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What’s the Difference Between Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye?

So, in our last blog we covered how whisk(e)y is made. Where we saw basically, whisk(e)y (whiskey or whisky) can be any variety of distilled spirit that are made from fermented mash of cereal grains and aged in wooden containers, which is usually made from oak. The most common used grains are corn, barley malt, rye, and wheat.

So, what sets these spirits apart? Simply put, the names are based on types of cereal grains used in the distilling process as well as how and where the whisk(e)ys are produced.

Before we go in to explaining the differences between whiskey, Scotch, bourbon, and rye, here is a quick outline of whisk(e)y in general. Whisk(e)ys can be straight or blended: straight whisk(e)y are not usually mixed, but if they are they are only mixed with other whisk(e)y from the same distillery and distillation period; whereas mixed whisk(e)y can include various combinations of whisk(e)y from different distillers and different distillation periods as well as other flavourings. Blended whisk(e)ys generally have a lighter flavour than straight whisk(e)ys.

I’ve broken down whisky styles in two major categories, Scottish and American as they are the two biggest markets. I’ll mention a couple of others in coming posts, just to spread the love.


Scottish whiskies are among the most respected and sort after in the world. They range in styles but are spectacular in their own categories. From heavily peat and smoke to others that are light and fruity. Coastal whiskies often pick up characteristics from the sea with a refined salinity on the palate. You can always find a sweetness; sometimes in quite forward, other times more of a subtle presence.

To be scotch whisky, it must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland. Scottish law also mandates that scotch whisky be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. This is similar in a lot of countries.

There are five specific regions in Scotland that traditionally produce Scotch malt whisky: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Speyside (being a sub region of Highlands). With a smaller representation among the Isles of the west coast of Scotland.

There are regional distinctions within these areas much like the wine appellations of France. But with the profusion of Scotch whisky distilleries throughout Scotland it is difficult, and unwise, to make a broad generalisation. Even though Islay whisky is known for its peat styles, distilleries in other regions sometimes implement the use of peat as well. A journey of discovery well rewarding for any who venture to experience.


We all have heard of Ballantine's, Johnnie Walker or Haig even if you haven’t tried them. They are some of the best know blended scotch whisky. Blended Scotch whisky, like all Scotch whisky, must be matured for at least three years and a day in oak casks. Blended Scotch whisky is made from grain whisky, which is cheap and efficient to produce, which can have somewhat of a neutral character, so distilleries will blend in some malt whisky to round out the flavour and brings complexity to the whisky.


Blended malt Scotch whisky is different from a standard blended whisky. Because it contains no grain whisky, it is only a blend of single malts. Producing Grain whisky is cheap and easy, using column distils. Which does give it the same depth and character as malt whisky. Thus, blended malts have more richer depth of characteristics than just blended whiskies.


One of the most respected spirits in the world, Single malt Scotch. A whisky with vast and varied offerings, from complexity, robust or a subtly lingering on your palate. For Scotch whisky to illegally be called malt whisky, in needs to be distilled at a single distillery. Via a copper pot still, only using malted barely, yeast and water. Then go through an aging process of no less than three years and one day in oak casks and be bottled no lower than 40%ABV.

A single malt whisky bottle may include whisky several different casks from the same distillatory, unless it’s a single cask whisky.

Though geography and terroir play some part, it’s actually the oak barrels that impart most of the finished character of the whisky, around 60% of the final flavour profile.


Blended whisky makes up over 90% of all Scotch whisky sold. Blended scotch whisky is what introduced most of the world to scotch whisky, the cornerstone of the industry. The reason being is blended whisky is majority made up of grain whisky as well as malt whisky. Grain whisky is a lot cheaper and easier to produce. Grain whisky brings different characters to the final blend than malts do. Resulting in an approachable whisky, suited to a wider audience and more economical whisky than a single malt.


American whiskeys is noted occasionally pertaining toastiness, spice and vanilla sweetness. This is largely due to the generous use of new charred oak, which imparts sweet flavours such of vanilla, and other flavour compounds.

Whereas Rye whiskey is made with a mash prominently featuring rye grain. Which brings more spicier notes to the whiskey with lots of complexity.

Tennessee whiskeys which but for the "Lincoln County Process" it undergoes, are essentially bourbons. The Lincoln Process developed by the world-famous Jack Daniel's, where the whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal.

Then there is White dog and Moonshine, and you'll find an ever-growing range in the market, which is an unoaked spirit.


The number one whiskey style produced in the USA is Bourbon, and can be found in nearly every bar around the world.

So, what is bourbon? Well, there are a few laws dictating how bourbon is made. First it has to be made in the USA. The mash for bourbon can be no less than 51% corn (the remainder is made up of usually rye, barley or wheat). Bourbon can not be filtered, and must be aged in new charred oak barrels. If the bourbon is barrelled correctly, then there isn’t really any requirements on how long it should be aged. But there are two exceptions to this – straight bourbon whiskey must be aged for a minimum of two years and bottled-in-bond must be aged for at least four years.

The spirit can’t be distilled to more than 80% ABV but usually goes to barrel around 65% ABV on average, and bourbon must be bottled at 40% ABV or more. So if you have a bottle of bourbon under 40% ABV it isn’t bourbon.


Another famous American whiskey, Rye whiskey which has been synonymous with the cocktail; all the classics were based around this spirit. The Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, the Sazerac. The whiskey possesses the wonderful high notes and spice because of the prolific use of virgin oak in the maturation. In America, rye whiskey must have a mash bill consisting of at least 51% rye amongst other grains. In general, rye is lighter-bodied than many other whiskeys with more tingly spicy characteristics.


Often, American whisky possesses a rustic quality, a sort of tangy top note. This is due to the prolific use of virgin oak for their whiskeys. Tennessee whiskey differs only slightly from bourbon. It is a sour mash whiskey that is filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to ageing. This technique is known as the Lincoln County Process and it is what gives Tennessee Whiskey its own unique flavour. There are only two brands that produce Tennessee whiskey: George Dickel and Jack Daniel's.


One of the rarer forms of American whiskey is a Single barrel. Which refers to a whiskey aged in a single barrel, and then has been bottled unblended with other barrels. These whiskeys are also usually bottled at natural cask strength "straight from the barrel", and because they are unblended, they usually offer a level of richness and complexity.


Corn Whiskeys are an old style of whisky production, but recently have enjoyed a renaissance. This style of whiskey is produced in manner, similar to how it was produced hundreds of years ago. Corn whiskey refers to an American whiskey which is distilled from a mash of at least 80% corn. These are usually not aged in new charred oak barrels.

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