What’s the Difference Between Scotch, Whiskey and Bourbon?

George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images
George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

This might be common knowledge for some, but it's worth a refresher. Let's start with a burning question we answered back in 2008: what makes a whiskey bourbon?

The law. While knocking back a dram of bourbon is a decidedly carefree exercise, making it is exceedingly technical and requires that the whiskey meet a rigid set of criteria. The Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon stipulate what is and what isn’t bourbon. For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, its mash, the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled, must contain at least 51% corn. (The rest of the mash is usually filled out with malted barley and either rye or wheat.) The mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less, put into the barrel at 125 proof or less, and it must not contain any additives. The distillate must be aged in a new charred oak barrel. (Most often these barrels are white oak, but they can be any variety of oak.) If you distill a whiskey in your kitchen that meets all of these standards, congrats, you’ve made bourbon. Also, you’ve broken the law; the ATF is probably outside your house right now.

The main difference between scotch and whisky is geographic, but also ingredients and spellings. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland, while bourbon is whiskey made in the U.S.A, generally Kentucky. Scotch is made mostly from malted barley, while bourbon is distilled from corn. If you’re in England and ask for a whisky, you’ll get Scotch. But in Ireland, you’ll get Irish whiskey (yep, they spell it differently for a little colour).

On this side of the pond, we have our own local color, too. The difference between Tennessee Whiskey, like Jack Daniel’s, for example, and Bourbon is that after the spirit is distilled, Tennessee Whiskey is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal. This filtering, known as the Lincoln County Process, is what distinguishes Tennessee Whiskey from your average Bourbon, like Jim Beam. The name, Bourbon, comes from an area known as Old Bourbon, around what is now Bourbon County, Kentucky.

On top of these types of whiskey, we also have Rye, which can refer either to American rye whiskey, which must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye or Canadian whisky, which may or may not actually include any rye in its production process. Confusing! Right?

Okay whiskey drinkers, did I miss anything crucial? Obviously there are tons of other, smaller differences depending on location and recipe, but that should cover you for when you need to impress the opposite sex at a bar some day.

What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

iStock.com/mediaphotos
iStock.com/mediaphotos

Aside from tacos, enchiladas, and other tasty tortilla-wrapped treats, tequila and mezcal are among some of Mexico’s best-known offerings in the food and beverage category. These tipples, made from the agave plant, are so embedded in the country’s culture that Mexico City even has a museum dedicated to the two drinks, and Jose Cuervo operates a "tequila train" to none other than the city of Tequila. These beverages can be used to make a variety of cocktails, from the tequila sunrise to the mezcalita, but unless you’re a bartender or a connoisseur of spirits, you might not know the difference between the two. Is mezcal just fancier tequila?

Not exactly. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but the reverse isn’t always true. It’s similar to the distinction between champagne and sparkling wine, in which the name of the beverage depends on whether it was produced in the Champagne region of France or elsewhere. While mezcal can be produced anywhere in Mexico, tequila is made in the Mexican state of Jalisco (though a few exceptions do apply).

Tequila and mezcal also differ in the ingredients from which they are derived. Mezcal can come from any of the dozens of agave plants—a type of desert succulent—that are grown throughout Mexico. Tequila is made specifically from blue agave and, depending on the variety and brand, a bottle will contain between 51 percent and 100 percent of the plant-based nectar. According to The Tierra Group, a wholesaler of agave products, blue agave nectar is especially sweet because it’s 80 percent fructose, per Mexico’s regulations.

Lastly, tequila and mezcal taste different because of the ways in which they are prepared. Mezcal tends to have a savory, smoky, earthy flavor because the agave hearts (or piñas) are left cooking for several days in a fire pit that has been lined with volcanic rock and covered with agave leaves and earth. The piñas destined to end up in tequila, on the other hand, are often cooked in a brick oven, then crushed up to extract the juice.

If you ever feel adventurous at the liquor store and decide to bring home a bottle of mezcal, just keep in mind that there’s a particular way to drink it. “The first mistake many people make is pouring mezcal in a shot glass and pouring it down their throat,” Chris Reyes, a mixologist at New York City’s Temerario bar and restaurant told Liquor.com. Instead, the spirit is best sipped in a clay cup known as a jicarita.

Some words of advice if you do go shopping for mezcal: If you ever see a worm at the bottom of the bottle, that means it’s probably not a very good mezcal, according to Reyes. By contrast, tequila bottles should never have worms in them (despite the common misconception). So if you’re looking to avoid invertebrate-infused concoctions at all costs, tequila is your best bet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

All Aboard! Mexico Is Now Home to an All-You-Can-Drink Tequila Train

iStock.com/Clicknique
iStock.com/Clicknique

If you like the idea of taking a booze cruise or imbibing while flying (on a craft beer flight, that is), then you may enjoy the hooch caboose. As Delish reports, the latest in luxury, alcohol-packed travel comes from Jose Cuervo, which is now operating an all-you-can-drink tequila train.

That’s right: You can now hop aboard the Jose Cuervo Express and slam shots or sip tequila sunrises while traveling in style from Guadalajara in western Mexico to—where else?—the city of Tequila. The deal includes round-trip train transportation and bottomless drinks at the open tequila bar, plus snacks. Guests will also get to join a separate tequila tasting with experts, take a tour of the Jose Cuervo distillery in Tequila (the oldest one in the Americas), and take in a Mexican cultural show.

The Jose Cuervo Express has been around a while, but the round-trip, all-you-can-drink tequila experience is new. Since 2012, the train has been operating regular “sunrise” and “sunset” hours, offering guests a morning train ride to Tequila with an evening bus ride back to Guadalajara, and vice versa.

Prices for the new experience start from $111 on the Travel Pirates website, but the cost depends on the exact package you choose. If tequila isn’t your cup of tea, you might prefer the Mayan train line that’s slated to connect some of Mexico’s most famous pyramids and sites. Those plans are still a work in progress, though.

[h/t Delish]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER