Bourbon vs. Scotch


By Richard Thomas

Bourbon and scotch are arguably the two most famous styles of whiskey. Irish whiskey has its niche, of course, as do non-bourbon American whiskeys like rye. Yet the two big contenders are whiskey’s Kentucky gentleman and its Scotland laird, and that simple fact leads to inevitable comparisons. The ill-informed unfortunately come away with the idea that scotch is intrinsically superior to bourbon, based upon a poor understanding of how scotch (and whiskey in general) is made.

I grew up on straight bourbon whiskey, but now I live in Europe, where small batch and single barrel bourbon is scarce and scandalously overpriced. Necessity and my whiskey-loving nature drove me into the welcoming arms of scotch. The two styles have their own distinctive features, and while I have my preferences, the matter isn’t as simple as one being better than the other.

The two whiskeys use very different grain recipes, and that speaks to the core differences between them. The American term “mashbill” is irrelevant to single malt scotch, since it uses only malted barley. Even the smoky character of the two whiskeys are different. Bourbon draws its smoke from the charred surface of the barrel, whereas the smoke in scotch is drawn largely from the peat burned in the barley malting process. These two different, yet similar flavors underline the relationship between the two whiskey styles (and keep in mind that not all scotches have a peaty flavor in the first place!). I think of it as comparing apples to pears – similar, but not similar enough that one can be declared objectively better than the other.

The single largest misconception in comparing bourbon to scotch is that scotch is somehow superior because generation-long aging periods are a fixture of the scotch industry. A quick glance at virtually any liquor store shelves reveals many scotch labels aged 12, 15, 18 or even 25 years, while bourbon is usually in the six to nine year range.

This misunderstands a critical element in the aging process, namely the relative climates of Kentucky and Scotland. If you are in Glasgow, summer temperatures average a modest 66 F (19 C), but on the other side of the globe in steamy Kentucky that average daily high is 86 F (30 C). The hotter weather accelerates the aging process to some extent, but  it is too simple to say that whiskey ages more quickly in Kentucky than in Scotland. As any true student of whiskey knows, simply moving the barrels around the warehouse during the aging process can have a significant effect on the final product, and the substantial differences in climate between the two regions greatly alter the very character of their respective aging processes.

Kentucky’s hotter climate also means more of the whiskey evaporates away as “the angel’s share” than is the case in Caledonia, so aging a barrel of whiskey in Kentucky for 25 years produces far less whiskey than would be the case in Scotland, and therefore a more rarefied product.

Another aging aspect the comparison misunderstands is what kind of barrels are used to age Scottish and American whiskey. All bourbon is aged in new oak, whereas almost all scotch is aged in used oak. The only time bourbon-making ever makes use of an old barrel is for finishing, a practice borrowed from scotch-making.  New oak contributes a lot to the color and flavor of a whiskey, but the longer you leave whiskey in new oak, the more likely it is to develop an undesirable astringency. This is less of a problem for the used barrels put to work in scotch-making, since some of those chemical interactions were spent during the barrel’s first run.

Barrel Variety
By law, all bourbon whiskey must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Scotch must be aged in oak barrels, but any sort of oak barrel can be used. This variety is part of a tradition of creative experimentation in using sherry casks, beer barrels and even old bourbon barrels to age scotch. It has also give rise to the practice of finishing scotch in secondary barrels, a step that has only recently caught on with bourbon-makers.

This ability to choose among aging vessels contributes to scotch as a whole having a wider variety of flavors, whereas bourbon tends to operate within a set group of characteristics. The variability of how scotch is aged makes for a more interesting storyline, but whether it is an advantage depends entirely on whether how you feel the finished product.

Whiskey vs. Whisky
The Whiskey Reviewer has already tackled this semantic issue, and spelling has no real bearing on the character of either spirit.

Why Compare?
Bourbon and scotch each come with their own distinctive identities, and those identities are what have made these two separate spirits the world’s leading styles of whiskey-making. One might prefer scotch over bourbon (or visa versa) because of those characteristics, but that is a matter of personal preference rather than absolute superiority.

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  1. It is exacly like comparing apples to pears. I like both. Really, I like whisk(e)y in general, and thought I like to consider myself a Scotch man, Bourbon wins out 4 out of 5 times for me.

    • Then you’re a stinking liar.
      “I’m a scotch man, but bourbon wins 4 out of 5 times” That makes you a bourbon man, genius.

    • This is in response to Kevin: He said “thought” not “think”. So he USED to consider himself a Scotch man, not anymore genius.

    • Lol. It was a typo. He meant “though”. As in, “Though I would like to consider myself a Scotch man, I actually prefer bourbon.”

  2. kyle in brooklyn

    Good article! Growing up in Canada I was an occasional single-malt drinker and not really aware of the bourbon world. Having recently moved to the USA I am discovering the pleasure of good bourbon. The variety of brands and the good value compared to Scotch is appealing. I’ve since developed the idea that I prefer bourbon over Scotch although I’ve never done a direct taste comparison. That will be the next step.

  3. I learned to drink on Scotch, and loved it for many years. Recently I was turned on to Bourbon, and I have to say I prefer it to Scotch now. Not to say it is better, but I enjoy the complex flavors without so much of the smokiness I found in many Scotches.

  4. Good post. As a fan of both, I’m going to start strolling through your site for more like it!

  5. Glenfiddich.

    Bourbon tastes like sink water compared to that Scotch.

    • I disagree. Scotch is usually to “smooth and clean”. the higher rye and corn of Bourbon gives a much more nuanced flavor. I prefer the spicey flavors of rye more than corn, so I lean towards higher rye mashbills … can’t stand scotch. Makes me wanna throwup (something to do with the barley)

    • Bourbon and Canadian whiskey couldnt shine scotches shoes. All that whiskey is good for is mixing only. Johnny Walker Black is better than any bourbon or Canadian whiskey that was ever created and it’s a blended whisky. Anyone who thinks bourbon or Canadian whiskey is better than any scotch obviously doesnt drink whisky neat.

  6. I drink bourbon and scotch. They are both very good. Bourbon is like smooth maple syrup and leaves a great taste in your mouth. And Evan Williams is fine at $12. Scotch is similar but less sweet and I like Peaty Islays.

  7. One more post. Bourbon is not sink water what a comment. Bourbon is great whiskey with a distinctive profile. However some Bourbons use rye in their mash while others use wheat. Of course all of them use corn at 51% or higher. Usually higher like 75% corn.

    • What Americans mean by ‘corn’ is not what Europeans who speak a Germanic language mean by ‘corn’ or ‘korn’, which historically and today is the term used for whatever grain is most grown locally: wheat; rye; barley; oats.

      In the USA, ‘corn’ is a modern shortening of what the first English speaking, weary and hungry settlers on New England’s shores called ‘Indian corn’. Without Indian corn provided generously by their hosts, plus native turkeys, the newcomers would have starved to death. To show their eternal gratitude to their benefactors, the new arrivals stole their lands, murdered them when they resisted, and broke the promises they had made to the remnant who survived.

      Indian corn or what North Americans call ‘corn’ is in fact maize, but very few North Americans today seem to be able to grasp this elementary fact, along with the truth of their murderous past.

    • Richard [Mahoney], please get over yourself.

  8. Eagle Rare 10 – Wow!

  9. Bourbon rules. Rye dominates. Scotch blows.

  10. What kind of douchebag says “because I drink cider, beer sucks!” But that is what I see the scotch snobs doing all the time.

    • and yet in the comments it’s the bourbon snobs doing it.
      Funny that, huh.

    • The “scotch snobs versus the bourbon plebians” division is not unlike the “wine snobs versus beer plebians” division. Of course at one time, wine was thought to be the drink of the unwashed masses who had no access to safe water, whereas beer was deemed to be more socially acceptable among the gentry.

      Personally, I started out with my father’s scotch, Johnny Walker Red. Then I discovered the single malts and was amazed at their superiority. I can say, at 60, that my preference is for bourbon – and it is merely a preference (enjoying Bulleit as I write), but I still enjoy my scotch when the mood strikes (especially Macallen 12-year old).

  11. Bourbon tastes like dishwater with sugar added.

    • It sounds like we have another biased Limey in the building. Keep up the good work, the queen thanks you, lol.

    • To Jafo, you’re the one that sounds biased dude.
      “limey” “the queen thanks you”

      Stick to your murdering, gun totting regime and let the grown men do the talking.
      Silly kids.

    • Waaah poor Geoffrey. Tell your country to stop making rotgut.

    • then you have never tried a good bourbon. Try a Blanton’s Gold Reserve then make your comment.

  12. To the idiots that compared bourban to sink water or dishwater with sugar I really hope your some European stick up your ass that only goes by the larger age on the scotch bottle …..if not then that’s just idiotic not to mention unamerican ….go park your dishwater asses in Scotland then. Guess makers mark or the wild turkey 101 just a little to strong for you ladies

    • Perhaps they like scotch and not bourbon, so are comparing it to something else they don’t like.
      People are allowed to have different opinions without them being racist, you moron.

    • Kevin calm down don’t get your kilt up in a bundle.

    • Wow, y’all have some growing up to do. There is no account for taste – or for spelling, if you judge by these brutal posts. I like scotch, don’t particularly like bourbon, but don’t think it’s a character issue. Drink the drink you drink and belay your style pretensions, wankers.

  13. Capn Jimbo's Rum Projectc

    What we have here is a degradation of bourbon, by the bending of the rules to allow it to be stored/aged/finished in anything other than the “charred, new oak containers” specified in the Standards of Identity. The moment it is moved to used or non-charred barrels is the moment it is no longer bourbon.

    Both Jim Murray and I have discussed this issue in great detail. The only legal “finishing” which is allowed is the insertion of sherry chips or staves into the original charred new oak cask, and even in this rare case, the label must include the words “Bourbon Whiskey colored and flavored with oak (chips/staves/etc).”

    The industry counts on a compliant TTB to ignore its own standards, and allow this sad and significant alteration of what heretofore had been a pure and worthy spirit. Unless bourbon lovers speak out and reject such misleading labeling, bourbon will follow the destruction of pure rum.

    • Here’s one of the clowns who said Angel’s Envy was “deceptive.” The only deception I see is right here, and I call BS on it. Murray’s opinions on Angel’s Envy are in PRINT. Anyone can pick up his articles or his books and read them, and they are the polar opposite of what you say here.

    • I was looking at the homepage and saw Capt. Jimbo is here too!

      Jimbo is a lying troll, nothing more. He dirties every website he comes into contact with, makes untrue statements, and promotes his own stupid forum. I’m glad to see the site admins here at least struck his weblink from his comment.

      Don’t feed the trolls!

    • Translate please?

    • I’m here as a some time Scotch drinker a non-fan of Bourbon and an absolute evangelical of rum. It’s great to see a well-respected member of the rum community, dedicated to exposing truth in labeling for rum and especially informing consumers of added glycerin, caramel color, and sugar. It’s good to see you here, jimbo!
      (I still have no taste for Bourbon, but I try.)

  14. A quick comment to everyone. I was a beer drinker (Stout or anything real dark). I have just entered your world of whisky. It’s all great! The complex flavors, the vast differences in flavors. It’s a fun world. To bounce back and forth between Scotch and bourbon is nice. The different flavors then really jump out at you for a great drinking experience. So far i really enjoy Scotch more, but still really like sipping on some bourbon.

    • Agreed. I as well bounce back and forth between both bourbon and scotch. I have my preferences, but mostly on what type I am in the mood for. Both go nice beside any fireplace night.

  15. I’m from Australia, which means my native beverage would be a rum or wine, but I’m a whiskey/ whisky drinker. I do enjoy both scotch and bourbon and there is a time for both, but I would have to say, if I were to give up one I would be a bourbon drinker! I think there is more variety and my bourbon of choice, Elijah Craig 12 is the drink for any occasion.

  16. Daniel Passarelli

    Scotch “fans’ = ridiculously boring losers

    • Well, Scotch drinkers appreciate a good Scotch. I beg to differ because you’re being a snob. You’re insulting Whiskey in general when you insult Scotch drinkers. Hence, the Scotts invented Tv, Whiskey, and Golf. I’m American and even I know this. Grow up kiddo.

  17. Apples and pears – a very apt comparison.

    I love both bourbon and Scotch. Not in the same glass, of course. I also like Canadians, ryes, Irish whiskeys (if you haven’t tried Redbreast 12 do yourself a favor and give it a go), and occasionally blends. I also like whiskey cocktails – Manhattans, usually, but Old Fashioneds and Kentucky Mules are great patio drinks for summer. I drink my whiskey neat, on the rocks (generally just one rock – a 2.5″ ice ball), chilled a little with stones, or with a splash of water or soda. For me, the world of whiskey (or whisky) is too rich to confine myself to one flavor profile alone. Your tastes and preferences may differ, and if so I say have at it, Sir (or Lady, as the case may be); you should drink what you like in the manner in which you prefer it.

    On the issue of bourbon versus Scotch, on any given day I might prefer one over the other, but I’d be hard pressed to name an absolute favorite. Thankfully, I don’t have to.

    All this reading and writing has made me thirsty. Though it’s barely 8:30AM where I am, there’s still a bit of morning chill in the air, and it is a Sunday after all. The horses are fed and the dogs are relaxing. Perhaps I’ll pour a little snort of Blantons to honor the start of a promising day.

  18. I have been a scotch drinker for over twenty years. I enjoy my scotch neat, but will add a splash of water drinking cask strength expressions. I have over 150 single malts in my bar and have even visited Scotland a number of times to explore the culture and distilleries. All that being said, i have recently ventured into the world of Bourbon and am extremely exited at the results. I purchased Booker’s, Blanton’s, and Four Roses as new additions to my cabinet and find them all very satisfying. Yes they are different than Scotch, but so is Irish Whiskey so who cares – drink what you enjoy. Unfortunately, people tend to equate quality with age and as any experienced whiskey drinkers knows, that is a bunch of BS. As a matter of fact, the new trend in Scotch is to ignore age all together and focus on the quality of the barrels; case in point, Macallan and Glen Morangie. I am not sure why Scotch snobs continually bash other whiskies; insecure i guess. I for one am becoming a huge fan of Bourbon and plan on hitting the whiskey trail in Kentucky in the near future.

    • Well, Bourbon is a lot cheaper and it’s always been associated with bad boy ways and Okie From Muskogee. Whereas, Scotch has always been associated with wealth, style, class, and gentleman. I enjoy Bourbon a lot when I’m in the mood for it. However, I prefer Scotch for its smoothness and complex smell and taste.
      Different strokes for different folks.

  19. Scotch is a Gentleman’s drink. And any loyal Scotch drinker knows this.

    The main difference between Scotch and Bourbon is: Peat. Scotch gets its smell and flavor profile from peat. A type of soil dried up and used as a charcoal. Scotch makers use peat water from the streams and peat smoke from the peat to flavor up their whiskey. A lot more goes into making Scotch than peat water or peat smoke, but that distinctive smell from Scotch comes from the peat.

    Also, Scotch has 4 different regions (Islands, Highlands, Speyside, and Lowland. Islay is renowned for the smokiest of Scotches. Whereas, Speyside is renowned for the fruitiest and sweetest.

    Scotch is a lot more complex than Bourbon with flavor and smell. I’m not too crazy about Bourbon, even though, I’m American. I prefer a good Scotch from Islay, over a Bourbon from Kentucky.

    • Larry — I’d never argue with your preferences, because my philosophy is “to each his own” on that note. I just want to make the small factual point that the clear majority of all malts and very nearly all grain whiskies are unpeated.

    • I’ve found that a vast number of “high end” scotch distillers add caramel color, a step forbidden in bourbon distillation/production. I enjoy both, but that is a “cheating” step that I do not like, whatsoever.

    • Not all scotch is peated! Also, you seem to have forgotten Campbeltown, once the largest producing region. I, too, think there is more diversity, but regionalism is becoming less important, and you can fine peated Speyside, and unpeated Islay.

      It would be interesting to see bourbon producers experimenting with different finishes, cask types, and grains, but then, by law they wouldn’t be considered such, and “purists” would object to it, anyway.

  20. Larry — I’d never argue with your preferences, because my philosophy is “to each his own” on that note. I just want to make the small factual point that the clear majority of all malts and very nearly all grain whiskies are unpeated.

    In Scotland it is common to use peat to dry the malted barley so that it is ready for milling and mashing. The type of peat used and the length of time the barley is drying in the peat smoke will influence the flavour in the final spirit. This gives Scottish whisky its fullness and traditional smokiness. Hence, I never said they use peat in American bourbon. Hence, Johnnie Walker is the best selling blended Scotch in the World, and Glen Fiddich is the best single malt in the world. And both of these guys have hints of peat and smoke. Even the best selling Scotch in Scotland: Glennmoarngie has peaty and smoky flavors.

    • I get that Larry here loves his peated Scotch. The problem is that he thinks all Scotch is peated. As has already been said, it’s not.

    • @ Paulson I never said all Scotch is peated!! When did I said that? You’re putting words in my mouth or you were drunk when you wrote this. Either way, please don’t put words in my mouth.

  21. Scotch is a lot more complex than Bourbon. IMHO, Scotch has a depth that doesn’t exist in Bourbon. For example: a Scotch that’s been aged in Bourbon casks and finished in sherry casks. There’s a lot more going on. Bourbon will always be bourbon because of specs by law: charred oak casks. Whereas, Scotch can sit in Bourbon casks, European oak, rum casks, sherry casks, and ect.

    • This is true Larry. However, I will always prefer Bourbon because I’m from Kentucky.

    • That’s silly. I’m American, but that doesn’t stop me from preferring certain European spirits to their American counterparts. Who cares if that makes me “unpatriotic”? I like what I like, and suspect Europeans having a longer time to perfect their craft, and going for balance, might be a reason why (also ingredients used – I’m a huge malt fiend).

  22. I use to drink bourbon exclusively for over 20 years because frankly I couldn’t afford a good Scotcch. Once I had Scotch my whiskey passion grew. I still enjoy a quality bourbon at times, but there’s no comparison to the smoothness, complexity and aroma of a good scotch. But yeah, to each their own

    • well said don, the smoothness and notes of a good aged scotch are near unbeatable for bourbons. i honestly love both. from Makers mark 46 Bourbon to Glenlivett 12 year aged scotch. I will never understand why there needs to be a battle between the two. if you ask me, were all whisk(e)y lovers. If you gotta hate, hate on piss water drinkers. Happy drinking everyone.

  23. I’m not sure if one can really compare the two. As many have stated it’s like comparing apples to pears. There are five regions (including Speyside) in Scotland where single malt Scotch is distilled. Considering that each of those regions have their own distinct flavors (for the most part) let alone the various distilling process, such as cask strength, double cask matured, triple cask matured, skerry cask matured, Spanish Oloroso sherry butts, etc. not to mention length of aging time, it is hard to make a comparison between scotch from let alone bourbon.

  24. The idea that bourbon is anywhere near as good as scotch is hilarious. Scotch has far more balanced, complex, interesting flavours, while bourbon is like a cheap whore. Bourbon is dominated by the flavour of the wood and corn is a pretty damn boring grain. Scotch benefits from barley being pretty interesting flavour-wise, and it has a finer, more subtle/balanced wood, and also the smoke.

    • Yeah, I think some might find the influence from new casks and a grain majority overwhelming. A lot of bourbons have high ABV, too, so Americans who make the switch find scotch to be “underwhelming”. No idea if its because Americans like “extremes”, or we’ve yet to find our balance. Oh, and not all scotch is smoky. There are probably more options for those who aren’t into that.

  25. I like my bourbon mixed with ginger ale or 7 up.

    I like my scotch on the rocks or strait up in a chilled glass.

  26. Your Bourbon Buddy

    A lot of you Scotch drinkers sound like you consummated with the lights off.
    “Ohh dahhling, aren’t I très très sophistiqué?”.

  27. Heaven Hill Bourbon is incredible and only $7.68 but hard to find. They also have a 6yr bottled in bond for only $12 (only available in Kentucky) I highly recommend this Bourbon. It’s very inexpensive and great in a mixed drink, even better on the rocks or neat. I would rate the taste better than Jim Beam. With out a doubt I would pay $25 for this whiskey.

  28. I love single malt Scotch (but will drink a blend). And bourbon. And rye. And cognac. And armagnac. And some day I’ll taste some aged rum and tequila, but not until I’ve sampled enough malts.

    When someone says “A is classy, B is rotgut” (or vice versa) it doesn’t offend, provoke or trigger me. It amuses me. Scotch has origins in outlaw bootleg distilling just like American whiskey, not to mention that Appalachian folk has Scots-Irish roots. Who cares? I don’t care what other people think. I’ll drink what I enjoy and I’ll explore and decide for myself. And I’ll do it while I snicker at people with fancy crystal decanters (filled with a mass produced blend). Their sophistication typically amounts to coveting the JW Blue Label or raving about Double Black (while they are not even aware of the Green Label and why it’s different).

    Snobs are a silly lot 🙂

  29. Okay. Everyone here bashing bourbon while praising scotch needs to try another bourbon. Seriously. Bourbon can be awesome, even a cheap one like Jim Beam. There’s a bourbon out there for everyone. Me, I love Wild Turkey 101 for its smokiness and strength.

    Everyone here bashing scotch while praising bourbon needs to try another scotch. Really. You like sweeter, milder bourbons like Makers Mark or Evan Williams? Try Glenfiddich or John Dewar. You’ll thank me. Me, I’m saving my pennies for some Laphroaig to open on a special occasion. God, people, do yourselves a favor and get out of your respective comfort zones a little. We all have our favorites.

    My favorite? I’ve yet to find anything I like better than Old Overholt, which is a rye whiskey. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to stop looking. But seriously, Old Overholt strikes a wonderful balance between sweet, spicy and smoky. Its flavor profile is almost halfway between a really nice scotch and a really nice bourbon. So, get off your high horse and explore a little bit — responsibly, of course. Hell, I’m even willing to try a Canadian whisky sometime, if it doesn’t have too many additives.

  30. Definitely prefer scotch to bourbon, but because the latter is more affordable and available, have tried more than I would if options were reversed. For years, I was told it tastes like “leather” and was for “old men” (I didn’t even know it was a type of whiskey).

    My favorite bourbon so far would be something like Maker’s Mark 46, and least favorite Eagle Rare 10. It’s particularly bad when you’re an American and prefer something imported to our “native spirit”. I catch similar flack for liking many European beers to American craft varieties, who go for extremes and crazy experimentation.

    Willie Tate, master distiller for Jura, once said, “Bourbon is scotch whisky gone wrong.”

  31. In south America there is only scotch! not anti-american at all, but not really trusting american wines or beer, we go for european or chilean wines, german beer and scotch!

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