Bourbon Vs. Whiskey, Whisky, Scotch, And Rye: All The Differences

whiskey and glasses; green filter

🥃 Quick summary

Whiskey is a general term for an alcoholic liquor made from fermented mashed grains. Bourbon is the term for a whiskey made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn. Bourbon was traditionally made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and most bourbon is still produced in the state of Kentucky.

A word lover walks into a bar and asks for a drink made from fermented mashed grains. What exactly will get poured into their glass—whiskey or bourbon? And what’s the difference anyway?

In this article, we will drink responsibly as we take a shot at explaining what whiskey and bourbon are, what the differences between them are, and how they are different from other similar drinks, such as scotch and rye. 

whiskey vs. whisky

Before we explain specifically what whiskey is, we should begin with the spelling. In the United States, the spelling whiskey is preferred and is what you’ll see on labels of American-made whiskeys. You’ll also see this spelling on Irish whiskeys, as it’s the preferred spelling in Ireland.

Outside of these two countries, though, the spelling whisky is typically preferred to refer to the same general type of drink. Countries that produce this drink, such as Scotland, Canada, and Japan, typically use the whisky spelling on labels.  

In general, whiskey and whisky are different spellings for the same general type of alcoholic beverage. The plural form of whiskey is whiskeys, and the plural of whisky is whiskies

Even when using the same spelling, specific drinks may have differences from each other. For example, the United States and Ireland both use the whiskey spelling, but the drinks themselves often have different production and distillation methods that will make them look and taste different from each other. 

Spelling differences aren’t uncommon between different dialects of the same language—take British and American English, for example.

What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?

Whiskey is a general term for an alcoholic liquor made from fermented grain mash. The particular grain (or grain mixture) that is traditionally used will often depend on what is readily available in the local area. For example, Irish whiskey is typically made from barley, while American whiskey is usually made from corn or rye. Most whiskeys are aged in wooden containers and almost always are at least 40% alcohol by volume. 

Is bourbon a whiskey? Yes. Bourbon, also known as bourbon whiskey, is a whiskey that is made primarily from corn. In fact, bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn in order for it to be called bourbon in the United States. Bourbon production also makes use of particular types of barrels and particular distillation and bottling methods. However, the corn requirement is the main aspect that makes bourbon unique from other types of whiskey. 

The most common theory behind the name bourbon is that the whiskey is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, which claims to be the place where this type of whiskey was first made. Bourbon whiskey was historically produced mainly in Bourbon County but is now made in distilleries across the state of Kentucky. Speaking of Kentucky…

Does bourbon have to be made in Kentucky?

Kentucky claims to be the birthplace of bourbon whiskey, and the drink is a major part of Kentucky’s economy. However, bourbon can be produced anywhere as long as it follows the specific corny requirements mentioned earlier. That being said, Kentucky claims that 95% percent of the world’s bourbon is made in the state. 

bourbon vs. whiskey vs. scotch

Scotch whisky, commonly known as scotch, is another specific kind of whiskey. While bourbon uses corn as the primary grain, Scotch whisky is typically made mostly of malted barley. Like bourbon, Scotch whisky also has specific distillation methods and requirements. Just as importantly, a drink can only be called Scotch whisky if it is made in—you guessed it—Scotland. And note that it’s spelled whisky, with no e.  

rye whiskey vs. bourbon

Rye whiskey, often shortened to just rye, is a type of whiskey that must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% rye. Rye often uses a different, specific distillation and aging process as well. And at least in the United States, it’s rye whiskey. When it’s made elsewhere, such as in Canada, it’s rye whisky.

Fermented grains aren’t just for sipping, as anyone who’s baked bread knows! Learn about terms to describe bread and how it’s made.

Other types of whiskey

There are more whiskeys beyond bourbon, scotch, and rye, though those tend to be the most well known. Often, whiskeys (or whiskies) are named for the place they come from or for the ingredients used to make them. 

Some other types of whiskey include:

Having no trouble keeping the types of whiskey straight? Try the wild world of cocktail names.

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