Whisky, Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye - What's the difference?

Since we launched our Scotch & Malt Whisky Lovers Collection, we get asked this question all the time. What exactly is the difference between Whisky, Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye?

In terms of flavour, the general rule of thumb is this:

  • Scotch / Whisky / Whiskey is smoky
  • Bourbon is sweeter than Scotch / Whisky / Whiskey
  • Rye is more astringent than the two others, making it particularly suitable to use in cocktails.

In terms of ingredients and process, generally the difference lies in the type of mash used to make the brown liquid.

Whiskey (or whisky) can be any of a variety of distilled liquors that are made from a fermented mash of cereal grains and aged in wooden containers, which are usually constructed of oak. Commonly used grains are corn, barley malt, rye, and wheat.

The difference between whiskey and whisky is where the spirit is made:

  • in Scotland, Canada, and Japan, it’s spelled “whisky.” - No "e", eh. 
  • In the United States and Ireland, it’s spelled “whiskey”.

For differences between Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye, it's all about the location and the distilling process.

Scotch is a whisky (no 'e') that gets its distinctive smoky flavour from the process in which it is made: the grain, primarily barley, is malted and then heated over a peat fire. This part will ring a bell for Champagne lovers: a whisky cannot be called Scotch unless it is entirely produced and bottled in Scotland. So, Scotch or Scotch whisky by legal definition must be made and bottled exclusively in good old Scotland. Thank you, Robbie Burns - try our pairing guide for chocolate and Whisky.

Bourbon, a whiskey that was first produced in Kentucky, U.S., uses at least 51 percent mash from corn in its production. It also uses a sour mash process — that is, the mash is fermented with yeast and includes a portion from a mash that has already been fermented. U.S. regulations specify that in order for a whiskey to be called bourbon, it must be made in the United States.

Rye or Rye Whiskey is a whiskey that uses a rye mash or a rye and malt mash. In Canada, regulations do not specify a minimum percentage of rye, but Canadian rye must be a potable alcoholic distillate, or a mixture of potable alcoholic distillates, obtained from a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products, mashed, distilled, and matured in Canada. Corn, wheat, barley, triticale, and rye are counted among these cereal grains. The terms "rye whisky" and "Canadian whisky" are used interchangeably in Canada and (as defined in Canadian law) refer to exactly the same product, which generally is made with only a small amount of rye grain. In the United States, regulations stipulate that the mash must be at least 51 percent rye in order for it to be called rye whiskey.