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Brandy, rum and whisky: what’s the difference?

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Whether you’re waiting to order a cocktail or picking a bottle for this weekend’s get-together, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to spirits. There are plenty of bottles to choose from, all of varying shapes and sizes and housing different liquids. Some are easy to tell apart. When it comes to whisky vs vodka, the colour of the spirit alone separates them.

But what about those darker spirits; brandy, rum and whisky? This is where things can get a bit trickier, especially if you’re only just starting to experiment with these drinks. At first glance, they can appear similar next to one another on a shelf. But they all have distinct characteristics that make them wonderfully different from each other.

The key difference between whisky and brandy lies in what they are made from. Brandy’s main ingredient is fermented grapes whereas whisky is derived from grains. It’s the same when it comes to the difference between rum and whisky. With rum being crafted from sugarcane and whisky being produced from cereal grains such as barley, wheat, corn and barley, the finished spirits may all start from humble beginnings, but result in unique characteristics that set them apart from one another.

So, if you’ve ever pondered the difference between brandy and whisky, or questioned whether it’s rum or whisky you want for your summer cocktails, this guide will help clear things up.

What is whisky?

Whisky is a distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash. The process of distillation has been around for centuries but whisky as we know it is believed to have originated sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries.

In the UK, whisky must be at least 40% ABV but some versions are as strong as 92% ABV.

It can be produced anywhere in the world, but certain varieties are defined by geographical location. For example, Scotch can only be called so if made in Scotland and Bourbon can only be manufactured in America. Find out more about scotch vs whisky.

What is brandy?

Brandy is a liquor that is made by distilling wine or other fermented fruit juices. It’s been distilled in France since the Middle Ages and was first used for medicinal purposes.

Just like with whisky, there are location-specific variations of brandy such as Cognac and Armagnac. Brandy generally contains 35-60% ABV.

 

What is rum?

Rum is a spirit that is produced through the fermentation and distillation of sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. It is manufactured in nearly every sugar-producing country across the globe but plays an important part in the culture of the islands of the West Indies and the Maritimes, and Newfoundland in Canada.

The exact origins of rum as we now know it today are unclear, but it is believed to have its beginning in the Caribbean. It has a 40-80% ABV and there are many regional variations and grades.

Brandy, rum, and whisky: the things they have in common

Before looking at what separates whisky, rum, and brandy, let’s first consider their similarities.

One of the most obvious is that they are all distilled spirits. This means that they all go through at least two procedures: fermentation and distillation. During distillation, the liquids are purified, and the alcohol content is increased. This differs from wine and beer which only go through fermentation.

All three are also aged in oak barrels and this is an integral part of developing the character and flavour profile of the spirit. Many countries require rum to be matured for at least 12 months and Cognac must be kept in barrels for at least two years. Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, but all three alcohols can and are aged for much longer than this to produce different varieties.

Brandy, rum, and whisky can also all be similar in colour. Most people are likely to describe them as golden, brown, or amber. However, each spirit on its own has a huge spectrum of colour, depending on ingredients and age.

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Brandy vs rum vs whisky: their differences

Now we’ve cleared up some of the fundamentals and history of each of these spirits, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty about what makes brandy, rum and whisky different from one another.

INGREDIENTS

The main ingredients of whisky are water, grain, and yeast. Typically, the grain used is barley, but it can also be rye, wheat, or another grain. The grain used can be malted or unmalted. The ingredients of whisky, and where these ingredients are grown, have a massive impact on the flavour of the finished whisky. American whiskies, for example, taste very different to Japanese varieties and there are even vast differences in the scotch produced across the five whisky regions of Scotland.

A significant difference between brandy and whisky is that brandy is usually made from grapes which are mashed and combined with yeast. However, other fruits can also be used to make brandy such as apples, blackberries, peaches, pears, and apricots.

Rum is made from sugarcane combined with water and yeast. Depending on the variety, the recipe can include raw cane juice, white or brown cane sugar, cane syrup, evaporated cane sugar and/or cane molasses.

FERMENTATION

With whisky, the grains are mashed and fermented, converting the starches into sugars and then into alcohol. The grains are ground, mixed with water, and heated to first convert the starches into sugars. Yeast is then added to ferment the sugary mash into alcohol. The fermentation process for whisky can last from a few days to more than a week, depending on the desired characteristics of the final product. This fermentation process is crucial for developing the flavour profile, with the type of yeast, the temperature of fermentation, and the composition of the grain mash all contributing.

The production of Brandy begins with the fermentation of fruit juice, converting sugars into alcohol. This fermentation can take place naturally or with the addition of yeast to help instigate and control the process. As with whisky, the duration of fermentation can vary but is generally a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on the desired characteristics of the brandy.

Sugarcane juice or molasses is fermented to produce alcohol in the production of rum. Similarly to brandy, this can be done with the help of naturally occurring wild yeast or by adding specific strains of yeast and like whisky, the type of yeast used and the fermentation conditions contribute to the development of flavours in the rum.

DISTILLATION

Brandy, rum, and whisky all undergo distillation, which is the process of separating the alcohol from the other components such as grain particles, water, and congeners. Whisky is distilled in pot stills or column stills, and the shape of the still and the specificities of the process play a significant role in shaping the final taste.

Brandy is typically distilled using pot stills, although column stills may also be used in some cases. Rum can be distilled using a variety of still types, including pot stills, column stills, or a combination of both, depending on the producer and the desired style of rum. Like with whisky, the choice still influences the final character of the rum. Pot stills tend to produce a heavier, more flavourful spirit, while column stills can create a lighter and smoother product.

MATURATION

We’ve already touched upon the maturation of brandy, rum, and whisky but the nuances in this process for each spirit really do make a difference to the character of the finished product. The profile of rum, whisky and brandy can all be influenced by:

  • Choice of barrel
  • Climate
  • Duration of ageing
  • Blending
  • Special finishes
  • Filtering

Whisky must mature in wooden barrels, and these are typically made of oak. The process allows the spirit to interact with the wood, absorbing flavours and developing complexity. Some whiskies are matured in casks which previously held other spirits so that they can take on some of the characteristics. The duration of maturation varies, and different types of whiskies have specific ageing requirements. For example, scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years,

Brandy is also matured in wooden barrels which are usually oak. The process can vary in duration, and some brandies are labelled with age statements. Cognac brandy, for instance, must be kept in barrels for at least two years and Armagnac for a minimum of one year.

Oak barrels are commonly used to mature rum too and casks that previously held other spirits, such as bourbon or sherry, are sometimes used. In tropical climates, such as those in the Caribbean where many rums are produced, the interaction between the rum and the wood is more intense due to higher temperatures and humidity. This can result in a faster ageing process and greater extraction of flavours from the barrel.

FILTRATION

Before bottling, rum, brandy, and whisky typically undergo filtration to remove sediment left over from the cask. Chill-filtering whisky also helps combat haze when adding water to whisky, which doesn’t affect the flavour but can be undesirable aesthetically. Some rums undergo filtration to remove impurities or excess colour gained from the barrel.

 

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APPEARANCE

Many varieties of brandy, rum and whisky are brown but there are differences between each spirit and even across brands of the same alcohol.

For instance, brandy can range from straw yellow to dark tan and can even have greenish tints. Rum, however, can be completely clear through to deep mahogany. Whisky tends to be described as amber in colour, but it can be lighter or darker depending on how long it has been barrelled.

FLAVOUR

The flavour is where brandy, whisky, and rum each come into their own. With endless brands and varieties to choose from, you really can experiment with finding your favourites.

Overall, brandy has a fruity flavour and a subtle sweetness with notes differing depending on the fruits used to make it. It is also often described as oaky and can have hints of vanilla, spice and even tobacco.

Regardless of the variant, the underlying flavour profile of rum is sweet, toasted sugar. Light rum tends to be fresher and sweeter while dark rum is smokier. Producers often add additional ingredients to rum with common notes including citrus, spice, coconut, banana, and other tropical fruits.

The flavours of whisky can be complex with descriptions including smoky, sweet, floral, oaky, peaty, nutty, and nutty. But it depends on the core ingredients, where the whisky has been produced and how it has been aged. For example, Ballantine’s Finest, our blended scotch whisky has a subtle, sweet taste with flavours of milk chocolate, red apple, and vanilla. However, our 18-year-old whisky is characterised by sweet orange and blackcurrant flavours, with creamy notes and a texture of honey.

Serving

When it comes to how to drink whisky, there really are no rules. You can enjoy it neat, over ice, or create classic whisky drinks such as an Old Fashioned or Penicillin cocktail.

Rum is very similar in this way. It’s perfect on its own, especially if you simply want to enjoy the nuances of the drink. To mellow out the alcohol vapours, you can add a splash of water too. If cocktails are more your bag, rum is a key component of a Piña Colada, Mai Tai and Daiquiri.

Brandy is typically served at room temperature, neat in a snifter glass and is considered an after-dinner or late-evening drink. If straight spirits aren’t your thing though, brandy can also be used as the basis for many great cocktails.

Of course, you can combine brandy, rum, and whisky in various ratios and with the addition of other ingredients to create your own cocktail recipes. For example, our Pandan cocktail contains whisky and rum and results in a simple yet refreshing summer serve. And our Apple Old Fashioned uses just four ingredients, including whisky and brandy, for a drink that is fruity, spicy and seriously tasty.

Hopefully, you are now a little more confident about the difference between brandy, whisky, and rum. If you’re ready to get crafting some delicious drinks, check out our whisky cocktail recipes for inspiration. You can follow them to a tee or mix things up by adding a dash of brandy or rum. If you just want to explore whisky tasting, check out our guide on how to order scotch at a bar and our rundown of the best whisky mixers

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