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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.

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.



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.

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.


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 or 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.


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 really 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.

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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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