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Irish Whiskey vs Bourbon

Charl Joost
Last Updated: August 8th, 2023

For many mature drinkers, Irish Whiskey and Bourbon are often the drinks of choice. Irish Whiskey and Bourbon are both members of the whisky family so while they are somewhat similar, the finished results are unique and different.

Whisky drinkers may prefer one over the other so identifying the key differences between the beverages may aid you in working out which option may be better for you.

Irish Whiskey vs Bourbon is an interesting debate that has been many times over the years. We will look at the main differences, good brands from each beverage, and what similarities they may have.

Irish Whiskey or Bourbon?

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When comparing Irish Whiskey vs Bourbon, some may argue that they are very similar, when in fact they are not. Irish Whiskey is produced in Ireland and is made primarily with malted barley.

Irish Whiskey is aged in old bourbon or rum barrels, or sherry casks for a minimum of three years and is less smokey than other whiskies and is usually smoother and fruitier when compared to bourbon.

On the other hand, Bourbon is produced in the United States and must be made with a minimum of 51% corn. Bourbon is aged in newly charred oak barrels which were made at least 2 to 4 years before the bourbon is aged.

Bourbon is sweeter and richer as opposed to Irish Whiskey and has primarily flavor notes of vanilla, oak, brown sugar, and caramel.

Both Irish Whiskey and Bourbon belong to the whiskey family, so the production of both follows a similar pattern with the main difference being the ingredients used and the aging process.

To be classified as a bourbon whiskey variant, the alcohol must include 51% corn. To be classified as an Irish Whiskey variant, it must simply be produced in Ireland and must be aged for 3 years at a minimum.

How Are They Made?

Irish Whiskey is produced using barley, wheat, and corn. The type of whiskey dictates the amounts of each grain used. The starch within the grains needs to be converted into sugar which is vital for the fermentation process used in whiskey production.

Pricier whiskies are produced using malted barley which allows a larger amount of sugar to be extracted from the grain. If unmalted barley, corn, or wheat are used, the grain is cooked under pressure to convert the starch to sugar.

Whiskey is produced using a still which is used to distill the formula. Depending on the brand, some whiskeys can be distilled multiple times. The most common method is triple distilling which converts the raw alcohol spirit into what will become whiskey.

For it to be classified as Irish Whiskey, the formula must be aged in barrels for at least three years. The majority of flavor and color in the final product comes from the barrels themselves. For this reason, many whiskey producers will take immense care in preparing barrels for whiskey aging to ensure the result is perfect.

The process to produce bourbon is similar in that starch is extracted from grain, there is a fermentation process and a distillation and aging process as well.

For bourbon, however, the mash produced from the grains must contain a minimum of 51% corn and the resulting product must be stored in newly charred white oak barrels. The oak barrels aid in the underlying taste of bourbon, namely a nutty flavor profile and a caramelized sweetness.

What Are They Made of?

The main ingredients used in the production of Irish whiskey are barley, malt (germinated or sprouted barley), and water.

The barley can be malted or unmalted as described in the section above. Water is used in the distillation process and for this reason most whiskey producers will use purified water to ensure the water is as pure as possible.

Bourbon is made primarily with ‘dent corn’ which is matured longer until it dries and hardens. The kernels are crushed into a powder and converted into a mash by combining the powder with other grains.

Corn is used as it gives bourbon subtle under notes of caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch.

what are they made of

How Are They Similar?

The process to produce Irish Whiskey and Bourbon is relatively similar so many struggles to understand the difference. The production of both beverages starts when the grain is processed and combined with purified water.

That solution is distilled several times and the resulting alcohol spirit is aged. So the beverages are quite similar up to that point.

The main difference between the two, therefore, comes from the aging process. Irish Whiskey must be aged for at least 3 years in used barrels and rarely new oak barrels. Whereas Bourbon is aged in relatively new American oak barrels and does not have a designated aging time.

Bourbon vs Irish Whiskey Comparison

Item Irish Whiskey Bourbon
Production Area Ireland Predominantly Bourbon County, Kentucky, USA
Raw Materials Malt, purified water 51% corn, purified water, cereals including rye, barley, and wheat
ABV (average across brands) 40% – 94.8% (80 – 189.6 proof) Approximately 40% (80 proof)
Taste Smooth, a hint of vanilla, fruity hints, sharp Sweet, vanilla, oak, and caramel
Average Market Price $20 – $120 Premium bourbon: $30 – $60

Cheap, traditional bourbon: $21,99

Color Pale gold to dark amber Golden brown

To find the average statistics for Irish Whiskey, three Irish whiskeys were looked at: Knap Pogue Castle, Bushmills, and Jameson.

Depending on the brand, some Irish Whiskey may have higher or lower ABV, prices may differ, and the taste and color will depend on the barrels used and the age of the whiskey.

Irish Whiskey Variations

Item Size Price Proof
Bushmills Original 750ml $24 80 (40% ABV)
Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey 750ml $39 88 (44% ABV)
Redbreast 15-Year-Old 750ml $133 92 (46% ABV)

According to Town & Country, there are several Irish Whiskies that whisky drinkers must try. The above whiskeys are a small selection of the options recommended.

Bourbon Variations

Item Size Price Proof
Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 750ml $16,09 86 (43% ABV)
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 750ml $21,99 80 (40% ABV)
Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 750ml $48,14 90 (45% ABV)

Liquor Laboratory has discussed the Bourbons in great depth so 3 options from different price ranges were looked at to compare the various options you may find in the bourbon family.

how are they similar

How To Drink Bourbon vs Irish Whiskey

Bourbon purists prefer to enjoy bourbon neat. Bourbon neat should be served at room temperature in a rocks glass, but can also be served in a shot glass, snifter, or Glencairn glass. A snifter is a balloon glass used to serve bourbon and brandy.

To bring out the flavor of bourbon, a splash of water can be added to your bourbon. There should not be too much water as you don’t want to dilute the bourbon too much, but the water can bring out the sweeter notes more in bourbon.

If you want to enjoy your bourbon on the rocks, use ice balls that will melt slowly and will not dilute your bourbon too much.

Irish whiskey can be enjoyed neat by serving it in a rocks glass at room temperature. However, some Irish whiskies are ideal to use in cocktails. A classic cocktail is an Irish Blonde.

Combine 2 ounces of Irish whiskey, ¾ ounce of orange curacao, ¼ ounce of Fino sherry, and a dash of orange bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Strain the mixture into a cocktail glass and garnish with a flamed orange peel.

Alternatives to Irish Whiskey and Bourbon

Scotch is a good alternative to both Irish Whiskey and Bourbon. Like Irish Whiskey, scotch is aged in old sherry and bourbon barrels and has a minimum aging process of 3 years. Another similarity is that scotch is made primarily from malted grains, much like Irish Whiskey.

For a bourbon alternative, Aberfeldy 12 Year has sweet undertones with a smooth finish. For a fruitier, Irish Whiskey comparison, The GlenDronach Revival is from neighboring Scotland and has spicey fruit undertones.

Another alternative to Irish Whiskey and Bourbon is Rum. Rum is made from fermented sugarcane or molasses and is aged in oak barrels. Rums can be light which is suitable for cocktails or can be consumed neat, on the rocks, and as a base for mixers.

A good rum to drink in place of bourbon is the Don Papa 10-Year-Old Rum which is aged in old bourbon barrels and carries through some of those similar notes of vanilla.

For a rum alternative to Irish Whiskey, Appleton Estate Signature Blend Rum is among the best options. The flavor notes are primarily stone fruit with a hint of molasses.

Irish Whiskey vs Bourbon FAQs

Which is stronger?

Most bourbons are 80% ABV while Irish Whiskies can have an ABV of 40-94.8% so you may find either option is stronger depending on the brand.

Which is the smoothest bourbon?

Among the smoothest bourbons are Maker’s Mark 46, and W.L. Weller 12-Year-Old

What is the most famous Irish Whiskey?

Jameson Whiskey is the most popular option according to Whiskey Watch

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About The Author

Charl Joost

Charl is a trainer, public speaker, and professional writer. While he has been coached to niche down, he has many passions. These include golf, gardening, technology, and a decent cup of coffee or two. Charl loves to learn about new products and tries everything he writes about.

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