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The Difference Between Scotch, Bourbon, and Whiskey

Bourbon is a drink with a heavy cult following. For many (but mostly men) enjoying it is somewhat of an academic hobby; you can be as savvy about it as one can be savvy about wine. But if you don’t swim in those waters, you’re probably unsure of the difference between whiskey, bourbon, and scotch. We are here to clarify.


bourbon glass and oak pieces

Whiskey is a spirit made from grains. Usually, these are barley, rye, or corn, but it can be made of several others.

Tennessee whiskey is a bourbon that went through what’s known as the Lincoln County Process - passing the bourbon through sugar maple charcoal, effectively making it a type of whiskey.

Then there’s rye whiskey. That’s a type of whiskey that must be at least 51% rye, which is commonly known as American rye whiskey.



The name bourbon comes from an area near Bourbon County, Kentucky, previously known as Old Bourbon. Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Put simply, what differentiates bourbon from whiskey is the law set by the Federal Standard of Identity of Bourbon. The rigid criteria are as follows:

* The mash (the grain mixture from which the drink is distilled) must contain at least 51% corn.
* Alcohol proof is a measure of the ethanol in an alcoholic beverage. The mash must be distilled to be at least 160 proof. Anything over that will strip away the green flavor. The beverage must be barreled to be at least 125 proof.  
* No additives are allowed, including natural flavors. Meaning, there’s no such thing as flavored bourbon. That’s whiskey.
* The bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Meaning, barrels that have never been used. A used barrel is good for whiskey.
* Bourbon must be bottled to be at least 80 proof.

These definitions have been loosely anchored in the law since the 1800s and made it into the Code of Federal Regulations in the 1960s. Bourbon is made in the US, generally in Kentucky.


As noted, bourbon is distilled from corn. Scotch is a whisky made mostly from malted barley. In a nutshell, it is a whisky made in Scotland. And if you noticed we’re missing an E there, that’s not a spelling error! That’s the Scottish way.

Source: 1, 2

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