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Irish Whiskey vs. Bourbon, The Differences to know

When it comes to the world of whiskey especially, the differences between Irish Whiskey and Bourbon, you will find quite a bit of similarity.
Giant Copper Pot Stills

Useless Trivia Fact: Whisky, is derived from the Gaelic language which means water of life.

When it comes to the world of whiskey especially, the differences between Irish Whiskey and Bourbon, you will find quite a bit of similarity. All regions have specific laws that govern them and make them unique even though the process is almost the same. Small variations in the grain bill and how the whiskey is aged are what makes things complicated.

What is Irish Whiskey?

Irish Whiskey is protected by the European Geographic Indication and is the Irish national spirit. Similar to wine regions of France or Italy, this ensures quality and prevents companies from trying to take their distilleries somewhere else to produce it cheaper.   All but a handful of Irish Whiskeys are produced in the greater Ireland area. On last look 6 Irish whiskeys are produced in Northern Ireland.

To be a proper Irish whiskey the spirit must be distilled and matured on the island of Ireland. It must use yeast for fermentation and distilled to a strength of no less than 94.8% alcohol by volume.  In recent years Irish whiskies have taken off as whisky, in general, has skyrocketed in popularity. For the longest time, the only Irish whiskey you would have known about was Jameson and that was only because you were drinking Irish car bombs. Now, some of the greatest Irish whiskeys are coming to light with renewed energy and appreciation from the public.

Unlike Bourbon, there are no requirements on the mash bill. Only that it is a mash of malted cereal grains.

In regards to the aging process, the distilled spirit must be aged for a minimum of three years. Irish whiskey uses wooden barrels such as oak but can not be larger than 700 liters. There is no requirement to be new oak barrels or level of char. Many Irish whiskeys are aged in used casks, sometimes utilizing old sherry casks.

When it comes to distillation many still use the traditional method with while a few of the larger brands use a Coffey still. The Coffey still is a type of continuous distillation and is considered a technological improvement to the traditional pot still. 

The Coffey still requires less fuel to operate and is more efficient to run. The distilleries that continue to use the pot still do so believing that they produce a better flavor and cleaner drink. To make sure you know it, the distillery will label the bottle with this fact.

Old Coffey Distilation System on display

What is American Whisky

The term American Whiskey is pretty loose. It is more about the distinct styles of each category that makes American Whiskey what they are. Unlike Irish Whiskey, not all types of American whiskey are region based. Whiskey in general though is grain alcohol regardless of where in the world it comes from. 

The main difference in American grain whiskeys is subtle with each producer looking for their signature style to make them unique. Kentucky claims to produce 95% of the world’s supply of bourbon. But, just because it says Kentucky on the label does not make it a bourbon. It still must follow the guidelines to be named a bourbon, regardless of where the grain spirit was distilled and then aged.   

What Makes it Bourbon?

All Bourbon is Whiskey but not all whiskey is Bourbon. Bourbon must be made from a grain bill that is a minimum of 51% corn. The remainder of the grain bill usually consists of malted barley and a little rye. Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume and barreled at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). 

The distilled spirit is then aged in new charred oak barrels and rested for a minimum of 2 years. Final bottling must happen at 80 Proof or more. Bourbon does not have to come from Bourbon County.

Tall weathered grey wooden rickhouse with red accented windows

Since bourbon casks can not be reused again they are commonly sold to wineries and more recently to tequila producers. You can also find companies that buy these old barrels and produce aged soy sauce and maple syrup in these barrels.

Wheated Bourbon is not a category in itself but is worth noting as many of the most recognized names are Wheated Bourbons. This refers to the grain bill that will have will include a much higher amount of wheat, nearly 20%, and cutting out the rye, while the percent of corn is around 70%. The most famous of this style is the Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons. 

Take a look at Modern Thirst to see the grain bills of American Whiskey in addition to the barrel char levels. 

Types of Whiskey and Bourbon

Straight Bourbon whiskey that is aged under 4 years must be labeled with the age of the youngest whiskey it is blended with. 

Bottled in Bond is a subcategory of straight bourbon and must be aged for a minimum of 4 years. The term Bottled in Bond came from the Act of 1897 under the same name in response to widespread adulteration in American Whiskey. In addition to the rules of straight bourbon, bottled-in bond whiskeys are bottled at no less than 100 proof. (50% ABV)

Full Proof Whiskey is bottled at the barreling proof. 62.5% alcohol by volume or 125 proof.

Rye Whiskey must have a mash that is a minimum of 51% rye. It follows the same rules as bourbon just except for the grain bill. The heavy rye creates a much dryer finish to the whiskey.

Wheated Whiskeys have a grain bill with a minimum of 51% wheat. This is one of the smallest produced categories of American Whiskey.

White Dog is the un-aged distilled spirit that is also called and sold as, Corn Whiskey. 

Tennessee Whiskey is one of the few styles that are region specific. They have nearly identical requirements for bourbon with the exception that it must be produced and aged in Tennessee and use a particular filtering process before aging the whiskey. Jack Daniels is the largest and best example of a Tennessee Whiskey.

American Whiskey & Bourbons to Try

Polished copper casks with lantern top that is full of clear un-aged whiskey

What is a rickhouse?

Also called a Rackhouse, these are where the bourbon barrels are stored during the aging process. This is also a big part of how the whiskey finishes. The temperature fluctuation causes the barrel to breathe more. 

Depending on the rickhouse this is both a good thing and a bad thing. The higher tier bourbons are usually stored in very specific spots of the rickhouse while the lower tier or blending bourbons are stored on the bottom of the house where they will have less maturation due to the barrels not breathing as much. During the aging process water evaporates from the barrel, concentrating the bourbon. This is called the Angels Share.

 

Elijah Craig Rickhouse old wooded board walkway with rows of whiskey barrels 3 high

What is Japanese whisky?

Japanese whiskey began to recreate Scotch in Japan. The first commercial distillery, Yamazaki, opened in 1924. Yamazaki is still highly regarded today and it became rare to find in the united states after 2020. Suntory and Nikka are better known in the united states as their blended and single malt whiskies are widely available.

Japanese Whisky to try

What is Scotch Whisky?

Scotch is a whiskey from Scotland using either Malt or Grain as its mash. All Scotch must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Although Scotch does have categories such as Single Malt, blended malt, and blended grain. They are more known for their six distinct regions of scotch. All use peat fire to a degree to toast their malted barley. Speyside is very frugal with their use of peat, if any at all, while the Islay whiskeys are very heavy peat smoked.

The regions of scotch

Speyside is bright with fruit accents and usually matured in sherry casks

Lowland is a soft and smooth Scotch Whiskey.

Highland has the largest diversity of profiles as it is the largest region. 

Campbeltown is full-flavored, robust whiskeys

Islay is famous for its heavily peated whisky. Rich with lots of peat smoke. 

Scotch to try

Lagavulin Distillery in picturesque countryside with lake in front and white wooden building with red chimney

A quick note on Single Malt Whiskey

Single Malts are exclusive to whiskeys and will not be found in a bourbon due to its legal requirements. That does not mean you can not find single malt whiskeys in the US. The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission is a great place to look up distilleries that are committed to promoting and protecting the American Single Malt category.

Is one better than the other?

Who wins the battle of Irish Whiskey vs. Bourbon? That my friend is all on you. Try different styles of each to find your type of whiskey. Over time and lots of sampling I have learned to develop a deep appreciation for each style from around the world. They each have distinct characteristics that make them stand out from the rest. 

I will say that I do not follow the hype of a lot of bourbon, whiskey and scotch collectors. Pappy is a solid bourbon but is it worth the cost when you can get a nearly identical bourbon in W.L. Weller for a fraction of the price? Macallen Scotch to me is no where near the quality of a Scotch you can find at a fraction of the cost.  Enjoy what you like and do not worry about what others tell is good or not. 

 

My favorites if you wish to try them, but by no means am I saying these are the best. 

Mixed Drinks to try

When it comes to Irish Whiskey and Scotch use a blended whiskey for your cocktail. Single malt or single pot whiskey is going to have too much character that will be covered up when mixed. Enjoy single malts and single pot whiskeys on the rocks or neat.

Irish Whiskey Cocktails

Take a look at my post on using Jameson, like a cold version of an Irish Coffee. Also, check out A Couple Cooks for their Top 5 Irish Whiskey Cocktails.

Bourbon Cocktails

The mint julep is a must-try during the summer. Till then try these 11 easy bourbon recipes from Inspired by Charm.

Scotch Whiskey Cocktails

Remember to use a blended whiskey. I participated in a tasting with Johnnie Walker several years back and my favorite way to enjoy Johnnie Walker after that was with just a splash of ginger ale. Insanely Good Recipes has some more recipes worth a look at as well.

Japanese Whiskey

This whiskey should always be served neat or on the rocks.

Whiskey with no ice with glass decanter of whiskey in the background

Glassware is Important

The red solo cup will work for your Jack and Coke but not much else. Invest in some quality rocks glasses and if you prefer your whiskeys neat a Glencairn is a must.

Large Ice is Key

Keep your whiskey from becoming diluted too quickly.  The larger Ice Cubes & Spheres melt slowly allowing you to enjoy the whiskey at your pace.

Cocktail Set for Whiskey

Whiskey cocktails should be stirred rather than shaken to prevent them from becoming diluted by the ice in the shaker tin. This set has what you need to get started

Fun Fact, or myth:

On the rocks is a literal term that came from Scotland. The distillers would pour the newly distilled whiskey straight from a pot still over a river rock to chill it before sampling.

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Chad Kelley
Hi!! This is Chef Chad. I'm a former restaurant chef and turned stay-at-home dad. My wife Yvette and two amazing kids live in North Dallas and are Huge FC Dallas fans.

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