The world of whisky is a confusing one. Take a seat, drink up, and find out the differences.

Like wine, whisky connoisseurs take great pride in knowing what goes into their drams. They love their elixir and are not afraid to shoot down those who think otherwise. It’s also slightly intimidating to wade into the waters of this fanaticism, but with a little basic knowledge, we think you can survive it.

In this beginner’s guide, we’ll be identifying the differences between whisky, whiskey, scotch, rye, and bourbon. We will also delve into the basics of what makes what, and why there are two different spellings for whisky. But first, let’s start with the ultimate basic question of:

What is whisky?

the macallan 1926
The complete The Macallan Fine & Rare collection. (Photo credit: Sotheby’s)

At its core, whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash like barley, rye, wheat, and corn. You can also use malted grains for whisky, which is essentially the same grains except that they have been malted — that is, the grain has been allowed to germinate to a certain degree. 

Whisky is also then aged in wooden casks, with the usual ones being charred white oak. Over the years, different distilleries have experimented with different wooden casks and finishes to give their whiskies a distinct and signature flavour profile. 

Whisky is the umbrella term for this alcoholic beverage the same way brandy and sparkling wine are. You’ll come across whiskies named differently: scotch, rye, bourbon, and even the differently-spelt whiskey. These are down to its locations and grains used, which we will explore further below. 

What about whiskey? Isn’t it the same thing?

It’s not just an American-British spelling difference. Whiskies made in different countries are spelt differently. For example, Scottish whisky (also known as Scotch whisky) is spelt without the E, while Irish whiskey has the E. The United States also spells it as whiskey, while Canada and Japan adopt the ‘whisky’ spelling. 

Secret Speyside
Whiskies are aged in wooden oak barrels.

What is Scotch whisky?

Scotch whisky is, as its name suggests, whisky from Scotland. It can only be called Scotch if it’s made in Scotland – similar to the likes of Cognac and Champagne. It is one of the most regulated spirits in the world, from how you make it to how you sell it. This makes it one of the most top-notch quality whiskies you can get out there. We’d tell you more about Scotch regions that include Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, and more, but that’s a long story for another day. 

What is rye?

Rye is one of the two native American whiskeys, with its name derived from the grain that is used. Regulations in the United States stipulate that rye whiskeys need to have at least 51% rye grain for it to be called that. It also has to be aged in brand new American oak barrels. There’s no time limit mentioned for rye whiskey to be aged, unlike Scotch whisky. 

However, the same regulations don’t apply to Canadian rye whiskey, which can get confusing because some may not actually contain any rye. Rye whiskey tends to have a harsh flavour, hence it’s commonly used for cocktails. 

Some known bottles: Wild Turkey Rye Whisky, Knob Creek Straight Rye Whiskey, WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, and more.

A popular brand of bourbon — Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon. (Image credit: Aries Wine & Spirits)

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is the other Native American whiskey, and it has to be made using 51% or more corn grains. Other ingredients in the list include malted barley and rye. It was first produced in the state of Kentucky. This is another regionally-named whiskey — it has to be made in America to classify as bourbon. Bourbon usually takes on a sweeter flavour profile compared to the other whiskeys in this list, making it a nice one to have neat. 

Some known bottles: Elijah Craig, Old Forester, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, and more.

PohNee Chin
Editor, Kuala Lumpur
Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction.