells Whisky without the ‘e’.)

So another way of saying that is all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. So how does this relate to cheese?

Bourbon is to Cheddar and Scotch is to Parmesan as Whiskey is to Cheese. Cheddar and Parmesan are both types of cheese, but they are each a little different. I find consumers get a bit more confused with the Scotch, Bourbon, and Whiskey issue because so many people just use the word whiskey to refer to any brown spirit.

If you walk into a bar and ask for a Whiskey and Soda the bartender could technically give you a Scotch, Bourbon, Canadian, Irish, American, Tennessee, Japanese or any other type of whiskey they felt like. Just as if you ask for just cheese on your omelet the chef could use cheddar, feta, American, or just about any other type of cheese they felt like.

So, in summary, the word whiskey defines the category while Bourbon or Scotch define the sub-category.

James Kemper

President, W.H. Meanor & Associates

The biggest difference between the three is that Bourbon is the only one that is actually has a government-mandated recipe and procedure to be able to be called Bourbon. It’s a result of the end of Civil War and everyone making liquor, actually the term “rot gut” comes from that time due to all the poisoning happening from bad hooch, hence the term rotgut whiskey.

It has to be made in the US, not just Kentucky, it has to be bottled in new freshly charred white oak barrels and it must not contain any additives or preservatives. This is why for example Jack Daniels is Tennessee Whiskey and not bourbon because they have the last step is it is run through a charcoal and sugar filter and there are the additives.

It must be at least 51% corn. It can have more rye or wheat depending on taste that is desired but must have 51% corn. There is also limits to the amount of alcohol in the distillation and then going into the cask and finally into the bottle.

Scotch is made in Scotland and is from malted barley. Irish Whiskey is made from unmalted barley and is distilled three times before bottled.

Now the difference between these and whiskey? Well, all bourbons are whiskey but not all whiskeys are Bourbon and that is a distinction shared by all the others.