Whisky, Scotch, Bourbon, Rye – What’s the difference?
Whisky is a more diverse category of alcohol than most people may think. Whisky or Whiskey, depending on where in the world you are, is an umbrella term to categorise a vast sum of dark liquors into one section of the bottle shop. Scotch and Bourbon for instance, are both variations of whisky, they’re just made differently and in different regions.
Each regional variation of whisky usually comes with its own distinct taste and undertones, alongside its name, making it unique from the extended family of whiskies. But what exactly is the reason behind all the different names for whisky? And how exactly do you tell your Scotch apart from your Bourbon?
Let's start at the beginning.
Scotch whisky (no ‘e’) is essentially any whisky made in Scotland. Scotch is typically made from either malt (malted barley) or grain (corn or wheat), and can be either single malt/grain or a blended variety.
Making whisky in Scotland is very serious business, with the laws surrounding distillation holding strict regulations as to the degree of maturation and strength. The laws of Scotch distillation state that all batches of the spirit must be aged in an oak barrel for a minimum of three years before being bottled, and that the ABV scale to be a minimum of 40%.
Scotch typically has a distinct smoky taste, a result of its process of malting and heating the grain over an open fire. To be classified as Scotch, the whisky must be produced, matured and bottled, entirely in Scotland.
Irish whiskey is whiskey made in Ireland. While Scotch is undoubtedly the most universally appreciated whiskey, the Irish variety was actually the first to claim fame. For one, the first legalised whiskey distillery in the world was founded on Irish soils (and remains in operation to date) the same institution that coined the name ‘whiskey’ with an ‘e’. Additionally, during the period of intense laws against whiskey production, Irish whiskey reigned supreme as the favoured variety among all.
Irish whiskey can only be made in Ireland or Northern Ireland and is typically made with malt (barley). Much like its Scottish counterpart, the liquor is usually aged in wooden casks for three years before bottling. Irish whiskey is distinct from Scotch as it doesn’t hold the smokiness of the Scottish variety with a smoother taste.
Since its emergence on Pennsylvanian soils, a wave of craft whiskies has made its way through the country, resulting in a number of diverse variations and flavours across America.
Unlike Scotch which is aged in used, oak barrels, American whiskies are aged in new, charred oak barrels to derive a greater aroma and infused flavour. The two key players in American whiskey are bourbon and rye.
Bourbon is a Kentucky-born variation that is made primarily from corn (at least 51%, with the rest either malted barley, rye or wheat). Bourbon famously came about in the Old Bourbon County region of Kentucky, and has since gone on to become the leading variety among AMerican whiskies. It is now produced right across the US with every bottle of bourbon sold in the country derived from American distilleries.
In terms of taste, bourbon tends to be sweeter than other varieties with hints of spices, and a caramel or vanilla undertone.
Rye whiskey is made with predominantly rye grain (a minimum of 51%) and the rest with either malted barley or corn. Typically, rye whiskey is aged in new barrels for at least two years with no additives but water. This helps produce rye’s distinct crisp flavour that is known to be spicier and sharper than its brother variety, bourbon.
Rye whiskey tends to be slightly more acidic and bitter to other varieties as a result of the nature of the grain, which makes it the preferable choice for cocktails.
Canadians have been refining their whisky distillation practices for quite some time now that they too have a very distinct style and taste. The minimum ageing time is three years, however, there are no requirements as to the type of barrel distillers must use for the maturation process.
Most Canadian varieties are a blend of grains, usually with a high percentage of corn. They are typically smoother and lighter than most whisky varieties, yet less flavourful than the American versions as it lacks any addition of spice.
Japanese whisky emerged much later on the scene, mimicking the style and taste of Scotch. The distillation process is much the same, ageing for three years in oak barrels.
For a while now, Japanese whisky has been known to hold impeccably high standards, bringing a bold taste that is incredibly well-balanced, able to be enjoyed as it is. According to new regulations set to be in full force across the country, Japanese whisky will be required to be wholly fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in Japan.