What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Scotch?
If you gave a bourbon and a scotch to someone who didn’t like whiskey, they’d probably tell you they tasted the same. If you did the same experiment with a whiskey lover, they’d immediately be able to tell the difference.
They look similar, are made in a similar way, and are closely related in terms of taste. But when you drill down into the details, there are huge differences. If you want to know the difference, then this is the article for you.
We’ll take a close look at how they are made, where they’re from, and how they taste. By the end, you’ll be a whisk(e)y expert!
An Introduction To Whisk(e)y
Why the funny spelling? Well, whiskey is made differently in America to most other countries and it’s spelled differently too.
As a general rule, American and Irish variants are spelled whiskey whereas European, Japanese, and Australian drinks are called whisky. Therefore, if you want to be truly inclusive of worldwide whiskeys (or whiskies) then you should spell it whisk(e)y.
The spelling varieties aren’t just aesthetic like the difference between color and colour, American and Scottish whiskeys are fundamentally different drinks.
They Have Different Ingredients
The biggest and most important difference between the two is that their main ingredient is different. For bourbon, the legal requirement is that they are made from at least 51% corn grain.
For Scotch whisky, the main ingredient is malted barley. The reason they taste similar to many people is that corn (or maize) and barley are both cereal grains. Also, while 51% of bourbon has to be corn, the rest will be made up of other cereal grains which may include barley but also rye and wheat.
While bourbon is often a mixture of grains, scotch is almost always just malted barley with other grains only permitted for coloring.
As you can see, the two drinks are very closely related in terms of ingredients, but if you have tasted both enough, you can notice a clear difference and that takes up onto our next section.
The Taste Difference
So, what is the taste difference between them? Well, that is a very difficult question to answer as, if you don’t know, the barrel the drinks are stored in and how the cereals are treated make a huge difference to their taste.
Before we get into the nuances of the different flavor profiles, there is one almost definite taste difference between the two. Bourbon is going to be sweeter to the taste and that is down to the level of corn used in the malting process. Aside from that, the differences can be stark.
Anyone who loves Scotch whiskies knows that it’s a very generic term. Whisky from the islands usually has a much different taste to whisky from the highlands which also has a much different taste to whiskies from Speyside.
The level of earthy and smoky flavors in scotch can vary hugely. That’s because some are peated and others are unpeated. Peat is the surface layer of soil that is commonly used on the Scottish islands for smoking malted barley.
When we’re mentioning Scottish islands we’re talking about whisky-making islands off the Scottish mainland such as Islay, Jura, and Skye which are notorious for making harsh whiskies that only true lovers of scotch enjoy.
To the northeast of the country is the region called Speyside where you have an incredible number of distilleries around the river Spey. They rarely use peat and, depending on the barrel, these whiskies are usually much lighter in taste and can even be quite sweet.
To circle back to bourbon, you can now see why the question is difficult to answer. A Speyside scotch may taste quite similar to a bourbon that was partly made with malted barley. However, a bourbon made almost exclusively with corn will taste nothing like a strong island whisky.
While the information above is mostly true, it’s good to note that some generalizations are made there. There’s nothing to stop an island whisky from being smooth and a Spey whisky from being harsh. But those generalizations pretty much hold true.
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The Barrels Add Confusion
Often Scotch whiskey is matured in bourbon barrels. This is due to one of the laws surrounding the bourbon process. For reasons not exactly known, it’s a legal requirement for bourbon to be matured in new oak casks that have been charred on the inside.
This helps to give bourbon its sweeter flavor and vanilla notes but it does mean that there’d be a huge amount of empty barrels lying around if they didn’t have a place to go.
Thankfully, that’s where the rest of the whisk(e)y world comes in. Scotch whisky doesn’t have such requirements so often these barrels will be brought to Scotland for the purposes of maturing whisky.
While bourbon casks are the most commonly used, scotch can be matured in plenty of other casks such as rum, sherry, and port. This helps to give each whisky its unique flavors as it borrows some tasting notes from the previous drink that was in there.
So further to our example before, a lighter and sweet scotch whisky that has been matured in a bourbon cask may bring the two tastes even closer together. The use of bourbon barrels, however, is used throughout Scotland.
They Have Different Ages
While we’re on the subject of casks, let’s talk about how long the whisk(e)y stays in one. There is no legal requirement for bourbon to be aged so it doesn’t matter how long it is matured.
There are a few rules though. If you want to market it as “straight bourbon” then it needs to be at least two years old. Also, if your bourbon is less than four years old, you have to put its age on the bottle to prevent the easy sale of under matured bourbons.
Scotch whisky, on the other hand, needs to be matured for at least three years before it can be marketed as scotch. For a decent quality spirit, the maturing process is very important so companies aren’t in a rush to get their drink out as soon as legally required.
For a standard off-the-shelf bourbon, you’re most likely looking at around five years of maturation. For the same standard of scotch whisky, it usually takes a little longer and there is one big reason for that, whisk(e)y evaporates.
Wooden casts are porous so the spirit will lose volume to the atmosphere. This is an important part of the process but does mean that climate can play an important role in the two different types.
Scotland is usually a lot colder than the home of bourbon, Kentucky. That means scotch whisky can be kept in casks for much longer as it won’t evaporate anywhere near as quickly as bourbon casks.
For many distillers, this means they need to find a balance. For budget models, they’ll want to get their product out of the barrel as soon as it meets the right standards of taste as they don’t want to lose any more.
For premium spirits, the distillers will keep it in the barrel for much longer as the flavor improves with time. The evaporation becomes less important with the retail price getting higher the longer it matures in the barrel.
Older isn’t always better where whisk(e)y is concerned and the barrel has a huge role to play, along with the climate. The sweet spot for the best taste with bourbon is usually around six years younger than with a scotch.
The Complex World of Stills
Here’s my attempt at briefly talking about a complex subject. Stills are where the base liquid (water, cereal, and yeast) is heated up so that the alcohol evaporates and can be collected.
That’s reductive but the engineering and science around stills is incredible and it makes you wonder how on earth anyone found out how to make a drink that way.
But stills aren’t important for the basis of this discussion. What’s important is that scotch and bourbon use different ones. For scotch it’s pot stills, for bourbon it’s column stills.
Pot stills have a few drawbacks as they can only create one batch at one time and need to be cleaned after each use.
Column stills can be used continuously and don’t require as much maintenance as they have multiple chambers.
The purity of the distillate (what evaporates) is less in pot stills but that can be seen as a good thing as that impurity means there is more flavor in the spirit. Trying to get the perfect level of imperfection is vital to both spirits.
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What Is Scotch?
We’ve talked a lot about it so let’s define what a scotch is exactly. As you almost certainly know, scotch means Scottish. Other countries in the UK can’t brand their whisky as scotch, only Scotland can.
Therefore, scotch is any whisky made in Scotland that meets the legal requirements, which are:
- Made from only cereals, yeast, and water
- Made in Scotland
- Matured in oak casks for three years minimum
- Distilled at 94.8% ABV (190 proof) or below
- Bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) or higher
- No additional flavoring or sweeteners added
We could easily write a whole new article on this but there are different types of Scotch whisky too which also have their own legal requirements. The two main types are single and blended. These are divided into further subsets of malted and grain whiskies.
The most premium and respected Scotch whisky of all is the single malt. This is whisky that has been made in copper pot stills from one distillery only using malted barley and yeast as ingredients.
The other end of the scale is blended Scotch whiskies that can be made from a mixture of malt and/or grain whiskies in either pot or patent stills.
What Is Bourbon?
A common myth is that bourbon needs to be distilled in Kentucky. If you’re a bourbon drinker, you’ll know already that this isn’t true. That being said, the vast majority of bourbons do come from the state.
To be a bourbon, you have to follow these rules:
- Made in the USA
- Matured in new, charred oak barrels
- Made from at least 51% corn
- Needs to be casked between 80 and 125 proof
- No additional flavoring or sweeteners added
You can see a few similarities with scotch there, mainly how nothing else but water can be added to it. That helps to keep both drinks pure and helps to give them the reputation that they enjoy.
What Are the Similarities?
While a whisky snob may scoff at someone getting their single malt confused with a straight bourbon, they are similar in many ways. Let’s have a look at the similarities below:
- Legally tied to a location
- Distilled in stills
- Made with cereals
- Aged in oak casks
While they may use different stills, cereals, and casks, those four factors make them a very similar drink for those who are new to whisk(e)y. While they may use different types of still, the distillation process and the chemical reactions needed are very similar.
Once you become a lover of the spirit, the differences are unmistakable. By now you’ll have become an expert and know your bourbon whiskey from your Scotch whisky.
Both drinks have their merit and one isn’t better than the other. Everyone will have their preference as they are very different drinks. All that’s left for you to do now is grab a bottle of bourbon, then grab a bottle of Scotch and taste the difference yourself.
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