Could scotch, rye and bourbon be the same liquor, with different names?
No. The reality is while they all represent whiskeys, they differ in their spellings, geographies and their ingredients. Whiskeys come in multiple forms, and we will help you distinguish between the three prominent types: Scotch, Bourbon and Rye.
First, the credit for different spellings goes to geography. Stateside, “whiskey” is produced, while many countries call their product “whisky.”
However you spell it, whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of grain mash – which could be any or a combination of barley, corn, wheat or rye – and is typically aged in white oak casks, giving it a distinctive brown color. Whiskey is a broad category, so it has a lot of variations and differences in color, taste and smell.
The Pig, a bar in Washington D.C., allows you to choose from over 70 options on their menu. It celebrates different shades and flavors over a variety of whiskeys. Some of these are perfect for sipping solo while the others may be ideal for blending into another drink.
If you want to sample a classic whiskey-based cocktail, the Boulevardier could be your go-to. It combines a sound dose of whiskey with equal parts Campari, an Italian dark red liqueur, and sweet vermouth, a fortified wine with flavors of flowers, seeds and herbs.
Now that we have some of the basics covered, let’s tackle the subject at hand. Here it goes:
Scotch is whisky-without-the-e. Technically, it must be produced in Scotland for it to be called Scotch.
It is made mostly from malted barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. You might already know it, but for the uninitiated, the number after the name on a Scotch bottles tells the number of years it’s been aged.
You might confuse some Scotch with Bourbon, but Scotch has a signature smokiness that lasts at the terminal of a tasting – this is a reason why some people avoid it, but for others, it is what makes the experience a better one.
Scotch can be ordered “neat,” without ice, or “on the rocks,” with ice. A neat Scotch is usually preferred, but you may add some drops of water to reveal the flavors of the liquor better.
Purists like their Scotch unaltered because of its strong flavor that doesn’t quite blend with other drinks. But, the Rob Roy – named after Scottish hero Robert Roy MacGregor – is a classic cocktail preferred by many whiskey drinkers. It is made with Scotch, Angostura bitters, maraschino cherry, and sweet vermouth.
The name comes from an area designated as “Old Bourbon” in Kentucky.
But, what makes Bourbon different from Scotch?
The answer is, surprisingly, the law. Making Bourbon is an exceedingly technical and rigid process that requires the whiskey to meet stringent criteria.
The Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon specify whether the whiskey is a Bourbon or not.
To call a whiskey a Bourbon, the mash, or the mixture of grains that distills the product, must be at least 51 percent corn. The rest of the mash is typically balanced by malted barley and either rye or wheat. The mash must also be distilled to (at most) 160 proof and put into the barrel at most 125 proof. The whiskey must also not contain any additives at all.
The distillate, by law, ought to be aged in a “new” charred oak barrel; the barrels are mostly white oak but can be any type of oak.
If your kitchen whiskey meets all these standards, congratulations, you can call it a Bourbon, but you have also broken the law, so keep that happiness contained within yourself.
Scotch and Bourbon are both satisfying and go particularly well with spice.
If you are looking to try out your new knowledge, Bottlefork in Chicago boasts the spirits in two drinks:
The “Differences of Character” contains Bank Note 5 Year Blended Scotch Whisky, Allspice Dram, allspice flavoured liqueur, lemon, honey and ghost chili.
“For the Allocation” contains Very Old Barton Bourbon, Génépi des Alpes, an Italian herbal liqueur, Gran Classico, and Regan’s Orange Bitters.
If you’d like to have something a little sweeter, you can try the Apple Barrel at Whetstone Tavern, Philadelphia.
And, if you are looking for a quintessential Bourbon experience, the Old Fashioned could be your new buddy. Sugar and bitters are muddled with soda, topped with the deliciousness and flavors of ice cream and Bourbon, garnished with an orange wheel and cherry.
Rye, a grass, belongs to the wheat family and is closely related to barley.
Rye whiskey can either be American whiskey, or Canadian whisky. The American whiskey must be distilled from a minimum of 51 percent rye and aged for at least two years, whereas Canadian whisky-without-the-e may or may not actually contain any rye.
Rye, full in body and spice, had taken a backseat to its closest cousin, Bourbon, ever since the U.S. corn production expanded in the decades that followed Prohibition. It has been making a slow yet stable comeback in the bars across the country in the last decade.
Rye is known for a bold, slightly burning bite that cuts right through sweet mixers. It makes for intense beverages with many layers of flavor.
To taste the wonders of Rye, here are a few drinks that feature the spirit:
Jardiniere, San Francisco, serves the Darkest Dawn, which is a rich cocktail made with rye, Nocino walnut liqueur, Barolo Chinato, a fortified wine, and bitters.
Visiting Freemans in NYC can provide an opportunity to try rye whiskey with pomegranate molasses, house-made orange bitters, simple syrup, and lemon.
Vieux Carré is yet another timeless cocktail that you’ll remember. It is a rye-based cocktail named for the French Quarter in New Orleans. The story goes that the drink was invented in the city’s popular Carousel Bar in the 1930s. Traditionally, it is made with rye, Benedictine – a gold coloured, sweet liquor produced initially by Benedictine monks in the 16th century – sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, and Peychaud’s Bitters, which is a lighter, sweeter, and a more floral version of the Angostura bitters originated in New Orleans, around the 1830s, by the Haitian apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud.
Now that you know the differences and some suggested cocktails, you can get set off on an adventure, while creating new, exciting stories from your experiences with different whiskeys.