Irish Whiskey vs Bourbon What is the Difference? (Your Best Guide)

I have always wanted to be a whiskey girl.  That seemed so cool.  Sipping a glass of whiskey and everyone thinking you were badass.  But, alas, I am not there… yet.  Here’s part of the problem.  When I go into a bar or a liquor store whiskey is, frankly, overwhelming.  Scotch, whiskey, bourbon… what’s the difference?  I know there has to be, but I get overwhelmed, settle for wine and call it a day.  So, I have made it my mission to figure this out.  Irish whiskey vs bourbon what is the difference?  Are there different kinds of whiskey? Are there different types of whiskey?

Fun Fact – did you know the word “whiskey” comes from the Irish uisce beatha, meaning water of life? 

What is Whiskey Made From?

All whiskeys are distilled from malted grains such as barley, corn, rye, wheat, etc.  Whiskey is almost always aged in barrels.  There are four countries that make whiskey.  Ireland (Irish whiskey), Scotland (Scotch whisky), America (bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, rye whiskey), and Canada (Canadian whiskey).   

irish whiskey bottles

Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey has to be made in Ireland.  It has a light and fruity profile with cereal grain notes.   The aging process gives it its whiskey oakiness and caramel undertones.  Irish whiskey is triple distilled from unmalted barley and typically blended with grain whiskey.  It’s smooth and a great liquor to drink or mixed into a cocktail.  It is one of the most popular whiskeys in the world.  The Irish Whiskey Act of 1950 created the legal requirements of what really makes whiskey Irish whiskey.  Basically, it has to be made in Ireland.  It must be aged a minimum of three years in wooden barrels.  And, no, the barrels don’t need to be new or even oak.  They can be recycled from sherry, bourbon, or rum.  

Best cocktails to make?  Irish Coffee, Jameson and Ginger (Irish Buck), or an Irish Slammer.

Popular brands are Jameson, Bushmills, and Tullamore Dew.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskey is made with a grain mash of at least 51 percent corn.  That’s the legal requirement established by the 1964 Act which made mandatory they must be made of at least 51 percent corn with grain whiskeys of the remainder and nothing but water to reduce its bottling proof.  A better way to think about it… Bourbon is a corn whiskey. It’s made in the United States, mostly in Kentucky, but cannot be made outside of the US, or else, it cannot be called bourbon.   It has a sweet, vanilla, caramel oaky flavor profile. 

Like Irish whiskey, there is an aging limit.  Bourbon must be aged at least 2 years, but most age for at least 4 years.  But, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels.  These barrels can only be used once to age bourbon.  But, other distillers use these bourbon barrels to give distinct flavor profiles to rum, tequila, and other liquors. 

Bourbon is best used in cocktails.  The best drinks to make with bourbon are the old-fashioned, the Manhattan, and of course, the ever popular mint julep.  A Whiskey Sour combines bourbon with lemon juice and simple syrup.

Popular brands are Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Knob Creek.

Irish whiskey vs Bourbon … What’s the Difference?

So, the difference between Irish whiskey and bourbon is a few things, although it appears to be very subtle.  First, where distilled.  Ireland versus the United States. Second the aging requirements.   Three years versus two years.  Finally the barrels.  Wooden barrels versus new charred oak barrels.

I think it worth a trip to the bar and getting small samples of each and tasting the difference for myself.  Personally, I think I will lean more into the cocktail side of whiskey rather than straight, as it really is an acquired taste, but a good whiskey may make all of the difference. 

But, we have only touched the surface of the spectrum of whiskey.  There is Scotch, Tennessee, Rye, and Canadian Whiskey.  Plus, there are other countries now hopping on the whiskey bandwagon.  Let’s explore these other choices.  

whiskey bottles

Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky (notice the spelling… they drop the “e”) can only be made, that’s right, in Scotland.  It has a smokey flavor due to the malt drying process.  This drying process is sometimes done ovScoter a peat-fueled fire.  Keep in mind, each region of Scotland produces different flavor profiles of Scotch.  Think about it like wine.  Each region of the world has a different taste profile.  Scotland is the largest whiskey producer in the world, accounting for 10% of the world’s sales.

Scotch whiskey is either single malt or blended and the label usually indicates an age statement.  If the Scotch is blended, then the age of the youngest whiskey is noted.  So, single malt means?  Usually made by a single distillery.  Currently, there are over 100 distilleries in Scotland that make single malt whisky and each has its own flavor profile.  This means single malt Scotch would have much more flavor than a blended malt.  These single malts are usually enjoyed on the rocks.  Popular brands are The Glenlivet, Glen Scotia, Laphroaig, and the Macallan.

The majority of Scotch sold is blended.  It’s best used in cocktails.  Hard to believe, but it’s not uncommon for 20 to 25 whiskeys to be used in a blend.  Popular brands are Chivas Regal, Dewars, and Johnnie Walker.  

Tennessee whiskey

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee Whiskey is similar to bourbon it at least 51% corn but no more than 79% corn.  The major difference is in the filtration process.  Tennessee whiskey is allowed to slowly drip through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal.  This is known as the “Lincoln County Process”.  It can take up to two weeks to run a batch through the charcoal.  Jack Daniel learned this process from African slaves.  After the Lincoln County Process, the whiskey is transferred to charred barrels for aging.  These age for a minimum of two years.  This process is what gives Jack Daniels its charcoal taste profile.

Best cocktails?  Well, you can interchange bourbon and Tennessee whiskey in most recipes.  But the distinct flavor profile of Jack Daniels lends itself to a Jack and Coke and a Lynchburg lemonade. 

Canadian Whiskey

Rye whisky is similar to bourbon.  US law mandates that 51% of the grain used in rye must be… rye.  Rye is one of the blends most commonly used in Canadian whiskey.  

Which leads us to Canadian whiskey.  This is the most versatile of all whiskies.  If a cocktail is calling for whiskey, Canadian whiskey will usually be a good first choice.  Like Scotch, a lot of Canadian Whisky, skips the “e”.  Like the others, Canadian whiskey can only be made in Canada.  It’s aked in oak barrels for a minimum of three years but most age between four and six years. Popular brands include Canadian Club, Canadian Mist, Caribou Crossing, Crown Royal, and Forty Creek.  Growing up, my dad’s drink of choice was a CC & 7.  Now, these many years later, I know what that is.  Another popular way to drink whiskey is with a splash of ginger ale.

Canadian whiskey

Other Countries

Interesting to note, other countries are now producing whiskey.  Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, England, and even India and South Africa are distilling great whiskies.  My husband had an amazing Old-Fashioned made with Japanese whisky that he said was one of the best he had ever had.  Will need to add these to my tasting list for sure.

What Have I Learned?

Well, like wine, whiskey comes in different flavor profiles.  The main difference of all of these depends on the country of origin and its aging process will determine its name.  Some are great to sip, while others lend themselves to cocktails.  I found a lot of technical information on distilling, but in the end, what I most cared about was the taste, and I think, that’s what’s most important in the end.

Will I be running out to buy whiskey anytime soon?  Probably not.  I feel more confident about ordering at a bar but will leave the choices of the type of whiskey to either the bartender or my husband… my personal whiskey expert.  Which always makes me wonder what do I get my whiskey expert that he will truly love?

Do you have someone in your life that loves whiskey and don’t know what to get them too?  Me too… But, I know my husband loves a good Old Fashioned.  So I checked out The BroBasket. They offer great whiskey and other liquor baskets, and these are not just for the Bro in your life.  It can be for anybody… Mom, Dad, Bro, Sis, Friend, Whiskey Drinkers…. You get the point. 

TheBroBasket offers awesome customer service, so if you are stuck on what to buy, they are ready to help. They can engrave the bottle… yep, engrave the bottle.  So, with the little bit of whiskey knowledge, I have given you, feel confident in ordering that special someone something they will really love.

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