Whiskey covers a wide range of categories, including two of the best-known: America’s bourbon and Scotland’s Scotch. While they’re both distillates made from grain and aged in oak, the similarities end there. In fact, they don’t even spell whiskey the same way: Americans use whiskey with an “e” (as we’ll continue to do so here, to describe the overall universe of whiskeys), while Scotland goes with “whisky.”
As with any type of whiskey, “each is going to be influenced by the characteristics of the grain, the water, the yeast, the climate, the type of still used and the type of barrel it is matured in, in their respective countries,” says Lia Niskanen, founder of Barrel Strength Talent, a whiskey event company. Here are the main factors that differentiate bourbon and Scotch.
What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Scotch?
“The big difference is where they are made,” says Niskanen. “Bourbon, by law, must be made in the United States (and not solely in Kentucky, contrary to popular belief) and Scotch must be made in Scotland.”
That said, not all American whiskeys are Bourbon (think rye, Tennessee whiskey, American single malts etc.). But all whiskey made in Scotland is considered Scotch.
2. The Grains
In brief, bourbon is mostly corn, while Scotch is mostly barley. Of note, Scotch includes both malt whisky and grain whisky.
“Bourbon must contain more corn than any other grain (51% minimum),” says Robin Robinson, author of The Complete Whiskey Course. By comparison, “Scotch designates barley, and any other grain, setting up the difference between malt whisky type (barley only) and grain whisky type (any other grain—these days it’s mostly wheat) plus barley.”
3. Distillation Method
Scotch is allowed to be distilled to a higher strength than bourbon. That said, both whiskey types usually are diluted with water to bring them down to a palatable strength.
“Malt whiskeys are generally distilled to about 63% alcohol-by-volume (abv), and the grain whiskies of Scotland have a maximum limit of 94.8%,” notes Niskanen. By comparison, bourbon can be distilled no higher than an alcohol-by-volume (abv) of 80%, or 160 proof.
While both age in oak, the specifications of the container and aging times vary.
“Bourbon specifies [it must be] matured in a new, charred, oaken container but doesn’t give a minimum time period,” says Robinson. (However, of its own when it comes to aging—straight bourbon must be aged at least two years, bottled-in-bond bourbons must be aged at least four years, etc.).
Meanwhile, “Scotch whiskies must undergo a minimum three-year rest in an oaken container before it can be legally recognized,” says Robinson. Also of note: Scotch doesn’t require new barrels, and often is aged in used bourbon casks.
If you want to give both a try, here are our top-rated bourbon and Scotch bottles.
A Blend of Straight Bourbons: Barrell Bourbon Batch 031 Cask Strength
97 Points Wine Enthusiast
Nuanced vanilla and tropical fruit aromas introduce this blend of straight bourbons, aged from 6–16 years. The palate opens with brown sugar and mouthwateringly savory spices, cayenne and clove. Adding water dials in an espresso note, while a fleeting hint of pineapple emerges on the exhale.
A Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky Classic: Old Fitzgerald 11 Years Old Bourbon
97 Points Wine Enthusiast
Concentrated caramel tinged with toffee and espresso leads the nose. The bold palate offers more of the same, though a splash of water adjusts the flavor to a more dry, leathery tone, finishing long with ginger, black pepper and tobacco highlights. Bottled in Bond. Fall 2021 Edition.
A “Wheater” (Wheated Bourbon) to Savor: New Riff Distilling Red Turkey Wheated Bourbon
95 Points Wine Enthusiast
Look for rich toffee and mocha on the nose and palate, edged with clove and black pepper heat. A splash of water adds tinges of toasted gingerbread and butterscotch, finishing quite fiery. This is a limited edition launched in Nov 2021, made with 70% corn and 25% heirloom Red Turkey wheat grown in Ohio and purchased from Blue Oven Bakery, with remaining 5% malted barley.
A Versatile Bourbon That Won’t Break the Bank: Dickel Bourbon Aged 8 Years
Maple sugar aromas are accented by a rootsy, sarsaparilla-like hint. Add a splash of water to adjust to taste; the reward is burnt brown sugar and maple, drying to a complex finish that suggests baking spice, leather and a fleeting espresso note. A versatile option to sip or mix. Launched June 2021.
A Fruity, Approachable Blended Scotch: Compass Box Orchard House Scotch Whisky
93 Points Wine Enthusiast
As the Orchard name suggests, this Scotch is markedly fruit-forward by design. Expect a light gold hue and bright, fresh apple and pear aromas teased by a faint hint of peat smoke. The palate opens with vanilla and almond, plus hints of lemon cream pie. A splash of water releases a plume of peat smoke, leading into mouthwatering salt-and-black-pepper finish. Blended malt Scotch.
A Budget-Friendly Blended Scotch to Sip or Mix: Chivas Regal 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
91 Points Wine Enthusiast
Honey and a resin-like aroma lead into a mellow palate that shows baked apple and dried apricot drizzled with honey. Adding water coaxes more cinnamon and clove, plus lemony acidity and a hint of vanilla custard. Best Buy.
A Smoky Islay Single Malt: Ardbeg Wee Beastie 5 Years Old
91 Points Wine Enthusiast
A distinct mesquite smoke note leads the nose of this Islay single malt. The ferocious palate opens with almond, spicy honey and peat smoke, plus a hint of barbecue sauce twang. Each savory sip finishes warming and intense, laced with eucalyptus, sea salt and cayenne. Released in 2020, this is a permanent addition to the Ardbeg core range.
A Single Malt That Makes a Great Gift: Benriach The Twelve
96 Points Wine Enthusiast
What’s in the bottle is a 12-year-old single malt aged in a combination of Sherry, bourbon and Port barrels. Expect a tawny hue and almond and fresh red apple aromas. The palate opens brisk and bold, showing caramel and baked apple flavors. A splash of water brings out mocha tones alongside cinnamon and ginger. Overall, this is a lightly sweet sipper, warming and delicious.
A Single Malt Heavy-Hitter Meant to Impress: The Dalmore 15
93 Points Wine Enthusiast
This is a 12-year-old Scotch finished in Sherry casks for an additional three years. The result is a deep amber hue and dried cherry and cinnamon aromas. The palate opens with oak and dried fruit, finishing with dark cinnamon, cocoa, clove and a lively hint of lemon peel.
How to Chill Whiskey
While there’s nothing wrong with sipping whiskey neat, sometimes it’s nice to have a big chunk of ice to chill and slowly dilute it as you sip.
Most bars don’t use ice molds—but have access to Kold-Draft or Clinebell machines to make fancy ice on demand, or work with professional ice purveyors like Hundredweight to source crystal-clear cocktail ice. That said, we asked for recommendations to make whiskey-worthy ice at home.
A final word of caution: avoid whiskey stones, which don’t melt and imperil dental work.
The Best Ice Molds to Chill Whiskey
“Clearly Frozen uses foam to help with directional freezing, and I get beautifully clear cubes every time,” says Amy Probasco, a bartender in Chicago. “This, like most clear ice trays, will take up quite a bit of freezer space, but I think it could be worth it if someone really wants the clear ice experience.”
Peak Ice Works Spheres
“An ice sphere will melt slower than a large ice cube,” says Rémy Walle, head bartender for RPM Seafood in Chicago. For a more decorative option, opt for Star Wars Death Star ice ball molds.
“You send them your logo or initials and they’ll inscribe them into the silicone ice mold, so you can have custom ice blocks to impress the hell out of your friends when you serve that Bourbon you paid too much for,” says Robinson.