Whiskey is a universal spirit, enjoyed by everyone—from the Irish to the Japanese and back around to the United States. Even fictional characters love whiskey (think Don Draper and Ron Burgundy). But just how much do you know about this iconic spirit of the world? It’s quite common (even among connoisseurs) to misjudge a whiskey. So, just what is the difference between a whiskey and a scotch? Where is bourbon made? And is it spelled whiskey or whisky?
Whiskey & Geography
To call a whiskey a whiskey is not enough in itself to determine exactly what you’re drinking. Whiskey is simply a category that encompasses all the different types of whiskies. The biggest telltale sign is geography.
Let’s first examine Scotch whisky (or simply, scotch). Scotch is a type of whiskey that is only distilled in Scotland. Note the omission of the “e” when we refer to Scotch as Scotch whisky. This is not a typo but rather a cultural difference in the etymology of the word. Scots (along with Canadians and Japanese) spell whisky without the “e”.
Bourbon is the fastest growing spirit in the US—probably because it’s made right here in the states. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is distilled only in the US, and more specifically, in Kentucky. However, there’s a common misconception about bourbon that we need to clear up. Most people think that all bourbon is made in Kentucky. While a large percentage of bourbon (nearly 95%) is distilled in Kentucky, there are other states that distill bourbon (and the quality is on par with anything Kentucky-made).
There’s another type of American whiskey that we need to discuss—Tennessee whiskey. Tennessee whiskey, on the contrary, must be made and aged in the Volunteer State. Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are actually very similar whiskies: both have a composition of at least 51% corn and both are aged in new white oak barrels. The slight difference between the two is that Tennessee whiskey is maple charcoal filtered before being filled into casks for aging.
Rye is another type of whiskey. Its main ingredient can be guessed by its namesake. This style can be made either in the US or Canada.
Of course, Irish whiskey is whiskey that hails from Ireland.
Whiskey & Its Ingredients
Another defining attribute of a whiskey are the ingredients (or the mash bill). There are several laws (specifically here in the US) that govern what certain styles of whiskey must be made from. To simplify things, remember the rule of 51. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey must contain at least 51% corn. Rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye.
A few Scottish whiskies (don’t forget to drop the “e” when it’s distilled in Scotland) also have restrictions on the ingredients they can be made with. A malt whisky is made only from malted barley while a blended whisky contains a mixture of different grains (barley, wheat).
Where To Get Started
It’s a lot of information to take in, as any whiskey connoisseur can attest to. However, trying each different type of whiskey and reflecting on each individual nuance can give you a greater appreciation for this popular spirit. And we have a few suggestions (courtesy of GSN) to get you started: try this single malt whiskey from Stranahan’s, a bourbon from Gentleman Jack, or a rye whiskey from Knob Creek. They are all excellent, and each has its own pleasures. As Mark Twain said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
Article by Devin Mills – Distilling Craft