The Irish whiskey vs Bourbon debate (similar to the Irish whiskey vs Scotch debate) is one that takes place in many whiskey forums online.
While Scotch whisky may have owned the 20th century as perhaps the world’s most famous style of whisky, the fact is that in the 21st century the three biggest-selling whiskies are either Irish or American!
And though nobody would claim that Jack Daniels, Jim Beam or Jameson are the absolute cream of the crop, it does prove how popular their styles are with the public.
Below, you’ll find some straight forward, no-BS answers to the question, ‘What’s the difference between Bourbon and Irish whiskey?’. Dive on in!
Some quick need-to-knows about Irish whiskey vs Bourbon
I’m going to break down the key differences between Irish whiskey vs Bourbon with an easy-to-browse overview, first, before going a little more in depth in the second half of the guide.
1. Where they’re made
First of all, location matters. Bourbon is exclusively made in the United States, while Irish Whiskey is exclusively made on the island of Ireland.
And when it comes to Bourbon, those whiskies are almost always made in the state of Kentucky (and as you can imagine, there are a ton of great distilleries there to visit).
2. The ingredients
Another key difference between Bourbon and Irish whiskey is the ingredients. Created entirely in Ireland, Irish whiskey is made from a yeast-fermented mash of malted cereals (corn, wheat, barley). Bourbon must be made with a basic recipe of at least 51% corn, with the remainder made up of rye, wheat and barley.
3. Production and distillation
Both the Americans and Irish use combinations of column reflux and copper pot stills. Yet much like the difference between Scotch and Irish Whiskey, most Bourbons are twice distilled whereas in Ireland their whiskies are usually triple distilled.
Also, Irish Whiskey must be matured for three years while there’s no limit on Bourbon (although most are aged for at least two years).
The final difference between Irish whiskey and Bourbon is the taste. Irish Whiskey is famous for being smooth and light, yet Bourbon is sweeter still and often characterised by its vanilla, oak, caramel and spice notes.
Though Irish Whiskey also forms better with its age and features subtle levels of aromas that you will not find in a great American whiskey.
The invention of Irish whiskey and Bourbon
Arguably the most notable difference between Bourbon vs Irish whiskey is the tale behind the invention of each. As you would expect, Irish Whiskey has been around a lot longer than Bourbon, and some date the product back to the 11th century when Irish monks brought back distilling methods from southern Europe.
While that may be true, the first record of Irish Whiskey didn’t appear until 1404. The 17th and 18th centuries were when licenced Irish Whiskey distilling really began to take off and by the 19th century it was the most popular whiskey in the world, with Dublin’s massive distilleries at their heart.
It was also in the 19th century that Bourbon Whiskey began to become popular in the United States, though it had been made since the late 18th century and most likely began by Irish and Scottish settlers in the New World. The name ‘Bourbon’ was not applied until the 1850s, and the Kentucky etymology was not advanced until the 1870s.
Related read: Check out our guide to the difference between Irish whiskey vs Scotch.
The different ingredients used in bourbon vs Irish whiskey
While Bourbon must be made with 51 percent corn, Irish single malt whiskey is made with 100 percent malted barley. And then you have Irish pot still whiskey which is made with a combination of malted and unmalted barley, while Irish copper pot whiskey is traditionally a blend of single malt and single pot whiskeys.
Oh and there’s also Irish blended whiskey – the largest category in terms of volume of sales – which most often uses a combination of malt whiskeys and grain whiskeys made predominantly of corn and/or wheat.
Basically, Irish Whiskey can seem pretty complex for the beginner, but that’s why we’re here to help you out!
Related read: Check out our guides to the best Irish whiskey cocktails (each cocktail is tasty and easy-to-make)
The production and distillation
Another key difference between Bourbon vs Irish whiskey is the production and distillation. Distillers are part-brewer, part-scientist and the production is pretty interesting. The production process of Irish whiskey begins with a mixture of malt and unmalted barley.
The barley is then dried in an oven, most often without using peat smoke. It is then crushed and immersed in water to ferment. The fermented liquid is distilled (three times for most Irish whiskeys) and aged in oak barrels for at least three years.
To be legally sold in the form of Bourbon, the whiskey mash bill requires at least 51% corn, the rest being any cereal grain.
A mash bill containing wheat instead of rye produces what is called wheat bourbon. Wheat is then ground and mixed with water. Generally, the addition of a previous distillation is added to ensure consistency between batches, and thus creating purity. Finally, add the yeast, and the mash is fermented.
The difference in taste between Irish whiskey vs Bourbon
The final key difference between Irish whiskey and Bourbon is the taste. All of the processes we talked about above in the production of Irish Whiskey tend to then produce a powerful yet refined style that gets its smooth, velvety texture and sweet caramel taste from the time-tested use of malted barley.
Of course, the numerous styles of Irish Whiskey mean that you’ll also be able to enjoy rich and fruity spirits alongside the usual vanilla and caramel notes that usually come through.
Bourbons gain more colour and aroma as they age in the wood, and when they are filtered then bottled you’ll be able to enjoy a sweet taste displaying notes of toffee, cinnamon and vanilla.
Sweeter than Irish Whiskey, but not quite as smooth. In the end, it’s down to you to pick your poison!
FAQs about the difference between Irish whiskey and bourbon
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What’s the difference between Irish whiskey and bourbon taste-wise?’ to ‘Which is easier to drink?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
What are the main differences between Irish whiskey vs bourbon?
The main differences between bourbon vs Irish whiskey are 1, where they’re made, 2, the ingredients, 3, the production process and 4, the taste.
What are the key Irish whiskey vs bourbon taste differences?
Irish Whiskey is famous for being smooth and light, yet Bourbon is sweeter still and often characterised by its vanilla, oak, caramel and spice notes.