They all taste great in a cocktail and, when mixed together, make for one hell of a hangover, but what exactly is the difference between bourbon, Scotch, rye, and whiskey?

First off, whiskey (spelled whisky outside the US) is the distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash—it can be barley, corn, rye, wheat, etc.—and is the broader beverage category that these other spirits fall into. Whiskey is often aged in wooden barrels which impart color and flavor, and when it’s first distilled, it’s referred to as moonshine, or white whiskey, and is clear in color. The real differentiating points between these different alcohols are the grain that’s used in the fermentation process, as well as place of origin.

Bourbon must be produced in America and needs to confirm to the following standards to be officially labeled and sold or exported as bourbon: it must be made from a grain mixture that’s at least 51% corn; aged in charred, oak containers; contained in the barrel for aging at no higher than 125 proof; and bottled at 80 proof or higher. Bourbon is often associated with the South (especially Kentucky) and has been around since the mid-1800s.

Scotch is whisky (from Scotland, so spelled without the second “e”) that is aged longer, which causes it to develop a distinct smoky flavor—it is often considered an “acquired taste,” and on first sip, you can tell that Scotch means serious business. It’s often served neat or on the rocks, and isn’t mixed into cocktails as frequently as the other spirits because of its unique flavor profile.

Rye is another type of whiskey that is made from a mash that contains at least 51% rye, and is less sweet than bourbon. It is often used as a substitute for bourbon and adds a spicy flavor to a cocktail. But aside from the grain and origin technicalities, what’s the difference between bourbon, Scotch, and rye? Taste. Celebrity mixologist Matt Seigel, a former bartender at New York’s Eleven Madison Park and owner of the In the Spirit Of Hospitality group, discusses the differences between them, saying: “I happen to prefer bourbon for my Old Fashioned and rye for my Manhattan. I like my Old Fashioned a little on the sweeter side, hence the corn vs. the rye. The main difference I’d say is sweetness; as previously stated, bourbon is sweeter and more round, where rye, to me, is a bit spicier or more peppery and is more linear. I tend to think of tastes in terms of shapes and colors sometimes, so round vs. linear is how I tend to think of bourbon vs. rye.”

If you already like bourbon and rye, then moving on to Scotch is the obvious next step. But if you’re scared to take the plunge, Seigel recommends taking baby steps: “Start with a less smoky Scotch (something from the Highlands maybe; I happen to really like Highland Park—and stay away from Islay if you aren’t ready for lots of peaty smoke). When using it in a cocktail, try rinsing your glass with it; it adds a great nose and doesn’t overpower the rest of your ingredients.”

Check out our seven cocktail recipes featuring whiskey: Scotch, rye, and bourbon, and you’ll be all set for cocktail hour.

1. Debonair

The Debonair is made with a single-malt Scotch combined with some ginger liqueur for an added kick. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Get our Debonair Cocktail recipe.

2. The Sazerac


The iconic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac is made with rye, absinthe, and two types of bitters: Angostura and Peychaud’s. Get our Sazerac Cocktail recipe.

3. Brown Derby


A refreshing summer pick, the Brown Derby is made with bourbon, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and a touch of honey to add extra sweetness. Get our Brown Derby Cocktail recipe.

4. Black Metal Manhattan


An alternative take on a traditional Manhattan, the Black Metal Manhattan features amaro in addition to the sweet vermouth, as well as a pour of nocino, a green walnut liqueur. Get our Black Metal Manhattan Cocktail recipe.

5. Vieux Carré


Another classic New Orleans cocktail which features rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, as well as a teaspoon of Bénédictine liqueur, which adds a light floral note. Get our Vieux Carré Cocktail recipe.

6. Touch of Evil


A summer crowd pleaser, this bourbon-based drink has homemade rhubarb syrup, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a dash of absinthe. Get our Touch of Evil Cocktail recipe.

7. Whiskey Sour


Throw out your sour mix and start off your whiskey sour right—combine fresh lemon juice, a teaspoon of simple syrup, and two ounces of rye or whiskey, then garnish with fresh citrus. Shake with ice and for some extra flair, add a maraschino cherry. Get our Whiskey Sour Cocktail recipe.

— Head photo: flickr.

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