To those that don’t dabble in whisky, or are an ‘I’ll order Jack and Coke because I like the taste’ type of person, whisky and bourbon mean the same thing. This, however, couldn’t be more wrong. From origin to taste to maturity and even what cocktails each goes into – there are distinct differences between the two spirits. To save people from mixing the two up (and from the wrath of a Scottish or American native) we explain the main differences between bourbon and scotch and what to look out for below.
Location and demystifying that ‘e’
Ever noticed that whisky is often spelled differently? Sometimes with an ‘e’ and sometimes without. This is no accidental spelling error, in fact, the ‘e’ plays a pivotal role in telling us the origin of whisky. It all comes back to Ireland and Scotland having different Gaelic forms. In Scotland, the word ‘whisky’ comes from the term ‘usquebaugh’ (meaning ‘water of life’). The same term is used in the Irish language but is spelled ‘uisce beatha’, which is why they add the ‘e’. Japanese whiskey is inspired by the Scots, while the Irish diaspora greatly influenced the naming of American whiskey.
So with bourbon originating mainly from Kentucky and New Orleans, it is spelled whiskey and scotch (hailing from Scotland obviously) takes the spelling of whisky. While there can be Scottish whisky (where it may be distilled in Scotland but bottled elsewhere), the term ‘scotch’ can only be used if the spirit is entirely produced and bottled in Scotland from beginning to end.
While bourbon and scotch may look similar in colour when both poured over ice, the real test is knowing the flavour profile of each one. The taste is heavily influenced by the way each spirit is made. It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact flavours of scotch as they can vary from being heavily peaty or lighter and grassy, or even range from floral to spicy depending on certain factors like the cask, peating level and ageing process.
In a general sense, as bourbon is made with corn, it usually tastes far sweeter than scotch, with notes of cinnamon and toffee even making an appearance. As a rule of thumb, look out for hints of smokiness in scotch and oakiness in bourbon.
Both America and Scotland have strict recipe requirements for scotch and bourbon distilleries to stick to. As mentioned above, bourbon is heavily reliant on corn ‘maize’ as its leading contribution, and it must take up 51% of the overall ingredients. Rye, wheat and barley also come along the ride, and using different amounts of these will affect the taste. The more maize present, the sweeter the taste, the more rye, the spicier the taste. Like scotch, bourbon is only bourbon when it’s made in the United States.
For scotch, malted barley is the centre of attention. Single malt scotch must be made with malted barley. Grain whisky can be made with a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, water and yeast. For colouring purposes, producers are permitted to include other whole cereals too.
When both drinks can leave you in ‘high spirits’, people often forget or don’t know that there’s a difference in alcohol content between the two. Bourbon ranges from 40-80% alcohol by volume (ABV) whereas scotch ranges from 40-94.8% ABV. The difference in percentage range is due to how the liquid is distilled and aged. Bourbon needs to be at a certain percentage when put into casks for new charred oak barrels, whereas scotch needs to be under 94.8 before it’s aged in used oak barrels.
Bourbon producers have to use brand new oak casks for single use. Who benefits from this? Scotch producers of course! The world is their oyster (or cask technically) when it comes to ageing as they can use casks that have formerly been used for bourbon, wine and even port. Bourbon producers sell their used casks to scotch distilleries – an interesting connection between the two whiskies that many drinkers may not know! The biggest difference between the ageing process is climate. The hot temperatures of Kentucky are in stark contrast to the cold bite of the Scottish Highlands – therefore bourbon ages over twice as fast as scotch!
When the differences are broken down, it begs the question, which is nicer? It’s pretty difficult to pick one over the other, however, and it can often just come down to personal preference. An avid old fashioned fan may prefer a bourbon, but a Rob Roy cocktail drinker will love the taste of scotch.
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