What’s the Difference? Whiskey, Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye Explained


Image via: www.talesofthecocktail.com

You’ve probably heard it before: not all whiskey is bourbon, but all bourbon is whiskey. Or you’ve questioned why sometimes whiskey is spelled with an e while other times the e is omitted. Then there’s that nagging question in the back of all of our minds: What the hell is Scotch? While we may all be whiskey lovers, not all of us can call ourselves whiskey experts. So, if you don’t know your Kentucky bourbon from your Irish whiskey, don’t worry, anyone can get educated when it comes to the brown stuff. Pour yourself a glass of Lost Republic and prepare to be enlightened because we’ve got the answers to all of those burning questions you’ve been too shy to ask:

Image via: www.ediblebrooklyn.com


First things first, let’s lay it all out on the table and define what whiskey actually is. Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. This mash is generally aged in wooden casks that give it that signature brown color and taste. All whiskey must be distilled at a minimum of 40% and a maximum of 94.8% alcohol by volume. Here’s where things get tricky: whiskey is a broad category that contains several confusing subsets with understated (yet profound) differences. The differences between the various whiskeys relies mostly on the type of grain used for mash and (as trivial is it may sound) geography.

Image via: www.menshealth.com


In order to be considered bourbon, the whiskey must meet a few strict requirements. First, the mixture of grains from the which the product is distilled (aka the mash) must be at least 51% corn. On top of that, the mixture must be stored in charred oak containers and must be free of any additives. And finally, bourbon can only be labeled as bourbon if it was made in the good ‘ol U.S of A. Bourbon technically has no minimum aging period, but to be considered Straight Bourbon, it must be aged for at least 2 years and contain no added coloring, flavor, or other spirits. This law is what really separates bourbon from the rest of the pack. Bourbon is known for its carmel flavor, but is also the rich smoke it gets from the charred oak barrels it ages in.

Image via: www.seriouseats.com


Just as bourbon has to be made in the United States, Scotch must be distilled and matured in Scotland (as the name so subtly implies). Instead of corn, Scotch is made mostly from malted barley and you are allowed to include whole grains of other cereals as well as caramel coloring. However, the Scots are stern about the fact that Scotch must not contain any fermentation additives and no short-cuts are allowed. Yep, making Scotch is not for the faint-hearted. In addition, the spirit must be aged in oak casks for no less than three years. Scotch actually tastes a lot like bourbon but with the inclusion of its signature “bite”. This “bite” is what causes some people to stay away from Scotch, but for others, it’s the “bite” that only makes their tasting experience richer. Oh yeah, the other difference? Scotch whisky is spelled sans e. Don’t ask, we don’t know why.

Image via: www.icelolly.com


You guessed it: like its name suggests, rye is a whiskey distilled from at least 51% rye. Rye is a grass that is a member of the wheat tribe and closely related to barley. Just like bourbon, rye must be aged in charred oak barrels distilled to an ABV less than 80%. Also, only rye that has been aged more than 2 years can be referred to as Straight Rye. Never tasted it? Think of rye as a spicy, grainy, rough-edged version of bourbon. Also, stop dillydallying and try it for God’s sake!

Image via: www.losangeles.cbslocal.com

Irish Whiskey

The turf wars resume once again when it comes to distilling and maturing Irish Whiskey. Legally, Irish Whiskey must be aged in Ireland for at least three years in wooden casks to be considered Irish whiskey. But geography isn’t the only thing that distinguishes Irish whiskey from Scotch. While most Scottish whisky is distilled twice, Irish whiskey goes through three rounds of distillation before it’s bottled. Irish whiskey also uses a lot of barley, but doesn’t have that smoky taste you get from Scotch. As most of you already know (since the majority of us still haven’t fully recovered from our St. Paddy’s Day hangovers a few weeks back), Irish whiskey is very smooth and not as sweet as American bourbon.
There you have it! We’re sorry it took so long to finally address, but we hope that most of your whiskey questions have now been answered! Don’t hesitate to reach out with any others that we didn’t get to.