Whiskey vs. Bourbon: Which is Sweeter?

by Kaia

Whiskey and bourbon are both beloved spirits with rich histories and distinctive characteristics. Determining which is sweeter requires an understanding of their flavor profiles, distillation process, ingredients and mash bill, aging process, and types. Personal preference also plays a significant role, as sweetness is subjective and varies from one palate to another.


Flavor Profiles

The flavor profiles of whiskey and bourbon are influenced by several factors including the ingredients, aging process, and production techniques. Generally, bourbon is considered sweeter than other types of whiskey, including Scotch and Irish whiskey. This sweetness is primarily due to its high corn content and the new charred oak barrels used for aging.



Whiskey can range from sweet to smoky, depending on the type and region. For instance, Scotch whiskey, particularly from Islay, is known for its peaty, smoky flavor, while Irish whiskey tends to be smoother and lighter with subtle sweetness. Rye whiskey, on the other hand, has a spicier, more robust profile.


Scotch Whiskey: Often characterized by its smoky, peaty flavor, especially from Islay. Highland and Speyside Scotches are lighter and often sweeter.


Irish Whiskey: Generally smoother and lighter with a hint of sweetness and fruity notes.

Rye Whiskey: Known for its spicy, bold flavor with less sweetness compared to bourbon.


Bourbon is distinctly sweeter due to its mash bill, which must contain at least 51% corn. This high corn content, along with the caramelized sugars from the charred oak barrels, contributes to its rich, sweet flavor. Vanilla, caramel, and toffee are common tasting notes in bourbon.

Traditional Bourbon: Rich, sweet, and full-bodied with notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak.

Wheated Bourbon: Sweeter and softer with a pronounced vanilla and honey profile.

Distillation Process

The distillation process for whiskey and bourbon follows similar principles but with distinct differences that affect the final flavor profile.


The distillation process varies widely depending on the type of whiskey. For example, Scotch whisky is typically distilled twice (with some exceptions like Auchentoshan, which is triple distilled), while Irish whiskey is usually triple distilled, leading to a smoother, lighter spirit.

Mashing: Grains are mashed to release fermentable sugars.

Fermentation: Yeast is added to convert sugars into alcohol.

Distillation: The wash is distilled in pot stills or column stills.

Aging: Whiskey is aged in various types of barrels, which can be previously used bourbon barrels, sherry casks, etc.


Bourbon follows a stringent process defined by law in the United States. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) and entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).

Mashing: The mash bill must contain at least 51% corn, with the rest typically being malted barley and either rye or wheat.

Fermentation: Similar to whiskey, yeast is added to the mash to produce alcohol.

Distillation: Bourbon is often distilled in column stills, followed by a second distillation in pot stills.

Aging: Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, which imparts significant sweetness and flavor from the caramelized sugars in the wood.

Ingredients and Mash Bill

The ingredients and mash bill are crucial in defining the flavor and sweetness of whiskey and bourbon.


The mash bill for whiskey can vary widely:

Scotch Whiskey: Primarily malted barley, with some grain whiskies using corn or wheat.

Irish Whiskey: A mix of malted and unmalted barley, contributing to a lighter, smoother flavor.

Rye Whiskey: Requires at least 51% rye, resulting in a spicier profile.


Bourbon’s sweetness is largely due to its mash bill, which must be at least 51% corn. The remaining portion typically includes malted barley and either rye or wheat. The higher the corn content, the sweeter the bourbon.

Traditional Bourbon: Typically 70-80% corn, with the balance being rye and malted barley.

Wheated Bourbon: Replaces rye with wheat, resulting in a softer, sweeter flavor.

Aging Process

Aging is another critical factor that influences the sweetness of whiskey and bourbon. The type of barrel, length of aging, and storage conditions all play a role.


Whiskey is aged in various types of barrels, which can impart different flavors:

Scotch Whisky: Often aged in used bourbon barrels or sherry casks, leading to a wide range of flavors from smoky and peaty to fruity and sweet.

Irish Whiskey: Typically aged in used bourbon or sherry casks, contributing to a smooth, sweet, and sometimes fruity flavor.

Rye Whiskey: Aged in new charred oak barrels, similar to bourbon, but the higher rye content results in a spicier profile.


Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels, which impart a significant amount of sweetness and complexity:

Aging Duration: Bourbon is often aged for at least four years, but many high-quality bourbons are aged for 6-12 years or more.

Barrel Influence: The charred oak barrels caramelize the sugars in the wood, infusing the bourbon with vanilla, caramel, and toffee notes.

Types of Whiskey and Bourbon

There are several types of whiskey and bourbon, each with unique characteristics that influence their sweetness.


Single Malt Scotch: Made from 100% malted barley at a single distillery, often aged in sherry or bourbon casks.

Blended Scotch: A blend of single malt and grain whiskies, offering a balance of flavors.

Irish Single Pot Still: Made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, offering a spicy, fruity profile.

Canadian Whisky: Often lighter and smoother, with a higher corn content, which can add sweetness.


Straight Bourbon: Aged for at least two years, with no added flavors or colors.

Wheated Bourbon: Uses wheat instead of rye, resulting in a sweeter, softer flavor.

High Rye Bourbon: Contains a higher percentage of rye, leading to a spicier flavor profile.

Personal Preference

Personal preference plays a significant role in determining which spirit is perceived as sweeter. Some drinkers might prefer the robust, smoky flavors of Scotch, while others may enjoy the smooth, sweet notes of bourbon. Factors influencing preference include:

Flavor Sensitivity: Individuals vary in their sensitivity to sweet, bitter, and smoky flavors.

Experience: Seasoned whiskey drinkers may have a different perception of sweetness compared to newcomers.

Context: The setting in which the whiskey or bourbon is enjoyed can influence taste perception. For example, a cozy, relaxed environment might enhance the enjoyment of a sweeter bourbon.


In summary, while both whiskey and bourbon offer a range of flavors, bourbon is generally considered the sweeter of the two due to its high corn content and aging process in new charred oak barrels. However, personal preference plays a crucial role, and the perception of sweetness can vary widely among individuals. Understanding the flavor profiles, distillation processes, ingredients and mash bills, aging processes, and types of whiskey and bourbon can help enthusiasts appreciate the nuances of each spirit and determine their own preferences. Whether you lean towards the rich, caramel notes of a well-aged bourbon or the complex, smoky flavors of a Scotch, both spirits offer unique and enjoyable tasting experiences.



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