And how about rye and Scotch while we’re at it?
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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?
First off, whiskey (spelled whisky outside the US) is the distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash (or sour mash)—it can be barley, corn, rye, wheat, etc.—and is the broader beverage category that these other spirits fall into. Whiskey is often aged in wooden barrels which impart color and flavor, and when it’s first distilled, it’s referred to as moonshine, or white whiskey, and is clear in color. The real differentiating points between these different types of alcohol are the type of grain that’s used in the fermentation process, as well as place of origin. (But also, Canadian whisky is its own thing entirely, and often unfairly looked down upon due to being blended whisky.)
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 barrels; 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.
Bourbon is a drink that’s often associated with the South (especially Kentucky) and has been around since the mid-1800s. Kentucky is the home of the nearly $9B bourbon industry, and there are almost 70 distilleries based there as of 2018. In the past five years, production of bourbon has increased by more than 115 percent with many artisanal brands and small batch distilleries opening throughout the state.
Tennessee whiskey (sometimes incorrectly referred to as Tennessee bourbon, though the difference is mostly in the marketing) is made by two main, major producers: Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is made up of 30 distilleries across the state and their guild maintains that Tennessee whiskey be composed of 51 percent corn, similar to bourbon. Interestingly enough, Jameson, the legendary Irish distillery, mostly uses charred bourbon barrels from the United States and sherry barrels from France to age their iconic Irish whiskey. They also use a combination of malted barley and unmalted or “green” barley, and the mixture of aged grains adds to the distinctive taste of this memorable drink.
Scotch is whisky (from Scotland, so spelled without the second “e”) that is aged longer, which causes it to develop a distinct smoky flavor—it is often considered an “acquired taste,” and on first sip, you can tell that Scotch means serious business. It’s often served neat or on the rocks, and isn’t mixed into cocktails as frequently as the other spirits because of its unique flavor profile and taste.
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.
Celebrity mixologist Matt Seigel, a former bartender at New York’s Eleven Madison Park and owner of the In the Spirit Of Hospitality group, discusses the differences between bourbon and rye, saying: “I happen to prefer bourbon for my Old Fashioned and rye for my Manhattan. I like my Old Fashioned a little on the sweeter side, hence the corn vs. the rye. The main difference I’d say is sweetness; as previously stated, bourbon is sweeter and more round, where rye, to me, is a grain that’s a bit spicier or more peppery and is more linear. I tend to think of tastes in terms of shapes and colors sometimes, so round vs. linear is how I tend to think of bourbon vs. rye.”
If you already like bourbon and rye whiskey, then moving on to Scotch is the obvious next step. But if you’re scared to take the plunge, Seigel recommends taking baby steps: “Start with a less smoky Scotch (something from the Highlands maybe; I happen to really like Highland Park—and stay away from Islay if you aren’t ready for lots of peaty smoke). When using it in a cocktail, try rinsing your glass with it; it adds a great nose and doesn’t overpower the rest of your ingredients.
You can sip straight bourbon, Scotch, or any of their fine fellows in the brown liquor category. But if you want to mix things up, check out seven cocktail recipes featuring whiskey: Scotch, rye, and bourbon, and you’ll be all set for happy hour.
The Debonair is made with a single malt Scotch combined with some ginger liqueur for an added kick. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Get our Debonair Cocktail recipe.
2. The Sazerac
The iconic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac is made with rye, absinthe, and two types of bitters: Angostura and Peychaud’s. Get our Sazerac Cocktail recipe.
3. Brown Derby
A refreshing summer pick, the Brown Derby is made with bourbon, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and a touch of honey to add extra sweetness. (And don’t forget about the mint julep, the bourbon-heavy drink of the Kentucky Derby that’s also great all summer long.) Get our Brown Derby Cocktail recipe.
An alternative take on a traditional Manhattan, the Black Metal Manhattan features amaro in addition to the sweet vermouth, as well as a pour of nocino, a green walnut liqueur. Get our Black Metal Manhattan Cocktail recipe.
5. Vieux Carré
Another classic New Orleans cocktail which features rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, as well as a teaspoon of Bénédictine liqueur, which adds a light floral note. Get our Vieux Carré Cocktail recipe.
A summer crowd pleaser, this bourbon-based drink has homemade rhubarb syrup, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a dash of absinthe. Get our Touch of Evil Cocktail recipe.
7. Whiskey Sour
Throw out your sour mix and start off your whiskey sour right—combine fresh lemon juice, a teaspoon of simple syrup, and two ounces of rye or whiskey, then garnish with fresh citrus. Shake with ice and for some extra flair, add a maraschino cherry. Get our Whiskey Sour Cocktail recipe. Bourbon drinkers can use their favorite distilled spirit instead.
Caitlin M. O’Shaughnessy is a New York City–based food writer and editor at Penguin who has worked on and recipe-tested several cookbooks. She is currently in search of NYC’s best ramen, and is one of the few people who admit to disliking brunch.