What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey

The 7 main differences between Scotch & Bourbon

Scotch and Bourbon are the two most famous types of whiskey in the world. They not only develop their very own character in terms of taste. We explain the main differences between Scottish whiskey and American bourbon in 7 areas.

Difference 1: The origin of scotch and bourbon

Both scotch whiskey and bourbon whiskey are tied to their traditional region of origin. The two types of whiskey are therefore not allowed to be produced anywhere in the world.

How to use the label Scotch whiskey can already guess, the spirit may only be produced in Scotland. In fact, in order to be allowed to call the spirit Scotch, the entire production from distillation, storage to bottling must take place in Scotland. However, the raw materials used - and especially the barley - do not necessarily have to come from Scotland. They can be imported.

At Bourbon whiskeyRumor has it that he must always be from Kentucky. That's not true: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. In fact, the vast majority of bourbon distilleries distill their whiskey in Kentucky. Over 90% of the bourbon is said to come here. If a bottle says “Kentucky Straight Bourbon”, then the whiskey in it must be distilled in the US state and aged there for at least a year.

Difference 2: The types of grain used

Different types of grain are traditionally used for the production of whiskey or whiskey. This is mainly due to historical reasons: In the past, the spirit was distilled from the grain that was readily available in the respective region.

At Scotch whiskey it depends on the respective sub-variety: Grain whiskeys may not only be distilled from barley, but also from other types of grain such as wheat or rye. They are an important addition to blended whiskeys. The situation is different with malt whiskeys (including the well-known Scottish single malts): They are made exclusively from malted barley.

Bourbon whiskey Contrary to what a well-known myth says, it is not completely distilled from corn. However, at least 51% maize must be used in the mash. The remaining components are mostly composed of rye, barley and wheat. It is therefore correct that American bourbon whiskey is distilled from a mixture of grains (the so-called mash bill) in which corn makes up the largest component.

Difference 3: distillation in pot stills and column stills

Although the production of Scotch whiskey or bourbon whiskey is not necessarily tied to the use of a specific distillation method, there are traditional differences that also have a decisive influence on the final distillate.

At Scotch whiskey Once again, the sub-variety is decisive: malt whiskeys are distilled in more or less bulbous pot stills made of copper, which have to be refilled for each distillation process. Scotch is usually twice distilled. The first fire takes place in the wash and the second fire in the spirit still. Grain whiskeys, on the other hand, can be produced continuously in large column stills.

When making bourbon whiskeys, however, the use of column stills is the rule. Only a few manufacturers use traditional pot stills made of copper: partly to make American single malt whiskeys, but partly to give the house-made bourbon with the pot still distillate a different taste.

As a rule of thumb, it can be said that the distillation of malt whiskeys in copper stills is significantly more complex than in the continuous distillation process in the column stills. The distillate from the pot stills is more aromatic and often more complex.

Difference 4: barrel aging of Scotch and Bourbon

Both scotch whiskey and bourbon whiskey must mature in oak barrels before they can be bottled. There are, however, decisive differences between the two types in terms of the properties of the barrels and the duration of storage.

Scotch whiskey must be aged in oak barrels in Scotland for at least 3 years. For this purpose, barrels are usually used in which another spirit has already been matured. Most of the Scotch whiskey barrels used are American Bourbon barrels that are converted into hogsheads. In addition, Spanish sherry casks are also widely used.

But it is also possible to use other oak barrels, such as port wine, rum or wine barrels. Since 2019, a new regulation has even allowed the use of, for example, Calvados or Tequila barrels for Scotch whiskey. Different barrels can also be used one after the other: for example those made of American or French oak. Mixing differently matured whiskeys is also possible. This results in the great variety of tastes in Scottish whiskeys.

Bourbon whiskey May only be aged in new, freshly burned American oak barrels. The barrels, also known as American Standard Barrels (ASB), have a capacity of approx. 200 liters. There are usually four different levels (“grades”) for the mandatory burn-out:

  • Grade 1 is burned out for 15 seconds
  • Grade 2 is burned out for 30 seconds
  • Grade 3 is burned out for 35 seconds
  • Grade 4 is burned out for 55 seconds

The fourth degree is also called “alligator char”, as the oak wood is already beginning to burst and the appearance is reminiscent of the skin of an alligator.

Burning out releases the vanilla and caramel notes typical of Bourbon.

Unlike scotch, there is basically no minimum storage period for bourbon. Straight whiskey must be aged for at least 2 years; if the bourbon has been aged for less than 4 years, the age must be stated on the label.

Difference 5: The climate in Scotland and Kentucky

What does climate have to do with scotch and bourbon? Quite a lot. For both scotch and bourbon, barrel aging is of crucial importance for the taste. The maturation in the barrel is significantly influenced by the outside climate.

The Climate in Scotland is comparatively cool, the temperatures are not subject to particularly strong fluctuations over the course of the year. This is good for barrel aging because the whiskey does not expand as much into the barrel walls in summer and has to go back in winter. The ripening can therefore take place relatively slowly and constantly. During the aging process, about 1-2% of the whiskey is lost each year and the alcohol content drops. This share is also called Angels ’Share.

The Climate in Kentucky - used here because it is the largest Bourbon region in the USA - is completely different from Scotland. In Kentucky, cool winters contrast with hot and dry summers. This has an effect on the maturation of the whiskey: the bourbon is pressed into the barrel walls during the hot summer, absorbs aromas here and retreats again in the cold winter.

Bourbon whiskey is exposed to greater temperature fluctuations during maturation and matures faster than Scottish whiskey. The angels ’share increases with strong temperature fluctuations: With bourbon, however, more water evaporates than alcohol, so that the alcohol content in the barrel usually rises during maturation.

Since fresh barrels are used for bourbon, the oak wood aromas gain the upper hand more quickly and shape the taste of the whiskey. Most bourbon whiskeys are therefore bottled younger than their Scottish counterparts.

Difference 6: filling and permitted additives

We start this area with one thing in common: Both scotch and bourbon must be bottled with at least 40% alcohol. But there are also some important differences between the two varieties.

Most will Scotch whiskeys - Blends as well as single malts - colored with caramel (E150) before bottling. However, other additives (such as flavorings) are not permitted.

At Bourbon whiskeys the declaration as “straight bourbon” is of decisive importance: Because a straight bourbon must not contain any additives such as colorings or flavors.

Difference 7: the taste of scotch and bourbon

Probably the most important difference between scotch whiskey and bourbon whiskey is the different taste. It is therefore advisable to compare different brands within the respective variety.

How does scotch whiskey taste?

The taste of Scotch is very diverse and characterized by thousands of aromas: They can be reminiscent of fruits, grains or oak wood, for example. The most common notes can be tracked down with the help of a tasting wheel.

The aromas of a Scotch whiskey depend largely on the barrels in which it was matured and the type of whiskey (Scotch Blend, Single Malt, Blended Malt etc.) it is. It is estimated that oak barrel aging is responsible for 70-80% of the flavor of Scotch whiskey.

Scottish single malts also differ from distillery to distillery: There are currently more than 120 whiskey distilleries in Scotland. They can be roughly divided into regions of origin, each of which should stand for a certain whiskey style: whiskeys from the Highlands are often fruity and woody-spicy, while malts from the Speyside tend to be mild, fruity and sweet. Lowland whiskeys are also characterized by a mild taste profile. Whiskeys from the coast or the Scottish Islands sometimes have additional maritime notes. The production of whiskey from peated barley and the resulting smoky or peaty taste is characteristic of whiskey from the island of Islay.

However, there are always exceptions to these rough aromatic classifications and so the style of the respective distillery is often more decisive for the taste of the Scotch than the assignment to a specific region.

How does bourbon whiskey taste?

Typical aromas of bourbon are vanilla, caramel and strong oak notes. Even with bourbon, the barrels (new, freshly burned, American oak) shape the aromas of the whiskey. Due to the traditionally shorter maturation, their share of the taste is estimated to be around 50%. Differences are mainly due to the different degrees of burning out of the barrels, as well as the position in the warehouse, which contributes to different speeds of maturation.

The grain mixture is responsible for a part of the bourbon taste that should not be underestimated: In addition to corn, rye and sometimes wheat are often included in the mash bill. These grains, each with their own flavor profile, characterize the later bourbon during the mashing and distilling. Often a certain amount of malted barley is added, the enzymes of which are required for fermentation of the mash.

Many bourbon brands live from the greatest possible consistency: Whenever possible, the whiskey should always taste the same.

Valuable exceptions are single barrel bottlings, in which only one barrel finds its way into the bottle. Here you can experience how diverse a bourbon whiskey can taste - if it is not blended in large batches.

The same also applies to Scotch: If you want to try a whiskey in its purest form, you can use a single cask filling at cask strength. A single barrel is filled here - and its thousands of aromatic facets can be explored in whiskey tasting.