In Food + Drink

Bourbon Vs. Scotch: What’s The Difference?

Whether served neat, poured over ice or stirred into a classic cocktail, nothing satisfies that end of day craving quite like the sweet burn of a delicious whisky pour. Though when it comes to choosing between Bourbon and Scotch, making a decision can prove quite difficult – that is, unless you know exactly what you’re getting.

When it comes to understanding Bourbon versus Scotch, the differences are actually quite simple. Follow our Bourbon vs. Scotch breakdown here and be on your way to savvy spirits sipping in no time.

How whisk(e)y is made

Both Bourbon and Scotch are made via distillation, which incorporates five major steps: malting, mashing, fermenting, distillating, and maturing.

The spelling differences between whisky and whiskey are simply a matter of place; whisky is produced in Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, while whiskey is produced in Canada and the United States.

So, what is Bourbon?


Image: Thomas Park / Unsplash

Where it’s made: USA (95 per cent of Bourbon is made in Kentucky. The limestone water found in Kentucky make it ideal for bourbon production, as the limestone acts as a natural filter for impurities, like iron.)

Main ingredient: Corn (minimum 51 per cent), rounded out with malted barley, rye, or wheat.

Distillation: Bourbon is always distilled in a column still, followed by a second distillation in a copper pot still called a ‘doubler.’

Aging: Aside from the raw materials, one of the biggest differences between Scotch and Bourbon are the vessels in which they are aged. Bourbon is always aged in new charred oak barrels, usually made from white oak. Temperature also plays a huge role in aging differences, too. Because Kentucky is significantly warmer than Scotland, Bourbon’s evaporation rates (‘angel’s share’) is much higher than that of Scotch (meaning Bourbon matures much quicker than a Scotch equivalent – sometimes even twice as fast).

Flavor profile: Bourbon’s flavor profile is highly dependent on the ‘mash bill’ of a specific distiller. Bourbons with higher amounts of corn in the recipe will be sweeter, whereas mash bills with higher percentages of rye will lead to spicier and more austere final beverage. However, because of their extensive aging in new American oak, Bourbon usually tends to show warm flavors of vanilla, baking spice, toffee, and/or caramel.

Brands to know: Baker’s (traditional), Booker’s (traditional), Knob Creek (traditional), Basil Hayden’s (high-rye), Four Roses (high-rye), Woodford Reserve (high-rye), Maker’s Mark (high-wheat), Pappy Van Winkle (high-wheat)

And what is Scotch?

Image: Jacek Dylag / Unsplash

Where it’s made: Scotland

Main ingredient: 100 per cent Malted Barley

Distillation: The way in which a particular Scotch is made is dependent on its category. Single malt Scotch is usually double or triple distilled in pot stills.

Aging: Thanks to Bourbon distillers, who can only use their barrels once, Scotch distillers don’t experience a lack of barrel selection for their cellars. Many ex-Bourbon barrels are sold to Scotch producers, who have much more liberty in aging vessel choices than their American counterparts. Scotch can be legally be aged in ex-wine, port, Cognac, Bourbon, and/or Sherry barrels.

Flavor profile: Scotch whisky flavor profiles fall all over the spectrum, mainly due to the large amount of distiller flexibility with regards to aging vessels, maturation time, and peating levels. Scotches can range from floral and spicy to smoky and saltier, the latter usually occurring when peat is incorporated. (Peat is mossy accumulation of decaying organic plant matter that is indigenous to the Highlands and islands of Scotland.) It’s important to note that most smoky notes from Bourbon come from the charred oak vessel, whereas smoky flavors in Scotch tend to come from peat burned in the barley during the malting process.

Brands to know: Macallan (lightly peated), Glenmorangie (lightly peated), Lagavulin (heavily peated), Ardbeg (heavily peated), Laphroaig (heavily peated)

The most important thing to remember

The biggest takeaway from comparing Scotch and Bourbon is that neither distillate is superior to the other, they’re just different.

Although many new whisk(e)y drinkers tend to see Bourbon as their gateway drug, as the spirit is generally softer, sweeter, and more approachable, there are many Scotches also produced in this style, too. Additionally, both spirits have a wide range of flavor profiles, though the differences in Bourbon tend to come from the mash bill (raw materials), whereas the flavor profile differences in Scotch come from the vessels and/or peat used.

(Lead image: Dylan de Jonge / Unsplash)

Published 07 November, 2019