What is the Difference Between Bourbon, Whiskey, and Scotch?

June 16, 2021

whiskey

To put it in straightforward terms to start, so no one gets lost, is bourbon is always whiskey. On the other hand, whiskey is not always bourbon, and scotch is a whiskey produced in Scotland (and spelled whisky). Are you confused yet?

Bourbon must be distilled under government standards. By law, bourbon must be produced in the United States, made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn, distilled to less than 160 proof (80% alcohol), it can’t have any additives except for water, it must be aged in charred, white oak barrels, and aged for a minimum of two years to be called “straight” bourbon. 

Whiskey can age in reused barrels, but bourbon must use new, charred, American white oak barrels. Bourbons can use malted barley, rye, or wheat, but they must use corn as the primary grain. This is the main way that distinguishes bourbon from whiskey. On a side note, Kentucky bourbon must be distilled in Kentucky to use that name.

whiskey distillery stills
Whiskey Distillery Stills

Whiskey is fermented from a grain mash. This is what distinguishes it from a brandy that uses grapes or some other type of fruit. Think of whiskey like a distilled beer. The process is similar, but whiskey makers don’t add hops as beer distillers do. Distilling concentrates the alcohol content and increases it in the spirit. Another difference is whiskey is aged and matures in oak barrels. The barrels and the method of aging are what produce different whiskeys.

Jack Daniel’s is an exception to the rules, mainly because they wanted it that way. It is the highest-selling American whiskey in the world. It can be technically classified as a straight bourbon, but the company classifies it as a Tennessee whiskey instead of bourbon. To be called a Tennessee whiskey under state law, it must be produced in the state and meet other requirements.

Jack Daniel’s also drips its whiskey through a charcoal filter made out of sugar maple before going into barrels to age. It is a process they call “charcoal mellowing.” This is the step that the company says makes its product different from bourbon.

Interestingly, many of the barrels used for aging Jack Daniel’s whiskey are then shipped to Scotland to be used in the production of Scotch whisky, Louisiana for the production of Tabasco sauce, and Barbados and Jamaica for rum production. Another fascinating fact is the county where Jack Daniel’s is made is a dry county. You can’t buy it in stores or restaurants in the county where it is made.

jack daniels distillery
Where Jack Daniel’s Ages its Whiskey

For a whiskey to become scotch, it has to be made from malted barley. It also has to be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years and must be less than 94.8% alcohol by volume. In addition, scotch must be made entirely in Scotland. Irish whiskey is similar to scotch in that it must be produced in Ireland or Northern Ireland. It has to be made from a yeast-fermented grain mash and aged for a minimum of three years.

There is another place that you might not expect to have a thriving whiskey market. It is the country of India. The country has the highest per capita whiskey consumption in the world. India produces its own whisky (they use the Scottish spelling), but it is a little different from what whiskey is traditionally defined as. Indian whiskey is usually made from fermented molasses and a blend of malt whisky, making them more like a rum.

This has caused problems for how the whisky is categorized in the US and European Union as it doesn’t meet the definition of a whiskey since it more closely resembles a rum. However, there are now some Indian producers that make a genuine single malt whisky that does meet the US and EU definition.

So now, when a friend asks, “What the heck is the difference between bourbon, scotch, and whiskey,” you’ll be able to completely annoy them with these facts.

Additional Spirit Facts: 

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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