What’s The Difference Between Whiskey, Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye?

Brown spirits. I love it, you probably love it, but my wife thinks it “tastes like burning”. Which is fine, more for me. The question today is, since all of these liquors look pretty much the same what makes one a Bourbon and one a Scotch?

Whiskey (or “Whisky”)

All of the spirits we’ll talk about today are technically a type of “whiskey.” Think of it like a branch of an evolutionary tree in biology — they all start from the same place, but different characteristics make for different kinds of spirits. Like how a beagle and a greyhound are both dogs, but very different kinds of dogs.

Whiskey is a distilled spirit, meaning it starts life as a fermented mash of sugary and starchy ingredients. In this case the typical whiskey is made from grains including barley, wheat, rye, and corn. The grains are mashed, combined with yeast, and left to ferment until the proper level of alcohol has developed.

  • Single Malt Whiskey is made from only one type of grain.
  • Blended malt whiskey is made from many different grains blended together.

Once that’s complete, the slurry is heated in a large pot (usually copper, to counteract some sulfur compounds that develop and make the alcohol taste bad) and then fed into a distillation tower. Here, the vapors coming off the still are cooled and condensed into a purified alcohol.

At this point the alcohol is as white as Christmas snow and pretty tasteless. To give whiskey its distinctive caramel color and improve the flavoring, the alcohol is sealed in casks (usually white oak, but sometimes stainless steel with some wood or other flavoring suspended inside) for a long period of time outside in the elements. This exposure to changes in heat and humidity force the spirit into the wood and extract some of the flavor and color into the liquid.

After some period of time the newly produced whiskey is removed form the barrel, sometimes mixed with water to reduce the potency, and bottled for distribution. Bottles which are not diluted with water before packaging are called “cask strength” because it’s exactly how the alcohol came out of the cask.

“Single barrel” whiskey comes from a single barrel, as the name suggests. “Blended” whiskeys can come from many different barrels and even different distilleries based on the bottler’s preference to create a specific aroma and taste.

Every spirit that’s produced along those guidelines can be called a “whiskey”, and some (such as he famous Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey) are happy with that simple designation. There are some delicious whiskeys in the world, but for those looking to ensure they get a very specific taste in their alcohol might want to investigate one of the sub-species of whiskey.

Scotch

Typically, “scotch” is a whiskey that is produced in Scotland according to a set of guidelines set forth by the Scotch Whisky Association. The main points of those guidelines are that all scotch must be:

  • Made in Scotland, on site at the listed distillery
  • Matured in oak casks for no less than three years
  • Containing no added substances (other than water and caramel coloring)
  • Labeled with an age that represents the youngest drop of alcohol in the bottle

That last part is particularly interesting. For distilleries that produce blended scotch whiskeys, they can use any vintage of distilled spirit they want (such as a little bit of a 50 year old batch for flavoring) but if even a single drop of 3 year old alcohol makes it into the bottle then it must be labeled as a 3 year old scotch.

With a scotch whiskey you’ll typically see lighter flavors than other whiskeys, sometimes even a fruity taste, and most times a hint of peat (a flammable bog byproduct often used as fuel in fires to dry and heat the grains before distillation). The relatively cold and steady climate in Scotland means that it needs that time in the barrel (3 years) to develop the flavors and coloring, otherwise it might just be too bland.

Rye

Usually associated with Canada due to its popularity in that country, a “rye” whiskey is defined as having rye make up 50% or more of the grains that went into the initial mash. That’s pretty much it. After that qualifying factor, it’s the wild west.

Bourbon

Contrary to popular belief bourbon doesn’t need to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. In fact, my favorite bourbon of the moment is produced just outside Austin, Texas. Any whiskey can be called a “bourbon” if it meets the following criteria:

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a mixture of grains that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new production charred oak barrels

Surprisingly, there is no aging requirement to be called a “bourbon.” However, the designation “Straight Bourbon” means that the alcohol has been aged in the barrel for a minimum of two years.

What makes bourbon different from almost every other whiskey is the use of a charred oak barrel. This produces a darker color and a smokey flavor that isn’t seen in scotch, and the use of corn as the primary basis of the mash means that it has a sweeter flavor to offset that otherwise overpowering taste. In my mind, it’s the perfect balance of boldness and smoothness and my go-to kind of whiskey.

And with that, we conclude today’s lesson. Hopefully, you learned at least one new thing from this. And if not, congratulations on already being an awesome whiskey genius. Either way, go pour yourself a drink.

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