Dark liquors, such as bourbon, rye, and scotch are seeing a resurgence of sorts in the greater spirits market. Once a drink seen as a “man’s” drink, inappropriate for anyone other than older, burly men with sordid backgrounds, these darker liquors are becoming popular amongst a younger generation with a variety of backgrounds.
Some of this resurgence can be attributed to the “craft” cocktail trend we have seen come about of late. These cocktails take drinks that have been around for quite some time, like the aptly named Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, and turn them into something trendy enough for anyone to imbibe. Advertising campaigns that make dark liquor “sexy”, such as the Jim Beam bourbon ads featuring a dark and smoky looking Mila Kunis, have made liquors like bourbon far more attractive to women and men who may have been previously scared off by their misconceptions of dark liquors. Finally, the influx of local distilleries has made spirits in general far more popular amongst the crowd known to frequent vineyards and breweries for tastings. All these aspects have combined to create an environment ripe for the taking amongst dark liquor brands.
While bourbon, rye, and scotch have similar coloring, the three are different otherwise. Each brings its own ingredients and taste to the table of dark spirits, making them unique in many ways and similar in others. Let’s look at what makes each of these liquors different from each other and the aspects that bring them together. We will review the ingredients, distillation process, and flavor profile of each. Once you’re done reading this, you will look like a genius at your next distillery tasting tour!
Wait, What Happened to the ‘E’ on Certain Whiskey Labels?
Let’s get the first major secret out of the way. Whiskey, or whisky, is a general term used for the greater genre that contains bourbon, scotch, and rye. That’s right, all three are types of whiskey. Now, what makes one whiskey (note the E) and the other whisky? Well, it’s as simple as geography. That’s right, if it was produced in the United States, it gets the extra E. If it was produced outside the U.S.A., then it goes by whisky. Simple enough, right?
What Makes Bourbon, Bourbon, Scotch, Scotch and Rye, Rye?
On to the particulars of each type of whisk(e)y. Let’s start with bourbon. It originates from an area once known as “Old Bourbon”, Kentucky. You will notice a pattern in the naming of certain types of whiskey. There are a couple aspects that are required for a spirit to be considered bourbon. First, it must be made from corn. Specifically, the mash must be at least 51% corn. Secondly, bourbon must be stored in charred oak containers (again, made famous by Mila Kunis) and cannot contain any additive ingredients. There are actual laws that dictate this! One little-known fact in addition to the many you will see here, bourbon can be made anywhere in America if it follows the laws of how to make it. It does not have to be made in Kentucky.
On to scotch whisky. Again, some rules and laws govern what can be called scotch. It must be from, you guessed it, Scotland. Next, it must be at least three years aged in its cask. You will often see a numbering following the name on a bottle of scotch. The number indicates how long it has been aged. Scotch is typically made from primarily malted barley. Leading to its slightly less sweet taste than the corn-based bourbon.
Finally, our old friend rye. Popularly called rye whiskey, it is typically from either the United States or Canada. The U.S. version has a set of rules stating it must contain at least 51% rye and aged longer than two years. The rye wheat brings the “bite” that you notice when drinking rye whiskey. Canadian rye whisky has no such protocol and can sometimes be discovered to contain no rye in distillation. One should assume that Canadian whisky did not follow the American “rye rules”, certainly if you notice it is smooth with no spice or bite. Rye whiskey is making a comeback, as it lost quite a bit of popularity to the American bourbon in the 1930s or so. This can be directly attributed to the “corn boom” in the U.S., making bourbon ingredients less expensive and easily accessible. Now that is a fun fact at a bar, is it not?!
How Are They Made?
Whiskeys, or whiskies (that’s the plural of the non-American version), have a similar distillation process throughout the genre. While whiskeys and whiskies have many regulations ensuring consistency to their name, they can see major similarities at distillation. Whiskey is distilled in stills, commonly made with numerous copper components. This allows the removal of sulfur and the bad taste those compounds bring along.
Important to the finished product, aging plays an enormous role in whisky production. It is commonly aged in oak, either American or French. These barrels, known as casks to those in the know, impart certain flavors on the whiskey through a process called extraction. The cask can play a vital role in the final taste of the whiskey product. Scotch is aged in older oak casks while bourbon and rye are found in newly charred casks.
All whiskey is bottled with a minimum ABV of 40% and a whopping maximum of 94.8%. As you can now see, most whisky lives a similar life. Still, cask, bottle, and then ending up behind a bar somewhere.
How Do I Tell Them Apart Without Looking?
With liquors of the same general color, it can be extremely difficult to tell them apart by looking at them in a glass. However, the bottle usually gives their identities away rather quickly. How cool would it be if you could have three shot glasses set in front of you to taste, and you could tell everyone which spirit each one is without a single hint? This is how to tell them apart by simply tasting them.
If you have the three sitting next to each other, just remember this: bourbon will be sweeter than scotch, scotch will be sweeter than rye. Taste all three and you should be able to discern them easily. If not, keep trying until you get it right.
Now Go Impress Your Friends and Bar Mates
You have now been given enough information to be able to tell the difference between bourbon, rye, and scotch. Hopefully, you have learned a few things along the way about their background as well. Here is a handy chart to compare the three dark liquors. Study it, learn it, and go impress everyone at the bar. Rest assured, this is the one-time study and learning will be fun!
Dark Liquors Comparison Chart
Type of Spirit
New Charred Cask
2 Years Minimum
New Charred Cask
Spicy, Lots of Bite
2 Years Minimum
Smokey, Less Sweet
3 Years Minimum