What is the difference between scotch and whisky

Many people, especially those new to drinking whisky, are confused about what is the difference between scotch and whisky. Especially when these words are sometimes used interchangeably.

The same confusion is about different blends and what they mean. We have tried to collect all such questions and answer them in this post and different posts on our site. So, let’s start with our first and foremost question – the difference between scotch and whisky.

The main difference between scotch and whisky

difference between scotch and whisky (1)

Ingredients

One of the key differences between Scotch and other types of whisky lies in the ingredients used. By law, Scotch must be made from malted barley, water, and yeast – nothing else can be added[1]. The barley is soaked in water, allowed to germinate, and then dried over peat fires, which imparts a distinctive smoky flavor to the finished whisky.

In contrast, other whiskies can be made from a variety of grains. Bourbon, for example, must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn, with the remainder typically being rye, wheat, or malted barley[1]. Irish whiskey is often made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley. Canadian whisky and Japanese whisky have fewer restrictions on the grains used.

So in summary, the use of 100% malted barley is a defining characteristic of Scotch, while other whiskies allow for more flexibility and variety in their grain bills. This difference in ingredients contributes significantly to the distinct flavor profiles of each type of whisky.

Geographical Indications

Another major factor that sets Scotch apart is its geographical indication status. Scotch whisky can only be called “Scotch” if it is entirely produced in Scotland according to strictly defined regulations[2]. It has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in the European Union, meaning its production is inextricably linked to the geography and traditions of Scotland.

To be labeled as Scotch, the whisky must be:

  • Distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley
  • Matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least 3 years
  • Bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% ABV

These legal requirements preserve the heritage and reputation of Scotch on the global market. Other whiskies may choose to follow certain regional styles (like Bourbon being associated with Kentucky), but they are not as tightly regulated based on geography. A whisky can be called “whisky” regardless of where in the world it is made.

So the geographical specificity is a key point of differentiation for Scotch. When you see “Scotch” on a label, you know it’s a product of Scotland, made following centuries of tradition. Other whiskies have more leeway in where and how they are produced.

Aging and Maturation

The aging process is another area where Scotch and other whiskies diverge. All Scotch must be aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels[3]. If an age statement appears on the label (like “12 Years Old“), it refers to the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Many premium Scotches are aged for much longer – 12, 15, 18, 25 years or more. This long aging mellows the spirit and allows it to take on complex flavors from the wood.

Bourbon also requires aging in new, charred oak barrels, but there is no minimum aging period[1]. In practice, most bourbons are aged 4-12 years. Other whiskies have their aging guidelines – Irish whiskey requires a minimum of 3 years similar to Scotch, while Canadian whisky must be aged at least 3 years in wooden barrels that are often reused.

The type of oak barrel makes a difference too. Scotch is often aged in used barrels that previously held bourbon, sherry, or other wines and spirits. Each cask contributes its unique character to the whisky as it ages[3]. Bourbon, as mentioned, must use new oak barrels, which impart strong vanilla, caramel, and woody notes.

So while aging is integral to both Scotch and whisky production, the specifics vary. Scotch’s minimum 3-year aging in a variety of cask types creates a flavor profile distinct from a younger bourbon in virgin oak, for example. Aging requirements are one more factor that differentiates regional whisky styles.

Distillation Process

Finally, the distillation methods used to make Scotch and other whiskies are not the same, although the basic principles are similar. Scotch is typically distilled twice in copper pot stills[4]. The first distillation produces a liquid called “low wines” around 20-40% ABV. This is then distilled a second time to yield a stronger spirit called “new make” which is 60-70% ABV. The shape of the pot stills and the skill of the Stillman in making the cuts (foreshots, heart, feints) during distillation are key to shaping the character of each Scotch.

Other whiskies may use pot stills, column stills, or a combination of both. Bourbon is usually distilled using a column still, which produces a higher-proof spirit more efficiently[1]. Irish whiskey is often triple-distilled in pot stills. Single malt whisky from other countries tends to follow the Scottish double pot still method.

In the end, the distillation step is about concentrating and purifying the alcohol from the fermented grain mash. The type of still and the number of distillations affect the flavor and texture of the final product. Scotch’s double pot still method is a defining part of its identity and taste profile compared to other whiskies.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, while Scotch is a type of whisky, it has several key characteristics that set it apart from other global whisky styles:

  • Made exclusively from malted barley, water, and yeast in Scotland
  • Minimum 3 year aging in oak casks
  • Protected geographical status and regulations
  • Traditionally double distilled in copper pot stills

Bourbon, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, and others each have their signature ingredients, production methods, and histories that make them unique. But hopefully, this gives you a clearer understanding of what makes Scotch “Scotch” compared to other members of the global whisky family. While they share a common foundation, the devil is in the details when it comes to the wonderful diversity of whisky!

Does spelling matter (whisky vs. whiskey)?

No, it doesn’t. The spelling difference is a regional preference only. Whisky and Whiskey are the same.

What is the usual taste difference between Scotch and Whisky?

Due to the peat used in drying the malted, Scotch often exhibits a characteristic smoky note. However, this is not a universal difference, but the most common.

Citations:
[1] https://townsendstillhouse.com/blog/what-is-the-difference-between-scotch-and-whiskey/
[2] https://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/insights/protecting-scotch-whisky/protecting-scotch-whisky-outside-the-uk/
[3] https://www.diffordsguide.com/g/1168/single-malt-scotch-whisky-production/maturation
[4] https://www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk/about/about-whisky/whisky-making/
[5] https://www.copenhagendistillery.com/articles/bourbon-scotch-and-whisky-whats-the-difference
[6] https://www.harpermacleod.co.uk/insights/scotland-whisky-and-its-geographical-indications/
[7] https://flaviar.com/blogs/flaviar-times/whisky-ageing-maturation-and-finish-difference
[8] https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/2589mx/eli5_the_difference_between_whiskey_scotch_and/
[9] https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine_digital/en/2023/article_0015.html
[10] https://www.chivas.com/en-us/stories/the-ageing-of-whisky-its-all-about-the-casks/
[11] https://www.abcfws.com/about-scotchWhisky
[12] https://www.geekzone.co.nz/forums.asp?forumid=192&topicid=222835
[13] https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/12u9kkh/eli5_why_is_older_whiskey_generally_considered/
[14] https://www.businessinsider.com/guides/kitchen/scotch-vs-whiskey
[15] https://www.vennershipley.com/insights-events/scotch-whisky-rulings-clarify-scope-of-protection-of-geographical-indicatio/
[16] https://www.whiskyinvestdirect.com/about-whisky/whisky-maturation
[17] https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/difference-between-scotch-whiskey
[18] https://www.theippress.com/2022/07/18/scotch-whisky-geographical-indication-gi-tag-of-united-kingdom/
[19] https://www.whiskyandwisdom.com/complete-guide-to-oak-casks-and-whisky-maturation/
[20] https://topwhiskies.com/blogs/whisky-blog/what-is-single-malt-scotch-whiskey-made-of
[21] https://www.macroberts.com/knowledge-hub/food-drink/scotch-whisky-a-lesson-in-geographical-indications/
[22] https://thewhiskylady.net/does-whiskey-age-in-the-bottle-the-truth-about-whiskey-maturation-outside-of-the-barrel/
[23] https://www.foodandwine.com/cocktails-spirits/whisky/whats-difference-between-scotch-and-bourbon
[24] https://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/insights/protecting-scotch-whisky/
[25] https://whiskipedia.com/fundamentals/whisky-maturation/

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