Scotch vs. Whiskey – What’s the Difference?
Even for the Scotch and whiskey connoisseurs among us, the differences, though sometimes subtle, can be pretty confusing! If you’ve ever scratched your head when it comes to Scotch vs. whiskey (or whisky in Scotland and Canada), this guide is for you.
Learn exactly what these spirits are, their similarities, and how they smell and taste. Then, why not mix up a cocktail with each to see what you most fancy?
When you compare Scotch vs. whiskey, they might seem pretty close. But, there are some key differences that we’ll break down here for you.
Scotch vs. Whiskey and Their Types
What is Scotch?
Scotch is a type of whiskey made in Scotland from grain, malt, or a blend of both, but it’s mostly malted barley. For Scotch to be considered Scotch, it must be aged in oak barrels for three years minimum, though most sits for 12-25 years and even up to 5 decades. It also must have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of at least 40%.
There’s a lot of pride in Scotch, as indicated by the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations that govern everything to do with the spirit and the 130+ Scottish distilleries producing it. Aside from production location, they cover everything to do with processing, bottling, labelling, packaging, and advertising.
What is Whiskey?
Think of whiskey as the broader liquor category that Scotch (and bourbon) fit into. So, all Scotch and bourbon are whiskeys but not the reverse. Whiskey is a spirit made from distilled grain, often malted barley, soaked in hot water. Sugars release before distillers add yeast to ferment sugar into alcohol. Then, they distill the liquor for aging in barrels.
Types of Scotch
There are five different types of Scotch, including three blends that make up about 90% of the Scotch bottles sold each year.
Single malt Scotch is made from water and malted barley only, with a pot still distillation batch process, at a single distillery.
Single grain Scotch is made from water, malted barley, and whole grains or malted or unmalted cereals at a single distillery.
A combination of at least one single malt Scotch with at least one single grain Scotch is known as blended Scotch.
Blended malt Scotch is a combination of at least two single malt Scotches from different distilleries.
A combination of at least two blended single grain Scotches from at least two distilleries is called blended grain Scotch.
Scotch Regions of Scotland
Scotland is the home of Scotch and five areas that bring their own take and approach to the spirit. That said, these geographic boundaries are much less significant today since the Scotch’s traits and characteristics are not as exclusive to each area as they used to be.
This is the world’s most densely populated Scotch region and is famous for its fertile glens. Pear, apple, vanilla, honey, and spice are common in Speyside’s Scotch which is often aged in sherry casks. However, this area is not known for its peat, which is what creates the smokiness of some Scotches.
Highland and the Islands
This flavor-diverse region offers a wide array of Scotches – everything from light and bright to salty and malted pours. There truly is something for every palate here.
If you’re into a gentle, smooth and soft malt, you’re into Lowland Scotch. This area is known for lighter-bodied Scotches in flavors of ginger, cream, honeysuckle, grass, toast, toffee, and cinnamon.
Another island region, Islay is largely involved in Scotch production, particularly the smoky, peated type.
Campbeltown is known for full-flavored Scotches rich in character that span a wide array of flavors. Think fruit, vanilla, smoke, salt, and toffee.
Types of Whiskey
As you’ve learned in this Scotch vs. whiskey showdown, Scotch and all of its variations is really just one type of whiskey. There are a number of others, too.
Exclusive to the US, bourbon cannot legally be called bourbon unless it’s at least 80% ABV. This type of whiskey is made of yeast and grain, with water added at the end of processing. Bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels for no less than two years. Its grain mixture must be at least 51% corn, and the rest is some mix of barley, rye, and wheat.
Rye whiskey from the US comes primarily from Kentucky and is made in new American charred oak barrels. The spirit is at least 51% rye with its remainder mash being corn.
This is simply corn whiskey made in Tennessee. Though it’s similar to bourbon’s distillation, aging, and flavor, Tennessee whiskey goes through a charcoal filtration process.
As the name indicates, Irish whiskey is produced in Ireland. It must have an ABV of no more than 94.8% and be aged for at least three years in wooden casks. Since this type of whiskey usually goes through triple distillation, it comes out smooth and sweet.
You’re not wrong if you’re sensing a pattern here. Canadian whiskey is – you guessed it – distilled in Canada! This type of whiskey gets aged in both old and new barrels of various wood types so that individual flavors don’t overpower the spirit (as can happen when single-wood new barrels are used).
While it’s mostly made from corn, many people call Canadian whiskey rye whiskey (or rye) because rye sometimes gets added to the mash. And just to keep you on your toes, this isn’t the same as rye whiskey from the US. Another distinction here is that the grains are first mashed all together in US distillation processes, while Canadian distilleries mash each grain separately first and then mix them after distillation.
Japanese whiskey is inspired by and similar to Scotch in that it heavily relies on a twice-distilled malted barley mash. There isn’t one particular style of this whiskey type, but it tends to consistently focus on texture and refinement. You might get notes ranging anywhere from fruit, malt, vanilla, spice, and nuts to herbs, citrus, honey, and smoke.
Scent and Taste of Scotch vs. Whiskey
When you look at Scotch vs. whiskey, you might notice a number of scent and flavor differences. Read on to learn more.
Scotch Aroma and Flavor
Scotch typically has a more intense, smoky flavor than whiskey. It’s pretty heavy, full, and distinct especially to newbies who aren’t used to its sharpness.
The spirit’s flavors and aromas are highly affected by its distillation practices, mash bill, and type being produced. The oak wood it sits in, which is Scotland’s required Scotch cask type, and the aging time in this oak play a large role, too. Plus, the barley grain’s exposure to peat smoke in the drying stage ultimately affects Scotch’s flavor.
When drinking Scotch vs. whiskey, you might taste or smell the following:
- Wood (oak or cedar)
- Rubber, fire, or peat/dirt (in a good way!)
- Bread or grain
Whiskey Aroma and Flavor
Whiskey’s flavor and aroma range is huge. It all depends on its type and production process, so there really isn’t a standard whiskey smell or taste. For example, grains can be smoked or unsmoked. Also, many yeast and barrel types can be used, largely impacting a whiskey’s aroma and flavor.
To compare, bourbons are often heavy on the oak, vanilla, and caramel notes while Canadian or rye whiskey is lighter, drier, sharper, and spicier. In Irish whiskey, you’ll find major malt, cream, citrus, and wood flavors.
That said, there is some scent and taste overlap between whiskey types since they all use some form of fermentation and distillation, grain, and cask. All of these things affect aroma and flavor.
The Rob Roy Cocktail
The Rob Roy cocktail dates back to around 1894. It began at the original Waldorf Astoria on Fifth Avenue, NYC, where it was inspired by the Rob Roy operetta performed nearby. While you might not head out to the opera tonight, you can certainly enjoy a Rob Roy – Scotch or whiskey (Manhattan) style.
How to Make a Rob Roy with Scotch
Put 2 ounces of Scotch, ¾-ounces sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of bitters into a mixing glass with ice. Stir for about 30 seconds or until chilled.
Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass, and add two brandied cherries for garnish.
How to Make a Rob Roy with Whiskey
Into an ice-filled mixing glass, combine two ounces of whiskey, one ounce of sweet vermouth, and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters.
Stir well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. For garnish, twist some orange or lemon peel over top of the cocktail.
What are the main differences when it comes to Scotch vs. Whiskey?
Geography is a main difference, as Scotch must be produced in Scotland, and the US and other countries produce their own variations or types of whiskey. For instance, bourbon is a whiskey typically made in Kentucky.
Other key differences come down to:
- Ingredients, including grain mash – Scotch is mostly malted barley and bourbon whiskey is mostly corn.
- Distillation process.
- Aging time.
- The name’s spelling – the US and Ireland use “whiskey” and Canada and Scotland use “whisky”.
What Whiskey types are there?
There are many types of whiskey, including rye whiskey, bourbon, Irish whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, Japanese whiskey, and Canadian whiskey.
How does the taste of Scotch and Whiskey compare?
Scotch vs. whiskey flavors can vary quite a bit. Whiskey’s flavor depends on the variety produced and the process used to do so. For example, bourbons are usually vanilla, caramel, and oak-heavy, while rye or Canadian whiskey is sharper, drier, lighter, and spicier. But, there are some taste similarities between whiskey types since they all use a form of cask, grain, and fermentation and distillation.
Scotch is heavier, fuller, more intense, and smokier than whiskey. You might taste these notes when drinking Scotch:
- Wood (cedar or oak)
- Bread or grain
- Rubber, fire, or peat/dirt