The name whisky originated from the Latin “Aqua vitae”, which translated into slightly different versions of Gaelic in the British Isles – Uisge Bethea in Scotland and Uisce Bethea in Ireland – before being further converted into the name “whisky” in Scotland and “whiskey” in Northern Ireland. Over time, the types of grains used to distill whisky, the type of stills used, the distillation process and the various methods of ageing all evolved at different paces in different countries where grain-based spirits became popular. The end result today is a wide variety of products available on a global basis – including the Scotch whisky, manufactured in Scotland, and Bourbon Whiskey, manufactured in the US.
Aficionados will debate about which is better – Scotch or Bourbon? While a purist may maintain that an aged single-malt Scotch will have more “heft” than an average Bourbon, there are many who will argue that high-quality Bourbon can beat medium quality Scotches any day – blended Scotches for sure, possibly even the lesser quality single-malt offerings. The answer, as always, may depend on acquired taste and how you drink your whisky.
Scotch and Bourbon have a Common Origin
Whisky came to the British Isles from the Romans, likely in the 13th or 14th century. Specific mentions were initially found in 1406 in Ireland and in Scotland some 90 years later – but scholars generally agree that the spirit had been available for some time prior to that.
The initial lead in terms of high-quality distilled spirits was taken by Ireland, where big brand names began to sprout up in the latter half of the 18th century – for example, Roe & Co. was founded in 1757, Jameson in 1780 and Powers in 1791.
During this period, Scottish whisky makers were generally not known for superior products and their smoky, peaty tasting whisky had not caught the popular imagination. Starting in 1860, after the passage of the Spirits Act, Scottish whisky makers went on a blended Scotch making rampage, which poached the established market for Irish whiskies by flooding the market with cheap whisky made from a blend of malt and cheaper grain alcohol. By this time, the Coffey continuous still distillation process had also come into vogue, increasing the volume of cheap grain alcohol and further stoking the fire.
Paths Start to Diverge: The Role Played by the Scots-Irish
From early on, even as the spirit was generally adopted as “whisky”, without an “e”, a distinction was made up in Northern Ireland, where the local Scots-Irish people proceeded to an “e” into the name. We don’t know the exact cause, but the reasons may be rooted in a stricter adherence to the Irish Gaelic tongue.
These same Scots-Irish, who were persecuted due to their Protestant faith, soon emigrated in large numbers to the USA, taking that spelling (i.e. whiskey) with them. In the Appalachian areas in the New World, the Scots-Irish and other immigrants soon set to making grain alcohol in abundance, using whatever materials they could find. It so happened that corn was readily available, so it became a favoured starting material in the manufacture of what came to be known as Bourbon (see below).
Post the 1860 Act and the introduction of continuous still produced whiskies, Irish distillers saw a need to distinguish their traditional, pricier product from the new, cheaper versions flooding in from Scotland. This tension continued for close to half a century.
The situation turned worse due to a series of events in the early part of the 20th century. First, a 1908 Royal Decree allowed spirits made from malt or other grains and manufactured by either pot stills or continuous stills, to be called the common name of whisky – thus legitimizing the claims of newcomers, including Scotch and Bourbon makers. Then, the US imposed a Prohibition on Alcohol (1920) and Ireland gained independence (1937). These events crashed the market for Irish distilleries, causing a mass consolidation at the manufacturing end.
These tumultuous events finalized the rift between Scotch Whisky and Irish/Bourbon Whiskey. The big Irish distillers began to call their product Irish Whiskey (with the added “e”), adopting patriotic vibes to aid their product marketing. The Scotch makers, who by now had come into their own, saw no further need to kowtow to the Irish, so they froze on their brand marketing.
Scotch Whiskies gained popularity not only in Scotland and England but its influence spread as the British Empire introduced whisky to its dominions such as India and Canada. There were principally two types of grains being used at this time that were labelled as Scotch Whisky – Single-Malt (manufactured from a mash of malt barley and water) or a blend of single-malt barley and mash from other cereal grains – which produced a wide range of Blended Scotches.
How Bourbon Carved Out an Identity
Across the Atlantic, Prohibition ended in 1933 and the popularity of Bourbon Whiskey as a “Made in America” brand began to skyrocket. This process culminated in 1964 when the US Congress declared bourbon to be a “distinctive product of the United States” and asked for the ban on imports of foreign liquors under the label of Bourbon.
While the Americanized version of Bourbon is a relatively recent phenomenon, now protected by US law, the methods of distilling grain alcohol and ageing it in casks has been prevalent in Europe for at least three to five centuries. The local communities that pushed outwards from the Eastern colonies and settled in Appalachia consisted of Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish and English folks, among others, who brought the tradition of grain alcohol making with them from their roots in the mother country. They used local ingredients and corn happened to be plentiful.
So, bourbon was really just a name given to local whisky in Kentucky, the name first appeared around 1850 and “Kentucky Whiskey” became a brand some 20 years later. While Elijah Craig or Jacob Spears are sometimes credited with the “discovery” of Bourbon, most historians do not buy this. There have been a few explanations given, mostly to do with the commercial routes through which the product was traded.
First, a significant amount of the activity took place in Old Bourbon County, which was one of the largest counties in Kentucky and a place where many of the early arrivals settled. The name was from the French Royal family. Some believe that the name derived from master distillers there. This is not an easy position to support, given that there were no distillery activities for a 94-year period between 1919 (when Prohibition was imposed in Kentucky) and 2014 – though things did kick off there.
The second theory is that the barrels were loaded on to riverboats for transportation and at the time, “Old Bourbon” was stamped on the barrels to mark the place of origin of the cargo. The third is a variation of this, which focused on New Orleans, the port which received Kentucky whiskies. Some think that Bourbon Whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, due to the popularity of Kentucky whiskey over there as a cheap alternative to French cognac.
The Main Differences Between Scotch Whisky and Bourbon Whiskey
It is to be known that not every distillery sticks to convention. For example, Makers Mark calls their bourbons “Whiskey” with an “e” added – so, while the spelling often provides a clue as to origin, it’s not 100% foolproof as a measure.
The main differences, or lack thereof, between Scotch and Bourbon are as follows:
(a) Country of Origin
Scotch Whisky is made in Scotland, by law, using Scottish malts and barleys; Bourbon Whiskey is made in the USA.
(b) Grain Mix
Scotch Whisky is made from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added); while Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn by law. While all distillers utilize certain techniques in mixing their grains, single malt barleys are perhaps more selectively chosen and prepared compared to the run-of-the-mill Bourbon. Corn is ubiquitous in the US, but malt barley grown in the cold Scottish climate imparts a flavour that is unmistakable.
A unique feature is the mash that is introduced into the first still at the beginning of distillation. One of the styles that has become common in the US is the “sour mash” – a method whereby a mash of “spent” mash (distillers’ spent grain) is reintroduced back into the mix at the bottom of the first still throughout the continuous distillation process. The acid content of the sour mash is believed to kill yeast and certain harmful bacteria – additionally, it produces a distinctive flavour which is now common in many Bourbons.
(d) The Water
A difference may be introduced into the flavour of the final product by the water used in the distillation. Many Scottish distilleries will wax lyrical about the near-miraculous taste and qualities of the water available locally. While cold mountain snow melted water has a wonderful sound to it, the average water used in distilleries follow two criteria: (a) it must meet European standards of potability and (b) it should be “soft” to aid the distillation process. It’s unlikely that every bottle of Scotch is made from magical water.
With Bourbon, over 90% of the distilleries that produce the spirit are located in Kentucky. Most experts attribute this not only to the history and synergies that have developed but also to the water that is available locally – cold iron-free water that has passed through the filter of the limestone formations found in the area.
The impact of the water is probably lessened due to the double (sometimes triple) distillation that whiskies go through, along with filtration for some brands.
(e) Method of Distillation
This is not so much a regulation, but more of what is practised in the market. Scotch Whisky is almost inevitably manufactured using copper pot stills, which creates smaller batches at a higher price. Bourbon distillers have more readily adopted Coffey’s continuous distillation method – while copper is the material commonly used, it is not unusual to find steel parts mixed in along certain parts of the distillation equipment. While both types are typically double distilled, the use of two pot stills for Scotch and a beer still followed by a pot still for Bourbon creates certain distinctions.
The bottom line is that more Bourbon tends to be mass-produced, while higher-end Scotch is crafted in smaller batches. Economies of scale and cost consciousness are much more of a factor for Bourbon, which does not have the international or even local branding to charge a premium price; whereas high end (e.g. single-malt) Scotch employs more of an artisan-style manufacturing and commands a premium in prices.
(f) Ageing – Duration
By law, all Scotch must be aged for at least three years in oak wood barrels. Most Scotches are aged for a far longer period, between 10 to 30 years in either used Bourbon casks or used Sherry casks. Bourbon has no time specified for ageing, some whiskies can be released after being aged for as little as three months. The two regulations that are imposed are: (a) bourbon must be aged for two years in order to be labelled as “straight bourbon”, and (b) bourbon that has been aged for less than four years must be marked as such on the label.
This is an important factor since whisky coming out of the distillery has much more of a distinctive fruity, grassy, sweet/tangy flavour – this gets dulled down as it interacts with charred oak wood. The longer it happens, the more the oak wood’s smoky and peaty flavours interact with and temper the flavour of the fresh distillate. So, Scotch will tend to be heavier, smokier and peatier compared to bourbon. Also, vanilla flavours creep in along with different fruity tones from the sherry casks.
(g) Ageing – Type of Casks
There is an important distinction here. Bourbon is distilled in new oak wood casks, typically American Oaks. New casks impart some distinctive flavours – which is one of the reasons you should not leave whisky in new casks for too long, it may overwhelm the natural flavour of the distilled spirit. Scotch, on the other hand, is brewed in either used Bourbon or Sherry casks. Prior to use, the insides are re-charred, creating a fresh surface for the whisky to interact with. But what’s also important is that Bourbon casks will impose a vanilla flavour and sherry casks a fruity flavour along with the vanilla. Given the amount of time the whisky stays in the flasks, the two influences (distillate flavour vs. cask flavour) reach a point of symbiosis where you get the best of both worlds.
Differences in Taste
Due to the different grain mashes used, the differences in the water and the ageing process, Bourbon and Scotch whiskies vary in taste to a marked degree. Scotch, especially single-malt Scotch, has a heavier, smoky and peaty flavour. While some Scotches may have a bright and fruitier tone, they typically tend to have the vanilla flavour imparted by bourbon casks or the slight hint of fruity undertones imported by a sherry cask. They also tend to carry slightly more impurities and esters than bourbon due to the pot stills employed in distillation – these flavours tend to enhance the aroma, flavour, smoothness and mouthfeel of a good Scotch.
The above is not true of cheaper blended Scotches, since they are by definition blended in with grain alcohols.
A Bourbon, on the other hand, will be distinctly sweeter, often tangier due to the sour mash factor, and also be lighter in colour and texture. The mouthfeel tends to leave a slightly more burning sensation in the back of the mouth – making them less smooth. The fruity overtones tend to be as much as Scotch but may stand out more due to the lack of smokiness or peaty wood flavours.
The Verdict: Which is Better?
From the discussions above, it should be clear why Single Malt Scotches are often regarded as sipping whiskies – the differences in flavour and mouthfeel let them be enjoyed neat, on a little ice or with a few drops of water mixed in. Some cheaper varieties of alcohol, including Bourbon, may be pounded neat, but it’s far more common to see them being smothered in ice, soda, colas or water, or being used as the base for mixed drinks such as whiskey sours.
To a purist, the taste meter probably tilts towards high-end Scotch whisky. To someone who is used to the taste and sweet flavours of their favourite Bourbon, the smokiness often found in Scotch may be a turn-off.
Our verdict? To each his own!