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Scotch vs. whiskey: a complete breakdown

Even though Scotch whisky and American whiskey may look similar on the surface, sophisticated sippers know the differences are both simple and complex. All whiskey starts out the same, which is the uncomplicated part. It’s a distilled spirit made from fermented grains and aged in wooden barrels or casks. Here’s where things start to get complicated. All Scotch is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Scotch. The different history, styles, taste, and labels can be confusing to even the most experienced connoisseur. So, pour yourself a glass and enjoy this complete breakdown of the differences between Scotch vs. whiskey. 

First, is it whisky or whiskey?

The short answer is it depends on who you ask and where they’re from. The spelling is linked to its country of origin. An easy way to remember whether it’s whisky or whiskey is to think of how the countries are spelled. Ireland and the United States both have an “e” in their name and therefore spell it whiskey. Canada, Scotland and Japan do not have an “e” in their name and therefore go with whisky as the correct spelling. 

Whiskey lore says the spelling contrast goes way back to different translations of the Irish or Gaelic words for whisk(e)y. Other experts believe the Irish distillers added the “e” as a way to differentiate their product from competing whisky brands.

To this day, some brands continue to use the spelling as a way to differentiate, which is why you should go off the origin and style before buying. Don’t just go off the spelling alone as some brands break from tradition when it comes to their product names. For example, Maker’s Mark, an American whiskey, opts for the “whisky” spelling, even though it’s made here in the United States. For the sake of this breakdown, each spelling is used to describe the two styles of whiskey.

Speaking of history, here’s where Scotch and whiskey originated

Scotch vs. whiskey, which came first? Believe it or not, whiskey as we know it first originated in Ireland. The word whiskey comes from the Irish phrase “Uisce beatha” which means “water of life.” Irish whiskey was first created in Europe around the 12th century. As North America evolved, whiskey-making skills followed and rye whiskey first made its debut in the early 1600s. Bourbon followed in the early 1800s.

History notes claim that Irish whiskey inspired Scotch. Irish whiskey was introduced in Scotland in the late 1400s. The Scots, being the ever-effusive drinkers that they were, loved the whiskey so much they experimented with the process and decided to put their own spin on the drink. Peat moss was added to the distillation process and eventually Scotch became so popular their parliament affixed a tax to it in the mid-1600s. 

How is each type of spirit made, anyway?

In its most basic form, whiskey is a spirit that is distilled from fermented grains. The most common grains used in whiskey-making are barley, corn, wheat and rye. The combination of grains used is what makes the mash bill and influences not only the resulting flavor but also the specific type of whiskey it is. Once whiskey is distilled, it’s always aged in wooden barrels or casks that are often charred on the inside. In addition to the grains, the type of barrel used to age the whiskey also contributes heavily to the overall flavor. As the spirit ages, the contact with the wood causes it to darken in color and also adds hints of caramel and vanilla. 

As you might have guessed, the Scots take great pride in their spirit, and have very specific rules in place for whisky making to maintain their high standards for quality. The Scotch Whisky Regulations is a statutory instrument that regulates the production, labeling, advertising and packaging of Scotch whisky. 

Scotch, therefore, is primarily made from malted barley but occasionally uses grain (corn or wheat), and can either be a single malt/grain whisky or a blended whisky. Single malt or single grain are made at a single distillery while blended whiskies are made at multiple distilleries and then mixed together. Some distilleries use a peat fire to dry the barley before the mash bill is made. This results in a distinct, smoky taste. Distillers must also age the whisky in an oak barrel for at least three years, although it’s often aged for much longer (as many as 50 years), and include an age statement on each bottle. 

American whiskey on the other hand uses a combination of cereal grain in order to make the mash bill. The most common types of American whiskey are:

  • Bourbon: mash bill of at least 51 percent corn
  • Malt whiskey: mash bill of at least 51 percent malted barley
  • Rye whiskey: mash bill of at least 51 percent rye
  • Rye malt whiskey: mash bill of at least 51 percent malted rye
  • Wheat whiskey: mash bill of at least 51 percent wheat 

American whiskey is then aged in new charred-oak barrels which is where the aroma and a major source of flavor is derived. If the aging of American whiskey exceeds two years or more, the whiskey is traditionally designated as a “straight” whiskey. For example, a rye whiskey that is aged for at least two years is a “straight rye whiskey.” 

Most importantly, here’s what you can expect to taste

Arguably the best part about enjoying whiskey is the taste. How is the taste when it comes to Scotch vs. whiskey? It goes without saying that the flavor will vary with each style of whiskey. However, there are general distinctions that are true for all whiskey and Scotch. American whiskey is usually more mellow, whereas Scotch is known for its smoky finish. And the barrel or cask plays a big role in impacting the taste. American oak gives the whiskey a sweet and spicy flavor. European oak makes for a drier whisky. 

Ultimately, the taste difference boils down to the distillation process which imbues the spirit with flavors such as caramel, vanilla, toasted almond, coconut, maple syrup and spice. Generally with American whiskey, bourbon is sweeter with notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel. Rye whiskey is less sweet and may leave hints of herbs and spice. Tennessee whiskey is lighter than bourbon and usually has hints of charcoal or burnt wood because of its distinct distillation process.

Scotch fans may say it’s more of an acquired taste because of its bold and distinguishable flavor. For blended Scotch, you can expect malty and buttery flavors with a spicy but smooth finish. Single malt Scotch is best described as peaty or smoky with a woody finish.

Experience the glorious styles of this spirit for yourself

We’ve explained the differences between Scotch vs. whiskey, down to the spelling, history, flavor, and distillation process, but if you want to experience the spirit in an entirely new way, check out Barrel Global. We’re on a mission to make whiskey barrel ownership accessible to collectors worldwide. As the first ever global marketplace for whiskey barrels, you can connect with distilleries and collectors around the world to build your own portfolio. For a whiskey experience unlike any other, request access today.     

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