What’s the Difference Between Bourbon And Whiskey?

How About Rye And Scotch While Were At It

Really, is there any difference between these spirits? Some think they’re entirely different drinks, others think they are the same thing with different names, but a lot of people really have no idea. If you fall into the latter category, you are definitely not alone. You already know how much we love bourbon! But, the nuances of specific liquors tend to go over many people’s heads. So, unless you are an experienced bartender or someone who absolutely loves whiskey, it makes sense that you haven’t studied the differences between these three spirits.

Let’s look into the differences and similarities between bourbon, whiskey, and scotch, and even discover a great list of cocktails that you can make. After reading this article, you should know enough to explain the differences to your friends. Or keep the information all to yourself, and impress them with your knowledge instead. Either way, here is our guide to bourbon, whiskey, rye, and scotch.

By the Way, is it Whiskey or Whisky?

That depends where it is made. Yes, whisk(e)y can be spelled both with an “e” and without it, which can confuse even the most seasoned drinkers. The Irish and Americans spell whiskey with an “e” while their Scottish counterparts leave out the “e.” Canada, India, and Japan, the three other major whiskey producers, also follow the Scottish spelling. Most of the rest of the world have followed suit.

You may have heard the phrase, “Bourbon is whiskey but not at all whiskey is bourbon.” But what does that mean? Let’s find out.

Are Bourbon, Whiskey, and Scotch the Same?

No, bourbon, whiskey, and scotch are not the same. However, some types do overlap a bit, but we’ll get into that later. Basically whiskey is the original version of the spirit. Bourbon and scotch are types of whiskies with different regulations and rules that make them different from whiskey. Each spirit is made from a specific grain mash that might include corn, barley, rye, and wheat. They are all distilled the same way with a couple of exceptions.

What’s the History of Whiskey?

Whiskey has a very long history. It originated in Scotland and Ireland over 1,000 years ago after traveling monks brought distillation to the area. Because Scottish and Irish monasteries didn’t have vineyards (and by association grapes) wine wasn’t an option. So they began fermenting grain mash, which created the first of modern day whiskey. Hundred of years later (we’re still talking a very long time ago), it was all over Scotland, but now being distilled independently.

When colonists came to America, they brought distilling with them and the beginnings of modern day American whiskey. As time continued, Americans began seeing whiskey’s value, so much so that it was used as currency in the Revolutionary War. After the war a tax was put on whiskey to help recover the debt of the war. This turned into what was known as the “whiskey tax” which led to a violent resistance by citizens (primarily in western Pennsylvania) called the “Whiskey Rebellion.” The government was able to suppress the rebellion, though they still found it difficult to collect the tax.

Over the next 100 years, whiskey as we know it began to be made. A small town grocer, John Walker (yes, that John Walker), in the Scottish burgh of Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire, began distilling and distributing his brand of scotch whisky. His process of sour mashing led to the creation of bourbon.

Fun Whiskey Facts:

  • Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland holds the title of “Oldest Licensed Whiskey Distiller” in the world (1608).
  • The first commercial distillery in Kentucky was the Evans Williams Distillery located in Louisville (1783).


As we have mentioned, whiskey is the original variation of the spirit, and Scotch and bourbon were created later. This spirit is made from distilling different types of grain mash. All of the grains used must be malted (soaked in water) and can include barley, rye, corn, and wheat. It is aged in wooden casks and most brands use charred white oak for their casks to really give it a distinctive flavor. For an alcohol to be considered a whiskey, it cannot have added flavors. The flavor profile comes from the barrel used for the whiskey’s aging.

Whiskey is one of the most strictly regulated liquors out there, with many specific rules for what constitutes a certain type. There are over 16 variations of whiskey mostly differentiated by their country of origin.

Tennessee Whiskey

This spirit is pretty much the same thing as bourbon as they both use a 51% corn mash in their production. Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon, a U.S. whiskey variation that is strictly regulated by the federal government. Tennessee whiskies typically meet the requirements to be considered bourbon with two exceptions.

In order to be classified a Tennessee whiskey, the whiskey must be produced in-state. It must also undergo a filtering process referred to as the Lincoln County Process, which happens to the whiskey before it is aged. The Lincoln County Process filters the whiskey through maple charcoal before putting it into a barrel made of charred oak to continue the aging process. The two major producers in the state are Jack Daniels and George Dickel.

Irish Whiskey

Very simply put, Irish whiskey is a whiskey that’s made in Ireland (mind blowing, we know). The word whiskey is actually derived from the Irish word meaning, “water of life.”

There are a few variations of this spirit, including pot still Irish whiskey, Irish malt whiskey, Irish grain whiskey, and blended Irish whiskey. Typically, Irish whiskey is distilled three times and aged in wood barrels for a minimum of three years. It uses unmalted barley that is blended with grain whiskey, although there are single malts available. It is known for being particularly smooth and light, and popular brands include Jameson and Tullamore Dew.

Canadian Whisky

Just like Tennessee whiskey and Irish whiskey, Canadian Whisky is a blended whisky that is produced in Canada. They are known for being lighter and smoother than other types of whiskies.

Canadian whisky is a blended multigrain liquor, meaning that it is made from corn and has a little bit of rye grain added to the mash. Canadian whiskies can use as many as 20 (or more!) ingredients in its blends which contribute to the smooth taste.

Rye Whiskey

By law, rye whiskey must be made of a mash that is composed of 51% rye grain. Typically, the rest of the mash is made up of corn and malted barley. It is distilled up to 160 proof, but cannot go over the number. It must be aged in charred new oak barrels.

American rye whiskey is similar to bourbon and it is technically the same thing as Canadian whiskey. Unlike some of the other popular varieties of whiskey, rye whiskey can be made anywhere. Its flavor profile is typically spicy and bold.

Best Whiskey Cocktails

Whiskey is used in spicy and bold cocktails, making it rare to find a fruity cocktail that uses it. Instead, you’ll find lots of flavor, spice, and sophistication to match the complexity of the spirit. Here are three classic whiskey cocktail recipes.


The Manhattan is a good choice for those who like simple, sophisticated drinks. This is a no-nonsense cocktail that is common at high-end restaurants and bars. A Manhattan is typically enjoyed by the more seasoned whiskey drinker, but if you like whiskey even a little, give it a try.

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes bitters (such as Angostura)
  • orange
  • 1 or 2 real maraschino cherries

Add the whiskey, bitters, and sweet vermouth to a shaker with ice. Take an orange slice and use it to rim your drinking glass with a squeeze of the orange. Strain the mixture into a glass and serve with two maraschino cherries.

Whiskey Sour

The Whiskey Sour is known for its tart and sour kick, thanks to fresh lemon juice. This is really a great drink for those who like simple cocktails. Here’s what you will need:

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • ¾ oz lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
  • ¾ oz simple syrup
  • orange (½ orange wheel)

Start by adding the lemon juice, whiskey, and simple syrup to a shaker. Shake well and pour into a glass with ice. Top with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry if you so desire.

Irish Coffee

This is a great drink for a post dinner treat. It also works well for a weekend brunch when you need something extra special. Just make sure you are using Irish whiskey for this recipe. Trust us, it makes a difference. And don’t forget to make your own whipped cream!

  • heavy cream and powdered sugar
  • 1 cup coffee
  • 1 ½ oz Irish whiskey

Prepare hot coffee as you would normally. While brewing make the whipped cream. Whip the cream and sugar until it forms stiff peaks. Grab a mug and add your whiskey. Then pour coffee on top till the mug is almost full. Finish by adding a dollop of whipped cream on top.


When it comes to domestic spirits, bourbon is just about as all-American as it gets. This blended grain whiskey is required to be made from at least 51% corn. For whiskey to be called bourbon it must be made in America, not just Bourbon county, Kentucky. However, over 90% of the country’s bourbon is indeed made in Kentucky. Bourbon is aged in new charred oak barrels and has no minimum aging requirements, though “straight bourbon” must age for at least two years. But there’s a slight twist: if the whiskey has been aged less than four years the label has to tell you exactly how long it was in the barrel. So if there is no age statement on a straight bourbon, then it is aged at least four years.

What makes bourbon different from almost every other whiskey is the required use of a brand new charred oak barrel for each and every run. This ensures that the maximum amount of flavor from the barrel is imparted into the spirits, typically producing a darker color and a smoky flavor that isn’t seen in scotch, and the use of corn as the primary basis of the mash means that it has a sweeter flavor to offset that otherwise overpowering taste. To us, it’s the perfect balance of boldness and smoothness and a go-to kind of whiskey.

Interestingly, American bourbon barrels typically have a long life (despite being used for bourbon only once). Once they live out their purpose for making bourbon, the barrels have a second (and third, and fourth…) life aging everything from Canadian Rye to Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Fun Whiskey Fact
Bourbon officially got its name in 1840 when a distiller Jacob Spears labeled his product, “Bourbon Whiskey” because it was produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Best Bourbon Cocktails

While many people prefer to sip their bourbon neat, there are a lot of cocktails that call for a splash or two of bourbon to act as the star of the show. Bourbon cocktails are especially popular in the South (ever heard of Bourbon Street?) leading to some great flavor combinations. Here are three bourbon cocktails we think you should try for yourself.

Classic Mint Julep

The mint julep is the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby which has helped bolster the cocktail’s popularity. Tens of thousands of mint juleps are served at Churchill Downs in Louisville, and countless more are enjoyed by fans watching the race throughout the country. With a balance of sweet, smokey, and herbal flavors, the mint julep is delicious all year round.

  • 4 to 5 mint sprigs, leaves only
  • 2 sugar cubes or ½ oz simple syrup
  • 2 ½ oz bourbon whisky
  • mint sprig for garnish

Place mint leaves and sugar or syrup into a julep cup, collins, or double old fashioned glass. Muddle well to dissolve the sugar and to release the oil and aroma of the mint. Add the bourbon. Fill the glass with crushed ice and stir well until the glass becomes frosty. (Note: The use of crushed ice is important. Other forms of ice won’t create the same effect, so take time to create a nice mound of crushed ice before mixing the cocktail.) Garnish with a mint sprig. Enjoy.

Hot Toddy

Some people swear by the hot toddy as a cold-care remedy. Others just prefer it in the winter or fall months. Either way, it is a delightfully spicy drink that will warm you up.

  • 1 oz bourbon
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • ¼ cup boiling water

Put bourbon, honey, and lemon juice in a 6 ounce mug. Top off with hot water and stir until honey is dissolved.

Old Fashioned

When you get right down to it, the bourbon old fashioned is little more than a slug of whiskey, seasoned and sweetened. Yet, for all of its suave simplicity, the drink remains as relevant today as it was when it first captured drinkers’ hearts in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1806.

Start by using good bourbon (think Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey), the rule being if you wouldn’t sip it by itself it has no place at the helm of an old fashioned. There are other whiskey drinks for masking subpar booze, this isn’t one of them.

  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 tsp water
  • 2 oz bourbon
  • garnish: orange peel

Add the sugar and the bitters to a rocks glass, then add the water. Fill the glass with large ice cubes, add the bourbon, and gently stir to combine. Express the oil of an orange over the glass, then drop in the peel.


Scotch is another type of whiskey, but this variation is made in Scotland. Just as makers of champagne must produce their bubbly drink in the Champagne region of France, scotch must be produced in Scotland, or it cannot be considered scotch.

Scotch is subject to very specific regulations. The main points of those regulations are that all scotch must:

  • Be made in Scotland, on site at the listed distillery
  • Be matured in oak casks for no less than three years
  • Contain no added substances (other than water and coloring)
  • Labeled with an age that represents the youngest drop of alcohol in the bottle

Unlike Irish whiskey, which generally uses an array of different grains, Scotch whisky almost always sticks to malted barley, making for a (usually) more expensive product.

Scotch whisky is generally twice distilled (unlike Irish whiskey, which undergoes three distillations). A distinct characteristic of Scotch whisky is its renowned smoky character; this comes from the use of peat during the drying process of the barley. Peat is a unique form of decomposed vegetation found in Scotland’s bogs, used to heat fire in the drying process, adding a signature smoky touch.

With a Scotch whiskey, you’ll typically see lighter flavors than those from other whiskeys, sometimes even a fruity taste, and at most times a hint of peat. The relatively cool and steady climate means that it needs time in the barrel to develop the flavors and coloring.

Types of Scotch

There are five different categories of scotch. Each has its own characteristics and flavor profiles.

  • Single Malt – Single malt Scotch has to be distilled at one single distillery.
  • Single Grain – Single scotch whisky must also be distilled at one distillery. The difference is that this one is made from cereal grains instead of malted barley.
  • Blended Scotch – This Scotch whisky combines one or more malt scotches with one or more single grain scotches.
  • Blended Grain – This is a blend of single grain scotches. These single grain scotches are distilled at more than one distillery.
  • Blended Malt – This is a blend of two or more single malts that come from different distilleries.

Fun Whisky Fact

  • Some 42 bottles of Scotch are exported from Scotland every second.

Best Scotch Cocktails

There are quite a few scotch cocktails that you can try for yourself. But, interestingly enough, Scotch is primarily enjoyed on its own. Whiskey aficionados almost always prefer a scotch sipped neat or on the rocks than in a cocktail. This is probably because it is a bit rarer than regular whiskies, so people think it should be enjoyed on its own. However there is no need to fear mixing a great scotch, whether it’s a blend or single malt. Using it in a cocktail adds a neat twist to the drink.

Rob Roy

The Rob Roy cocktail is similar to the beloved Manhattan, except the Rob Roy calls for scotch instead of American whiskey. The switch from bourbon (or rye) to scotch may not seem significant, but the difference is notable and delicious.

  • 2 oz scotch
  • ¾ oz sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Garnish: branded cherry

Add the scotch, sweet vermouth, and bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with 2 speared brandied cherries.

Rusty Nail

Perhaps a 50-50 combination of Scotch and Drambuie reminds you of an old person’s drink, a quaff too musty even for Mad Men. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. The modern version calls for equal parts, earlier versions were drier, calling for substantially more Scotch. This is where you should start, say a 4:1 ratio, and you will be surprised how satisfying this “relic” is.

  • 2 oz blended Scotch
  • ½ oz Drambuie
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters (optional)

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add Scotch, Drambuie, and bitters (if using). Stir thoroughly and serve.

Blood and Sand

Created in 1922, this cocktail is named after Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand movie. This is a Scotch whisky-based cocktail that even whiskey haters will like.

  • ¾ oz blended scotch
  • ¾ oz cherry brandy liquor
  • ¾ oz sweet vermouth
  • ¾ oz orange juice freshly squeezed (Blood orange is preferable)

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into a chilled glass.

After all that, we’re pretty confident that you’re on your way to becoming an expert on whiskey, bourbon, and scotch. There is just one last missing piece of the puzzle before you can call yourself an expert; you need to start sampling different whiskies, scotches, and bourbons.

The truth is, you can read about and learn everything there is to know, but if you haven’t tried these spirits for yourself, you won’t really know the differences in tastes and flavor profiles.
So what do we recommend you do?

Start by making your way over to the newly designed and updated Wise Guys. We have whiskey and scotch, Irish whiskey, single malt scotch, 70 different bourbons and much more. Under each category you will find numerous options to choose from.

Don’t know where to start? No worries. Our experienced and knowledgeable mixologists will assist and guide you every step of the way. Experience the exciting world of whiskey, scotch and bourbon. (And of course our award winning food!)

Call us today to make a reservation or just stop by and visit our cocktail lounge and begin to enjoy the best in whiskey.


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