If you’re new to the whisky scene, understanding the difference between whisky vs bourbon vs scotch is the key to becoming a connoisseur. While each is related, all three are their own distinct distilled grain spirit — but this can be confusing for any first-time whisky drinkers.
The bottom line is that everything is whisky — but not all whiskies are bourbon or scotch. This is something you might often hear when discussing whisky with other enthusiasts.
When comparing bourbon vs whiskey vs scotch, the key difference lies in the type of grain being mashed, where it’s aged and how long it’s aged for.
Comparing whisky vs bourbon vs scotch
To help you understand each spirit’s characteristics, we’ll touch on the similarities and differences between whisky, bourbon and scotch.
Whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made of fermented grain mash. It’s a general term that encompasses a range of distilled grain spirits, such as:
- Tennessee whiskey
- Irish whiskey
- Canadian whisky
What does whisky taste like?
All whiskies are distilled in barrels and made from fermented grain like barley, rye, wheat and corn. Each grain brings its own unique flavour profile, which can be mashed together in different combinations to create a more sweet or spicy whisky.
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that can only be made within the United States. In fact, there are laws in the U.S. specifying what can be identified as bourbon and how the term “bourbon” can’t be used to define any other whisky-based spirit not produced in the United States.
According to the country’s regulations, to identify a spirit as bourbon, it must:
- Be made from a mash of at least 51% corn.
- Be aged in new, charred oak containers.
- Be aged for at least two years.
- Be 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) or less.
- Have only mash, yeast and water as an additive.
- Be produced in the U.S.
What does bourbon taste like?
In terms of flavour, bourbon tastes sweeter and smoother than other kinds of whiskey. This is because it’s made from 51% corn, which is naturally sweet. When drinking, you might find notes of caramel, oak or vanilla, making it pleasurable to drink neat, on the rocks or as the base for a brooding cocktail.
Scotch is the term used to describe any type of Scottish-made whisky. Similar to bourbon, you can only classify scotch as such if it:
- Has been distilled and matured in Scotland, based on the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.
- Has a minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) of less than 94.8%.
- Is made of water and malted barley.
- Has matured in oak casks.
- Has matured for at least three years.
What separates scotch from other types of whisky is how it’s made: by distilling water and malted barley, then aging it for at least three years in oak barrels in one of five Scottish regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown or Islay.
There are also five different types of scotch whisky:
- Single malt — A single malt scotch whisky is produced in only one distillery using only a mash of malted barley in pot stills.
- Blended malt — A blended malt scotch whisky is a blend of single malt whiskies from different distilleries.
- Single grain — A single grain scotch whisky is also only distilled in one distillery but is made from a mash of barley and other grains.
- Blended grain — This is a blend of single-grain Scotch whisky from multiple distilleries.
- Blended — This is a mixture of single malt and single grain whiskies from different distilleries.
Essentially, “single” refers to being distilled at only one distillery, while “blended” means it’s from different distilleries. Likewise, “malt” refers to using just one grain, such as barley, while “grain” refers to scotch made from wheat, corn, barley or a blend.
What does scotch taste like?
Since malted barley is the primary grain used in scotch, most scotch whiskies contain a malty flavour. As it ages, some scotch can also develop a smoky, fruity and vanilla flavour. This can contain notes of cherry or other dark berries or even citrus fruits.
With a long tradition of crafting Scotch whisky, each Scottish region has its own style that imparts a wider palate of flavours for you to discover and enjoy. Speyside whiskies are light on peated flavours to showcase fruity notes of apple, pear, honey and spice.
On the other hand, Lowland varieties feature a lighter hit on the throat with earthy notes of grass, honeysuckle and toast. With its coastal location, Campbeltown whiskies feature notes of sea salt to balance out the sweetness of fermented grain. For a brooding tipple, Islay varieties are famous for their fiery, heavy-peated scotch.
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