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Difference Between Bourbon and Scotch

Learn how these two whiskey types differ

Bourbon and scotch are both whiskeys, but they have different features. Whiskey (the American spelling) and whisky (the European spelling) originated in Ireland, where the beverage is thought of as the water of life. 

Whiskey comes in several varieties, but scotch and bourbon are the most popular. 

scotch vs bourbon

When looking at bourbon vs scotch, their origins matter. All types of whiskey come from fermented grain mashes often aged in oak barrels. Whiskey distillers use wheat, corn, barley, and other grains. 

Bourbon Whiskey and Corn 

Despite whiskey being an Irish word, only American distillers make bourbon whiskey. Regulations in the United States require distillers to use a grain mash with a minimum of 51% corn. They must age the bourbon whiskey in new, but charred oak containers. 

Corn mash for bourbon
Corn mash for bourbon

Distillers can age the whiskey for as long as they like. However, the varieties that age for under four years must have the amount of time on the label. Distillers who make straight bourbon must let it age for a minimum of two years. Distilled bourbon whiskey must have at least 40% alcohol. 

Scotch Whiskey and Barley

Bourbon vs. scotch whiskey comes down to the distillation location and the grain. Scotch whiskey, often called scotch, comes from malted barley mash. 

Appropriately, scotch comes from Scotland, where distillers make either single malt or single grain. Single malt comes from one malted barley mixed with water. A single grain can have more grains than barley, but only one distiller mixes it. 

Mashing of milled malt barley for preparing malt
Mashing of milled malt barley for preparing malt

Another bourbon vs. scotch whiskey difference is the aging process. Like bourbon, distillers must age scotch in an oak container, but for a minimum of three years. It also has 40% alcohol when bottled. 

Different Flavors

The oak barrels give bourbon and scotch flavors that have a smokey and charred note. Bourbon often has a touch of vanilla from the barrel, while scotch has an outdoorsy flavor from peat the distiller used to malt the barley. Not all distillers use peat when making scotch, so only a handful of scotch whiskeys have a peat note. 

Aging Process

Even though the United States regulations do not require a minimum amount of aging, a quality Straight Bourbon must age for two years. Distillers cannot add anything to the beverage. When looking at bourbon vs. scotch whiskey, the scottish beverage must have a minimum of three years to rest in the barrels. 

Because scotch ages longer, many bottles spend between 10 and 25 years in the barrels. 

oak barrels for aging whiskey
oak barrels for aging whiskey

As most bourbons come from Kentucky, the warm weather speeds up the evaporation process. Scotland’s climate is colder, so the drink needs more time in the barrel. 

In both situations, bourbon and scotch whiskey prices increase as the beverage spends more time in the barrel. Bourbon evaporates in the barrels, so the longer it spends in the barrel, the rarer the bourbon becomes. 

Pros and Cons

Bourbon vs. scotch whiskey comes down to the pros and cons of the two beverages. Whiskey, the water of life in Ireland, has antioxidants from molecules that neutralize free radicals. The ellagic acid improves blood antioxidant levels. Both whiskeys reduce uric acid buildup, which can reduce the risk for gout. 

Researchers also find that drinking a moderate amount of alcoholic beverages reduces the risk of heart disease. However, drinking excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages can cause other serious health problems. 

Adults should limit their alcoholic beverages to one or two drinks per day. When drinking whiskey, a standard amount is a shot or about 1.5 ounces. 

How to Drink Whiskey

Some people enjoy whiskey straight or on the rocks, where they drink a shot or two without anything other than ice. A neat whiskey is the beverage by itself in a small glass. Whiskey drinkers can enjoy the flavor when they drink it neat or on the rocks. 

Barman pouring whiskey
Barman pouring whiskey

Some people find the flavor overwhelming, so they prefer to drink it in a cocktail. These are popular choices for bourbon and scotch whiskey. 

  • An Old Fashioned includes whiskey, bitters, sugar, and water. 
  • The Manhattan has bourbon whiskey, bitters, and a fortified white wine called sweet vermouth. Bartenders usually add cherries for flavor. 
  • The classic highball includes whiskey, ice, and ginger ale. 
  • A whiskey sour includes bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Bartenders also add cherries and ice. 
  • The John Collins uses the whiskey sour base, but also includes club soda. 

Appropriate, the drink of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep, which includes Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup, crushed ice, and mint leaves as a garnish and flavoring. As many cocktails include sugared syrups, the calories increase over a basic whiskey on the rocks. 

Other than the beverages that require bourbon, you can add scotch whiskey to the Old Fashioned or high ball. 

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.