Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
A question so seemingly simple as “what’s the difference between bourbon and scotch?” is actually asking something else entirely. To really answer it, what you need is a quick crash course in the world’s most prominent whiskey regions, and how various styles of whiskey around the world are defined.
To begin with, the word “whiskey” really only implies the following: A distilled spirit that was first fermented from some sort of mashed grain. That grain could be anything—corn, wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, triticale, etc—and the resulting distilled spirit is still “whiskey.” It doesn’t need to be aged in oak, or any other wood, to technically hold this title, although the majority of whiskeys (or “whiskies,” depending on the region) see some kind of wood aging to mellow them out and impart new flavors.
But what makes a whiskey “bourbon,” specifically? Or scotch? Well, here’s the basic definition (and difference) between each.
Bourbon is an American whiskey style, and the first thing many drinkers in the Western world think of when they see the word “whiskey.” You will occasionally see misinformation claiming that “bourbon must be produced in Kentucky,” but this is simply a combination of state pride and urban legend. Although many of the classic American bourbon distilleries are indeed located in Kentucky, it can be produced in any state, and vast quantities of bourbon come from the likes of Indiana in particular.
Two things in particular define bourbon:
— It’s produced from a grain mash that is at least 51% corn. Traditionally, this corn is supplemented with “flavoring grains” that include rye and barley, or wheat and barley.
— It’s aged in newly charred oak barrels, which means this is the first time these white oak barrels are being used. Newly charred barrels impart intense flavors and coloration into the whiskey, which is why bourbon can be considered “mature” in only a few years of aging. If you see the word “straight” on a bourbon label, that’s a U.S. legal definition meaning a bourbon that has been aged for at least two years, with no added coloring—you could consider this a benchmark for basic, quality bourbon in many cases.
Owing to those newly charred barrels and its base of corn, the classic bourbon flavor profile highlights the charred flavors of the barrel, in combination with corny sweetness, moderate caramelization and accents like vanilla and graininess in younger examples, and deeper spicy, oaky complexity in older bottles.
Most other American styles of whiskey, on the other hand, simply play with the ratio sliders. Rye whiskey, for example, is defined by having at least 51% rye grain (up to 100%) in the mash. For “wheat whiskey” or U.S. “malt whiskey,” the same definition applies. There are other substyles we won’t get into here—especially blended whiskey, which deserves its own essay—but these are the basics of what you need to know for the majority of American whiskey bottles you’ll see on the shelf.
First things first: If it says “scotch” on the label, then you know it’s the product of Scotland, rather than any other country. Scottish whisky (spelled without the “E”) has traditionally been associated with whiskies produced from malted barley, rather than other grains such as corn, wheat or rye, but that doesn’t mean all Scottish whiskies (or even most of them) are exclusively made with malted barley. The biggest selling scotch brands worldwide, in fact, are all blends that contain both malt whisky and “grain whiskies” derived from other grains.
Scotch whiskies must adhere to the following:
— They must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. The size of these barrels can vary, and traditionally they aren’t the same type of newly charred oak barrels used in the production of American whiskeys such as bourbon. Rather, they’re largely used barrels, many of them from the U.S., which is one of several ways world whiskey industries work in symbiosis with each other. These used barrels impart a milder degree of flavor and color to the spirit aging inside, which means that scotch whiskies typically must age longer than their American cousins. As we discovered in a piece last year, this can theoretically lead to a single wooden barrel being in use for a century or more. However, there’s nothing specifically forbidding scotch whisky distilleries from using newly charred (or “virgin”) oak in their products, and the practice has become more common over time—as has the use of caramel coloring to alter whisky color to the desired level.
— Any age statement you see on a bottle of scotch must reflect the youngest whisky used in that particular product. If, therefore, a whisky is a blend of 8, 10 and 12-year-old malt whiskies, it would carry an 8-year age statement if the distillery chose to place an age statement on the bottle at all. They can also choose to provide no age statement (NAS), a practice that has become more common as a way to offer entry-level malts, or malts aged in unique ways.
— The term “single malt whisky” implies the following: A bottle of whisky from a single distillery, made from a mash of exclusively malted barley. These whiskies will still be a blend of various casks from that one distillery—unless it’s labeled as “single cask,” which is rare—but they’ll all be malt whiskies from that distillery, often of different ages, blended together to achieve the desired profile. These single malts are typically positioned as the premium, flagship products of their distilleries, with the less expensive blended whiskies reserved for mixed drinks or casual consumption.
Scotch whiskies are also often further modified through the use of special finishing casks that can impart unique flavors, such as barrels formerly used for Spanish sherry or port, or aging in French oak wine casks, rum casks or unique American whiskey barrels. Some distilleries will specialize in maturation within a single type of cask, such as sherry, producing entire lines of heavily sherried malts, while others will eschew such finishing casks entirely. It makes for a more varied field than you would expect, as do the differences inherent to the five classic scotch whiskey regions, which we illustrated in this piece last year.
The combination of used bourbon casks and a malt-based distillate traditionally yields scotch whiskies that are less defined by the brash flavor of charred oak, in comparison with something like bourbon. This increased subtlety allows for greater presence of warm, toasty, or nutty malt flavors, supported by fruity notes and the possible presence of smoky peat in some styles.
The Irish, who typically stick the “E” right back into “whiskey,” produce spirits that could be thought of as close cousins to many scotch whiskies. As in Scotland, the leading whiskey products in Ireland in terms of sales are cheaper blends of grain whiskey and malt whiskey, with a premium market existing that gently nudges the consumer in the direction of single malt whiskeys.
There are, however, a few general differences:
— Many Irish whiskeys are triple distilled, rather than the more common double distillation common in scotch. This yields a spirit that loses some of the grain-derived “congeners”—perhaps best thought of as flavor compounds produced during fermentation and distillation—in favor of lighter, fruitier tones. As a result, many Irish whiskeys are a step closer to a neutral spirit, having had some of the grain-derived flavors stripped away in the interest of creating a “smoother” profile.
— Like scotch, Irish whiskey must by law be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks of some kind for no less than three years. Unlike scotch, the use of peated malt is uncommon, although not unheard of.
As a result of these tweaks to distillation and grain bill, Irish whiskeys (both malt whiskeys and blended ones) have a reputation for being smooth, lighter in texture and flavor, and friendly, with flavors that often touch on biscuity malt, honey and fresh grass. They almost always lack the earthy, peaty smoke flavors associated with certain scotch regions, and their easygoing demeanor makes them a common entry point for people exploring whiskey for the first time.
Outside of the U.S. and the U.K., the most prominent whisky-producing nation is actually Japan, where historical whisky production was heavily influenced by Scottish tradition. This largely led to a rise in blended malt and grain whiskies, as are typical in Scotland, as the country’s biggest flagship brands being consumed in mixed drinks, but as in Scotland, there’s also been a rising market for single malt whiskies that has seen considerably more international attention in the last 20 years.
In terms of style, Japanese whiskies remain fairly close in profile to the scotch whiskies that inspired them, although they’re more likely to be the product of single distilleries, even in blended form, as the Japanese distilleries don’t share whiskey stocks freely among each other as is common in Scotland. Moreover, pricier Japanese single malts may come into contact with unique and rare varieties of wood, such as the very expensive Japanese mizunara oak, which can impart subtly different flavors that have become highly sought after.
All in all, Japanese single malt whiskies are still in an introductory period as far as their familiarity to rank and file U.S. drinkers is concerned, but many whiskey writers consider them to be among the most interesting substyles in the world right now. Expect to continue hearing more about Japanese whisky in the future.
This is of course just scratching the surface, as there are modern whiskey industries percolating in many nations worldwide, from India and Australia to Mexico and France. As in most hobbies, it’s a field where you quickly come to realize that the more you learn, the more there is to learn. But as far as first lessons are concerned, being able to tell the difference between bourbon and scotch is a pretty good place to start.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.