Attempting to discover and to discern the differences and similarities among whiskey, scotch and bourbon can be a bewildering proposition. All three are alcoholic spirits, distilled from cereal grains, but there are differences and specific requirements for each. Let’s start this discussion with a few basic definitions and then go on to discuss their differences and similarities.
Some Whiskey, Scotch and Bourbon Definitions
A spirit is defined as a liquor that contains no added sugar and is at least 20% alcohol (abbreviated as ABV). Liquor with added sugar ( and maybe added flavorings, too) is known as a liqueur. Examples of liqueurs are Grand Marnier, Frangelico and schnapps. Liquors (such as bourbon, whiskey and scotch) generally have an alcoholic content higher than 30% ABV.
A vapor (n.) is a substance in its gaseous state as distinguished from its liquid or solid state. To vaporize (v.) means to convert into vapor. It means to convert a solid or a liquid into a diffused matter, suspended in the air.
To distill means to purify a liquid by vaporizing it and then to condense it into a vapor by cooling the vapor and finally to collect the resulting liquid. Liquid to gas and then to liquid again, this time purified liquid.
The product of distilling a liquid is called (n.). The process of creating a distillation is also called a distillation (v.).
In brewing, mashing (v.) is the term given to the start of the brewing process. Crushed grains are mixed into a porridge-like mixture called mash (n.).Malt and other starches (the grains) are transformed into sugars and proteins.
To mash (v.) means to mix powdered malt with hot water and then strain it.
Mash (n.) is a uniform mass made by crushing a substance into a soft pulp, sometimes with the addition of a liquid.
For example: “the barley is dried out over peat fires and is mashed with water that then flows through the peat.”.
Aging is the process of storing distilled spirits or wines in barrels for a specific period of time. The goal of the aging process is to remove harsh flavors from the raw alcohol while adding distinct flavor characteristics imparted by the barrel’s wood. The barrels (sometimes called casks) are often made of oak and that oak sometimes charred oak. The longer the aging process, the less harsh the taste of the liquor which gives it the distinction of being described as “smooth”.
OK, So What's the Difference?
With these definitions in mind, let us now explore the specific requirements that will determine the difference between whiskey, scotch and bourbon. Indeed, bourbon and scotch are subsets of the broader category of whiskey.
Scotch is made from malted grains, aged for at least three years. Scotch must be made in Scotland only.
Whiskey, on the other hand, is made in the U.S.A., usually but not exclusively in Tennessee.
There is American Rye Whiskey, which must be distilled with at least 51% rye in its mash. There is Irish whiskey, which is made only in Ireland. There is Canadian Whiskey, which may or may not include rye in its mash. There are also whiskeys distilled with certain percentages of oats in their mash.
The main difference between whiskey and scotch, then, is geographical. Scotch is made in Scotland, whiskey is primarily made in the U.S.A. but is also made in other countries such as Ireland and Canada. All whiskey are made from malted grains, aged for at least three years in barrels and contain at least 30% alcohol.
Bourbon is a whiskey, made in the U.S.A. (usually Kentucky), from mostly corn mash. Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn and the rest of the mash is usually malted. Bourbon must be distilled at 160 proof or less, put into a barrel at 125 proof or less and must not contain any additives. Bourbon must be aged in an oak barrel, often charred oak. As we can see, bourbon has the most strict requirements of all the other whiskeys. Bourbon is named for an area in Kentucky known as “Old Bourbon”.
To summarize, whiskey is the broader category of distilled spirits made from cereal grains, is aged in barrels for at least three years and contains at least 30% alcohol. Whiskey is mostly made in the U.S.A. but can also be made in Scotland, Ireland and other countries.. There are many different versions and variations of whiskey. Scotch is whiskey made in Scotland only. Bourbon is whiskey made of at least 51% corn, distilled at specific temperatures and ages in oak barrels, usually charred.
Some examples of whiskey:
- Jack Daniels (U.S.A)
- Seagram Seven (U.S.A.)
- High West Oat Whiskey (U.S.A)
- Royal Crown (Canada)
- Jameson (Ireland)
Some examples of scotch:
- Buchanan’s Deluxe
- Johnny Walker
Some examples of bourbon:
- Jim Beam
- Maker’s Mark
- Evan Williams
- Woodford Reserve