Drink to This: What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whisky?

Each is amber and has a deep, hot mouthfeel, but just what is the difference between whiskey and bourbon? Lan Kwai Fong is here to settle old arguments and lively front-bar debates with this primer on the golden firewater.

Wherever it comes from or whatever it is called—it might be whiskey, whisky, scotch, rye or bourbon—these distilled drinks come from a fermented grain mash—made of barley, corn, rye or wheat—that is aged in charred oak casks to give it a deep golden colour.

In short, the main difference? It largely comes down to geography and the major raw ingredient.

Scotch
Scotch whisky is primarily distilled from malted barley and can only be made in Scotland. You should never call Scotch whisky anything other than whisky—without the “e”. If you’re lucky enough to know a Scot, they’re likely to call it whisky, and seldom Scotch, but either label is okay.

Whisky has a smoky finish, which is distinctive to the drink but, confusingly, it can taste like bourbon.

Bourbon
Bourbon is whiskey, with the “e”, and is American, quite possibly from Kentucky. Because our friends in America grow quite a lot of corn, bourbon is distilled from it. That gives it a distinctive, sweet palette. If you’re drinking a Tennessee whiskey, it’s been charcoal-filtered before making its way into your glass.

Just to make this really complex, rye whiskey is made from, well, rye, and possibly comes from Canada. You can tell rye apart from bourbon due to its slightly spicier flavour.

And Finally
All of this can be a little confusing, but to settle your debate over these lively beverages, a little bit of perspective on age.

Whisky came first—thanks to Christian monks from Europe, but humans have been distilling for thousands of years—and has been made in Scotland since at least 1494. The word whisky actually comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, which sounds something like “oosh-ga beh-huh”.

Irish whiskeys came next, and bourbon came along some time in the 18th century. Japanese, Indian and Australian whiskeys (or whiskys) or any of the other of the thousands of other varieties? That’s another post.

Completely lost? Never mind, help yourself to a drink. Cheers.

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