Bourbon and whiskey both taste great in a cocktail and, when mixed together, make for one hell of a hangover, but exactly what is the difference between bourbon and whiskey? And while we’re asking that question, what’s the difference between bourbon, whiskey, Scotch, and rye?


Whiskey (or whisky) can be any of a variety of distilled liquors that are made from a fermented mash of cereal grains and aged in wooden containers, which are usually constructed of oak. Commonly used grains are corn, barley malt, rye, and wheat.

The difference between whiskey and whisky is where the stuff is made: in the United States and Ireland, it’s spelled “whiskey”; in Scotland, Canada, and Japan, it’s “whisky.”


Scotch is a whisky that gets its distinctive smoky flavor from the process in which it is made: the grain, primarily barley, is malted and then heated over a peat fire. A whisky cannot be called Scotch unless it is entirely produced and bottled in Scotland.

Types of Scotch

Scotch whisky is available in different types, including:

  • Single malt, which is produced in single batches. Single malt contains only one grain: malted barley.
  • Single grain, which is produced in single batches but with malted barley and one or more other grains included.
  • Blended malt, which contains two or more single malt Scotches made in different distilleries.
  • Blended grain, which is made from two or more single grain whiskies made in different distilleries.
  • Blended, which is made from at least one single malt blended with at least one single grain Scotch.


Bourbon must be produced in America and needs to confirm to the following standards to be officially labeled and sold or exported as bourbon: it must be made from a grain mixture that’s at least 51 percent corn; aged in charred, oak containers; contained in the barrel for aging at no higher than 125 proof; and bottled at 80 proof or higher. The charred barrels are especially important and contribute greatly to the taste of the spirit. Bourbon was declared by Congress to be America’s only native spirit in 1964 and as an indigenous product of the United States, it can’t be sold as “bourbon” if it’s made in any other country.


Rye is another type of whiskey that is made from a mash that contains at least 51 percent rye, and is less sweet than bourbon. It is often used as a substitute for bourbon and adds a spicy flavor to a cocktail. But aside from the grain and origin technicalities, what’s the difference between bourbon, Scotch, and rye? Taste.

In the United States, regulations stipulate that the mash must be at least 51 percent rye in order for it to be called rye whiskey. In Canada, regulations do not specify a minimum percentage of rye.

Flavor-wise, Scotch is smoky, bourbon is sweet, and rye is more astringent than the two others, making it particularly suitable to cocktails.

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