There are all types of whiskey out there, and it can be confusing with what is and what isn’t whiskey – or with what type of whiskey something is. When it comes down to it, though, the three most popular types of whiskey in the world are bourbon, scotch, and Irish whiskey.
Not only are these the three most popular types of whiskey, but they’re usually what we think of when it comes to whiskey. Scotland and Ireland are credited as the birthplace of whiskey back in the 15th century, though the whiskey they drank was much different from what we enjoy today. Then, over the last century, and with Americas large market and consumer base, bourbon was able to become one of the most notable spirits in the world.
While we’re going to discuss some of the similarities and differences between bourbon, scotch, and Irish whiskey, we’re also going to review and compare three bottles, all cask strength selections around the $100 mark.
Elijah Craig Private Barrel will represent bourbon and America. Highland Park Single Malt Cask Strength Release No 2 will represent scotch and Scotland. Lastly, Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Single Pot Still will represent the Irish.
What is Bourbon?
To put it simply, bourbon is a specific type of whiskey that follows certain laws and regulations. While the distinction between types of bourbons and the wording brands will use (i.e. blended bourbon vs blend of bourbon vs bourbon mashbill, etc) can be quite confusing, bourbon itself is actually quite simple.
- Made in the United States of America.
- If the whiskey is not distilled in the US, it is not bourbon.
- Made from a fermented mash of grain with at least 51% of the mash being from corn.
- If it is not made from grain, it is not whiskey, but If corn doesn’t make up at least 51% of the grain, it’s not bourbon.
- It is stored/aged ONLY in new charred oak containers.
- There is no age requirement for bourbon, it must only come into contact with a new charred oak cask. Straight Bourbon must be aged a minimum of 2 years.
- If whiskey enters a cask that is not newly charred oak, it no longer qualifies as bourbon.
- Additives, colorings, flavorings are not allowed.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no higher than 160 proof.
- Bourbon must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof.
- Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum 80 proof.
As I mentioned, bourbon, and whiskey in general, can be confusing when you look at it in all its totality. When we look at only the requirements, it’s quite simple. Made in America, made from fermented grain using at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak casks, no additives, distilled and barreled at no greater than 160/125, bottled no less than 80.
What is Scotch?
While its debated whether whiskey originated in Scotland or Ireland, when it comes to the pinnacle of whiskey, most people think scotch, specifically single malt scotch.
- Made in Scotland.
- Made from malted barley, water, and yeast.
- Aged in oak for a minimum of 3 years
- can be any used or new oak cask.
- Distilled to no higher than 189.6 proof.
- Bottled no less than 80 proof.
- Must not contain any additives other than caramel coloring.
- Distilled twice, though sometimes three times.
Again, pretty simple at its base level.
Scotch can be broken up into 5 categories, as well as 5 regions.
Types of Scotch
- Single Malt: Made at a single distillery from 100% malted barley
- Blended Malt: A blend of single malts from 2 or more distilleries. Both single malt and blended malts must be distilled from pot stills
- Single Grain: Made at a single distillery from malted barley with other cereal grains
- Blended Grain: A blend of single grain scotch from 2 or more distilleries
- Blended Scotch: Some 90% of scotch is blended, many thanks to Johnnie Walker, this is a blend of 2 or more single malt and single grain scotch whiskies
Regions of Scotland
Another way people describe scotch is by the region it’s from. The 5 primary regions are:
- Highlands: Majority of single malt whiskey produced is from the highlands (mainly because Speyside and Islay are considered a part of the Highlands).
- Speyside: Speyside has the highest density of distilleries and whiskey produced.
- Islay: Islay refers to a mostly coastal region that is known for using peat to malt barley, adding a smoky flavor to whisky.
- Lowlands: Most whisky produced in the lowlands is grain whisky used for blending.
- Campbeltown: The least popular area for distillation, according to The Whiskey Exchange, there are 3 distillers that produce 5 labels.
Present day, Irish whiskey may be seen as very light and easy whiskey. In most cases, that’s true. However, Ireland is the home of Pot Still whiskey, which makes a heavier whiskey with more character.
Irish Whiskey Requirements
Irish Whiskey is:
- Made in Ireland – either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.
- Must be made from malted barley, and can use other cereal grains.
- Must be aged a minimum of 3 years in wooden casks.
- Distilled to no greater than 189.6 proof.
- Bottled at no less than 80 proof.
- Not contain any additives other than caramel coloring.
- Irish Whiskey must be distilled twice, though it’s often triple distilled.
Does this look or sound familiar? It should. it’s pretty much the exact same laws and regulations surrounding Scotch, just in Ireland. Again, the primary differences, the confusing parts, are broken up into the different types of Irish Whiskey.
Types of Irish Whiskey
- Malt: 100% malted barley in pot stills – single malt is from a single distillery.
- Pot Still: minimum 30% malted barley and 30% unmalted barley with up to 5% other cereal grains. Distilled in pot stills. Single pot still is from a single distillery.
- Grain: No more than 30% malted barley with other unmalted cereals (corn, wheat, rye, unmalted barley). Distilled in column still.
- Blended: A blend of any two, or all three, styles of Irish whiskey.
Again, very similar to Scotch, but with a focus on pot stilled whiskey. A pot still is like a big pot. The mash must be loaded, heated, evaporated and brought back in. Distillation occurs in batches, so once done, it must be cleaned and reloaded to run again. Due to the batch process, pot still allows for more character and variation in each batch.
Column stills allow for continuous distillation which is cheaper, more efficient, and makes a more consistent profile.
Similarities and Differences
Okay, the laws and regulations can be hard to remember, but they are straightforward, they are set in stone (until changed), and they apply to every Irish whiskey, every scotch, and every bourbon. Things can get more complicated when we talk about typical whiskey practices. We’re going to try to break down some of these similarities and differences, though.
You’ll notice, if you haven’t already, that scotch and Irish whiskey are quite similar.
The most obvious and simple difference between the three whiskeys is the region or country they are made in.
- Bourbon = USA (all of America, not just Kentucky)
- Scotch = Scotland
- Irish Whiskey = All of Ireland – Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
Spelling – Whisky or Whiskey?
Another difference, albeit a very unimportant difference, is the spelling. In Ireland and America, it’s typically spelled whiskey, with an ‘e’. The rest of the world spells it whisky without an ‘e’.
There is no right or wrong way to spell it, it’s arbitrary, and it doesn’t really matter. I do my best to abide by the preferred spelling of the country, but, again, it doesn’t matter.
Now, into the truly important distinctions between the three that aren’t as obvious as the country it’s produced in.
- Irish whiskey and Scotch use a malted barley mash. It doesn’t matter what Irish whiskey or what scotch you drink, there is malted barley in the mash. Often times, malted barley will be the only grain used, and it’s almost always the primary grain.
- Irish whiskey uses a lot more unmalted barley than scotch.
- Bourbon, on the other hand, is ALWAYS a minimum of 51% corn – most often bourbon uses ~75% corn.
- Bourbon almost always uses a small amount of malted barley (~10%) for the enzymes that malt provides to assist with fermentation.
The next primary difference between these is aging. Scotch and Irish whiskey are near identical, and bourbon follows much different rules.
- Bourbon can only be aged in virgin, new charred oak. That means the cask can only hold water prior to whiskey. Once a cask is used, it can never be used to produce bourbon again.
- You’ll see whiskey labeled as “bourbon finished in rum/wine cask”. This is no longer a bourbon. It was bourbon, and then it was finished in a different cask, so it’s legally not bourbon.
- Scotch and Irish Whiskey must be aged in wooden casks.
- The most common casks used are ex-bourbon casks and ex sherry casks.
- Scotch and Irish Whiskey must be aged a minimum of 3 years
- There is no aging requirement to Bourbon, only that it be stored in virgin, new charred oak.
- ‘Straight’ Bourbon is aged a minimum of 2 years.
- If you don’t see an age statement on a bottle of Bourbon, it is aged a minimum of 4 years.
Irish whiskey and Scotch producers often by used barrels from Bourbon producers. A distillery making primarily bourbon has no use of a cask after it’s been used. So, they try to recoup some of their money by selling their barrels to wine producers or to distillers of Scotch and Irish whiskey.
Scotch and Irish whiskey prefer used barrels because it makes the flavors more subtle, whereas with new charred oak barrels, you get lots of strong notes of vanilla and oak.
I’m not going to go into too much detail on distillation methods as that would take way too long and it’s more dependent upon the individual distiller.
However, bourbon typically uses column stills. Scotch and Irish whiskey – with the exception of grain whiskey – use copper pot stills.
Elijah Craig vs Highland Park vs Redbreast 12
Okay, now that we’ve covered the basics of Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish whiskey, it’s time to review and compare our three bottles. As a note, I’ll have individual reviews of each coming soon. There, I can discuss more in depth on the specifics of each whiskey.
My goal was to pick three well known, widely available cask strength whiskeys around the $100 mark. I didn’t want blends, so I went with single barrel for the bourbon and single malt/pot still for the scotch and Irish whiskey.
Elijah Craig Single Barrel Bourbon (Total Wine Barrel Pick)
- Spirit: Straight Bourbon, Single Barrel, Cask Strength
- Owned By: Heaven Hill
- Distilled By: Heaven Hill
- Aged: 9 Years
- ABV: 63.75%, 127.5 proof
- Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley
- Price: ~$80
- Barrel Serial #: 6601017
Elijah Craig Single Barrel, at $75, was the closest I could get to $100 when it came to name brand, mass produced bourbon.
It should be noted that in the US single barrel is a common practice. Single barrel means that the whiskey from this bottle came from one single barrel. In a typical bottle of, let’s say, Jack Daniel’s, there may be 200+ barrels blended to keep a consistent profile.
In Scotland and Ireland, single refers to the whiskey being created at a single distillery, so many barrels may be blended together to create their single malt and single pot still whiskey.
Our bottle of Elijah Craig came from Barrel # 6601017, and it was bottled at 127.5 proof. If you get Elijah Craig Single Barrel, you may have a different profile and proof because it’ll likely be from a different barrel.
Elijah Craig Single Barrel Tasting Notes
Nose: Roasted caramel, oak & leather, roasted peanuts, dark cherries. There’s the classic Elijah Craig nuttiness, but it’s toned down if anything. The roasted caramel keeps getting sweeter, reminding me of butterscotch icing.
Palate: The nose transfers right on over, Caramel, toasted oak, peanuts, more cinnamon spice on the palate than the nose with the fruit sitting behind the spice.
Finish: More nuttiness comes to play at the finish with dried oak, cinnamon spice, and dried cherries. The finish isn’t as long as I expected but it dies slowly with some nougat creeping in.
Taste Summary: Elijah Craig’s standard offering is already small batch, though I’m not sure just how small, which could account for the similarities between this bottle and standard Elijah Craig. This is Elijah Craig Bourbon just turned up a notch. I can’t help but think “roasted” this or “toasted” that every time I take a sip.
There’s nothing dazzling about this whiskey, it’s Elijah Craig at a higher proof. That’s not a bad thing, though, as Elijah Craig is good whiskey. It’s rich and tastes like a baked dessert.
Highland Park Cask Strength Release No. 2
- Spirit: Single Malt Scotch, Cask Strength
- Owned By: The Edrington Group
- Distilled By: Highland Park
- Aged: NAS, 3+ years, aged in ex bourbon casks, but mostly sherry casks.
- ABV: 63.9%, 127.9 proof
- Mashbill: 100% malted barley
- Price: ~$100
Highland Park is a single malt from, yup you guessed it… the Highlands! This means it uses 100% malted barley in the mashbill and all the whiskey was distilled by Highland Park.
Highland Park doesn’t feature an age statement. When it comes to a whiskeys age, producers must use the youngest whiskey in the bottle if they are to make an age statement. For example, if you use twenty 30-year barrels and one 3 year barrel, the whiskey would have to use a 3 year age statement or none at all. Highland Park Cask Strength likely uses various aged barrels, some older, some younger.
Highland Park Cask Strength Tasting Notes
Nose: Tobacco smoke, sugar and berries, with honey and toffee.
Palate: Drinks much lighter than 63.9% ABV. You get some smoke and salt from the peat, honey, berries, burnt oak, and cinnamon.
Finish: The finish is long and reminiscent of a burnt sugar cookie with honey and some dried fruits.
Taste Summary: I really like this HP release. It reminds me of Johnnie Walker Blue – the difference being that it’s half the price, twice the flavor, and nearly twice the strength. There’s a light but consistent smoke throughout the experience, sugar and berries – I think it’s identical to Cap’n’Crunch All Berries – and then a nice roasted honey/burnt cookie note.
Highland Park Cask Strength Release No 2 is nearly 64% ABV, but if I were to drink this blindly, I think I’d peg this closer to 110 proof. It’s well rounded and has a very long finish.
Redbreast 12 Cask Strength
- Spirit: Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
- Owned By: Irish Distiller / Pernod Ricard
- Distilled By: Midleton Distillery
- Aged: 12 Years, aged in ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon casks
- ABV: 58.1%, 116.2 proof
- Mashbill: +30% malted barley, +30% unmalted barley (I believe it’s 50% / 50%)
- Price: ~$95
Redbreast is produced at the Midleton Distillery right next to Jameson. Midleton the largest distiller making Jameson, Powers, Green Spot, as well as Redbreast, of course.
All of the whiskey in the bottle is produced at Midleton, and it is triple distilled in copper pot stills. Furthermore, every barrel of whiskey that went into this bottle was aged a minimum of 12 years.
Redbreast 12 Cask Strength Tasting Notes
Nose: Honey, dried fruits, ginger, shortbread cookies.
Palate: Caramel and butterscotch, bananas, dried apricots, a light nuttiness, and spices – cinnamon & ginger. A very creamy mouthfeel that drinks well below its proof.
Finish: Butterscotch and wood, toasted nuts, a salted, buttery kettle corn. I even get a bit of citrus and mint at the back end of the finish.
Taste Summary: Yeah, this is pretty good whiskey right here. It’s quintessential Irish Pot Still whiskey with a touch of uniqueness. I was expected the dried fruits from the sherry cask, but I got way more banana on the palate than I expected.
In terms of mouthfeel, I think Redbreast 12 Cask Strength takes the cake. Buttery and creamy.
Three $100 Whiskeys…. Which one is Best?
Let me start in terms of price. When it comes to Cask Strength and Single Barrel Barrel Select whiskeys, prices can vary vastly. For example, I picked up the Elijah Craig for $68, but it goes for as high as $94 at Total Wine in other states. Redbreast was anywhere from $87-108. Highland Park was anywhere from $87-112.
Next, which one is the best? There is no objective answer to this question. I picked these three for a reason – Elijah Craig, Redbreast, and Highland Park are all very highly regarded. Even if I picked other options, this is a highly subjective question.
Now, for me personally, which one did I enjoy the most?
I’d have to say Highland Park was my favorite, then Redbreast, and finally Elijah Craig.
It’s not that one is better than the other from a quality standpoint, I just preferred the balance of Highland Park. I also thought it was the most pleasant sip at the highest proof. Elijah Craig, and bourbon in general, is a bit sweeter and hotter than scotch and Irish whiskey – at least in my opinion. Elijah Craig Private Barrel benefited the most from a splash of water.
Redbreast 12 had the best mouthfeel out of the bunch.
The world of whiskey can be very confusing. There are laws and regulations to… regulate the process, but there are still plenty of ways to create a unique whiskey…. and there are ways to trick consumers with wording – particularly with bourbon. “Bourbon flavored with x” is not bourbon!
Scotland and Ireland have the most tradition and history behind their whiskey. They have been making whiskey side by side for hundreds of years, so they have very similar processes. Bourbon is a much younger spirit in terms of its history, but that’s allowed it to use newer technologies and practices.
In terms of the whiskey, I’d highly recommend all three, but especially Highland Park Cask Strength Release No. 2 and Redbreast 12 Cask Strength are much higher on my “buy” list. I think there’s many more options in the world of single barrel bourbon, especially here in the states.
Below are frequently asked questions regarding Scotch, Irish whiskey, and Bourbon. Many of these are answered in the article above, some are not.
Is Cask Strength Whiskey Better?
No, not necessarily. Cask Strength whiskey isn’t just naturally better than whiskey that is cut with water. Cask strength whiskey presents as a more natural whiskey with more robust flavors. Often times people prefer cask strength whiskey as it allows them proof whiskey down to their desired level.
Is Cask Strength Whiskey More Expensive?
Yes. Cask strength whiskey isn’t cut with water, so there is less liquid. A cask of whiskey may fill 100 bottles (depends on the size of the barrel and the whiskey lost in aging). Cut the whiskey to 80 proof and it may fill 150 bottles.
Which is Better, Scotch or Irish Whiskey?
There is no clear cut answer as to which is better. It’s really subjective, and if you drink enough Irish Whiskey and enough Scotch, you’ll find a good combination of both that you like… and likely find a couple of both that you don’t like.
They are very similar whiskeys, but one of the main differences is that Irish Whiskey is typically distilled three times whereas Scotch is typically distilled twice. The extra distillation run often creates a lighter spirit.
What’s the Difference between Bourbon and Scotch?
Bourbon is made in America and it’s made primarily from corn. Scotch is made in Scotland and made from malted barley.
Typically speaking, Bourbon is sweeter with stronger vanilla and oak notes due to the use of new charred oak casks. Scotch is a bit lighter and tends to have more influence from dried fruits from the use of ex-sherry casks. Peated scotch, often from Islay, is smoky and salty, flavors not often found in many bourbons.