The Real Difference Between Scotch and Bourbon

Here's how the very similar (and related) hard liquors differ so you don't look like an amateur ordering at the bar.
glass of bourbon on the rocks

When you ask for a whiskey on the rocks at the bar, does the bartender ever ask if you specifically want scotch or bourbon? If so, can you confidently say you know the difference between the two? It's OK if you're a little unsure—this all can get a bit confusing. We called on Danny Polise, co-founder of Penelope Bourbon, to explain the difference between the two hard liquors so that you avoid getting tripped up ordering whiskey on the rocks or a classic cocktail with either in it.

What is the main difference between scotch and bourbon?

"The main difference between scotch and bourbon is that scotch is made in Scotland and bourbon is made in the USA," explains Polise. "Both scotch and bourbon are whiskeys. Scotch whisky is spelled without an 'e', while bourbon whiskey has an 'e' between the 'k' and 'y.'"

Polise adds that scotch is generally made from malted barley, whereas bourbon is made largely from corn. Here are some of the qualifications whiskey must meet in order to be classified as bourbon.

  1. Must be made of a grain mixture of at least 51 percent corn. (According to the American Bourbon Association, the mash bill or mixture of grains used to produce the bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn. The other grains can be a mixture of either rye, wheat, or malted barley.)
  2. Must be aged in new charred oak barrels.
  3. Only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon.
  4. It must be distilled no more than 160 proof (80 percent abv).
  5. It may not enter into a barrel higher than 125 proof (62.5 abv).
  6. To be called straight bourbon it must have aged for at least two years and not have any flavors or color added.

How would you describe the taste of bourbon compared to scotch?

"Although there are many different tastes within both categories, bourbon generally has a pleasant sweetness to it from the corn and a bit of smoke from the charring of the barrels," says Polise. "Scotch is sometimes described as having a wood and fire taste, but without the traditional burn that some of the higher proof bourbons have."

Some bourbons are aged in barrels that formerly held beer, which allows a hint of beer to subtly accentuate the flavor of the whiskey. New Holland Brewing's Beer Barrel Bourbon is a great example. After aging in new American oak barrels, the bourbon then spends some time in the barrel the company uses to brew their Dragon Milk stout in.

RELATED: The science-backed way to curb your sweet tooth in 14 days.

Anything else we should know about bourbon?

"An interesting fact is that bourbon is America's only native spirit," says Polise. "Also, each year bourbon ages in the barrel, 2-3 percent of it evaporates. What evaporates is called the 'angel's share.'"

So, now you know the difference between scotch and bourbon!

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Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more
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