What’s the difference between bourbon, scotch, and rye? We’ve got answers.
For many otherwise adventurous drinkers, whiskey is an unapproachable black box. Those who love it seem to have a Ph.D. in advanced liquor studies, and it can feel like you have to learn a whole new language just to drink it! But whether you like elaborate cocktails or simple sippers, there’s a whiskey for you – no degree required. All you need is a little basic information to start drinking.
First things first: whiskey and whisky are the same thing! This umbrella term for an aged, malted grain spirit means the same whether it’s got an extra E or not – that’s purely a regional preference (the U.S. adds an E, Scotland omits it). Whiskey originated in Scotland and Ireland nearly 1,000 years ago, but today is made all over the world, from Tennessee to Taiwan.
There are three primary types of whiskey: bourbon, scotch, and rye. Other bottles that are just labeled as “whiskey” may be made in one of those three styles but in a nontraditional location, or may be a more creative concoction – read the label for clues about ingredients and aging to get a sense of its flavor profile.
Here are the Cliffs Notes on each of the three types to help you decide which whiskey may be right for you, plus a little vocabulary to help decipher those labels.
What it tastes like: caramel, honey, vanilla
What it is: Scottish whiskey aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years, and often a lot longer! Its main ingredient is malted barley, which is sometimes dried over a peat fire to add an intense smoky flavor. While it’s notorious for being an acquired taste, don’t be scared of scotch. To get started, try one from the Speyside region (Glenlivet and Macallan are two famous Speysides), which is unpeated and sweet.
What it tastes like: Campfire smoke, tropical fruit
Use it in: The Penicillin, a modern classic cocktail made with honey, ginger, and lemon juice. It’s so named because it’s guaranteed to cure what ails you!
What it is: Just like rye bread, whiskey made primarily with rye grain is savory and complex. Extremely popular before Prohibition (George Washington made rye!), rye fell out of favor in the 20th century and has only recently been rediscovered by whiskey connoisseurs. “Canadian whiskey” is often rye by another name.
What it tastes like: Spice, black pepper, vanilla, cocoa
Use it in: Rye is the traditional spirit in Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds, where its savory character contrasts nicely with sweetness. Try it in my Spicy Chai Latte – it adds an amazing depth of flavor!