Fancy yourself to be a whiskey connoisseur? Then you must know the differences between two of the most popular whiskies in the world: Scotch and bourbon. At the very least, you have to know what whisk(e)y is. All over the world, many love the alcoholic beverage distilled from grains, but most whisky drinkers have a preference. If you’re just figuring out whether you prefer one to the other, here are a few ways to distinguish Scotch whisky from bourbon whiskey.
Looking at all the whiskies throughout the world, geographical origin is probably the best way to distinguish between them all. The same goes for Scotch and bourbon. For a drink to be considered Scotch, it has to be bottled in Scotland. Notice also the difference in spelling. Scotch is whisky spelt without the ‘e’. Bourbon, on the other hand, is purely American. More specifically, bourbon originates from Kentucky.
The next major difference between Scotch and bourbons is the basic constituent ingredients. All whiskies are made from grains, but the kind of grains that go into a barrel will determine the overall flavour of the resulting beverage. Single Malt Scotch whiskies are only made out of one type of malted grain—barley. Blended Scotch whisky is the most common type of whisky and consists of both malt and grain whisky.
Bourbon, on the other hand, has to be made from at least 51% corn mash. That’s what gives bourbon whiskey its distinct sweetness. The ingredients that make up the rest of the drink usually consist of malted barley, rye, or wheat.
This isn’t something that you’re required to know to enjoy, but it’s good knowledge regardless. There are different laws that govern whisky making, and the laws will depend on where you are and what you’re distilling.
Distillation is basically a purifying process; it’s the step that separates the alcohol from water and other substances. The higher the distillation of a beverage, the higher the alcohol content will be. According to law, Scotch whisky can be distilled up to 94.8% but no further. This ensures the preservation of the natural flavours of the ingredients. Scotch is typically distilled twice, which makes it a stronger drink than average.
According to American law, bourbon whiskey has to be distilled to no more than 160 proof. The distillation process for bourbon is quite complicated, and distillers have to follow all the regulations in order for their product to be considered true bourbons in the end. Bourbon is distilled once before barreled.
While each of the distillation processes for Scotch and bourbon is regulated for all distilleries in Scotland and the U.S., distilleries create different products in the end. This differentiation starts with the ageing process. All kinds of whiskeys are aged differently. The longer the ageing process is, the smoother the drink will be.
A high percentage of Scotch whiskies are actually matured in ex-bourbon barrels. Some other types of casks used to age Scotch might have once contained sherry, rum, wine, or other alcoholic beverages. The types of casks used will also affect the flavour of the Scotch in the end. Scotch also has to be aged in oak casks for at least 3 years and one day—by law. However, most distilleries practice substantially longer maturation.
According to regulations, bourbon has to be stored in brand new, charred oak barrels. No additives can be used in making bourbon, and the liquid has to be entered into the barrel at 125 proof. Bourbon has no minimum ageing requirements; although, most distilleries practice ageing bourbon for at least 4 years for smoothness. However, straight bourbon does have a minimum ageing process of 2 years before bottling.
By the time a product of Scotch or bourbon is bottled, the end texture, taste, and alcohol content are all different. Look for the distinct peaty reek of pot-distilled Scotch or the sweet, perfumed char of bourbon. Scotch will generally have a lighter texture, while bourbon will feel heavier on the tongue. Depending on the barrel used, different Scotch whiskies will come in a spectrum of brown colouring from straw yellow to a rich caramel. Bourbon will generally have a beautiful amber colouring from new, charred oak barrels.
All in all, the best way to figure out what you prefer at this point is to try as many different bottles as you can. Soon enough, you’ll be able to distinguish between Scotch and bourbon like any other whisk(e)y expert. Here are a few tips. If you happen to be in an English pub and ask for whisky, you’ll likely get Scotch. However, if you’re in Ireland and ask for whiskey, you’ll get Irish whiskey instead. If you happen to be anywhere else in the world ordering whiskey, make sure you’re specific. If you ask for bourbon, you’re getting an American-distilled beverage. Remember that Scotch and bourbon are types of whisky, but not all whiskies are Scotch and bourbons.