It’s no secret that we’re big whiskey guys around here. Whiskey is a compelling spirit that can widely cover an array of blends, origins, and flavors. And we know you’ve noticed that wavering (e) with whiskey and whisky. What’s that all about? Well, the (e) is directly connected with where the whiskey was created. If it’s in the States or Ireland, we keep it, if it’s from Scotland or Japan, they nix it. Seems pretty straightforward.
We want to discern the differences between the various types of whiskeys so that the next time you walk into a bar, you’re prepared with a wealth of knowledge. The main point to remember is that there are three differences between every type of whiskey: where it’s made, what it’s made of, and what it tastes like. And although there are more, we’ve pinpointed our focus on four main categories – American whiskey, Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky, and Irish whiskey.
Let’s get started.
What most of us are used to drinking is known as American whiskey. Whiskeys made in the United States can still be categorized even further into bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye whiskey.
We may or may not be a little biased toward bourbon – shh, don’t tell anyone. With a very clean-cut list of requirements, bourbon is pretty cut and dry.
According to the American Bourbon Association, to be considered bourbon it must be:
- Produced in the United States
- Made from 51% corn. It can also include a combination of other grains, such as rye, wheat, and malted barley.
- Distilled at no higher than 160 proof.
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof.
- A minimum of 80 proof at the time of bottling.
Notice there’s no mention of having to be made in Kentucky – this factor is hard to believe for some. But it is true that most bourbons are made in Kentucky. This is because the water in the Bluegrass State has a high pH and a high proportion of minerals, including magnesium and calcium. These things make it prime for distilling. But it’s possible to create optimal water outside of Kentucky, making great bourbon.
Bourbon is arguably America’s favorite form of whiskey, accounting for two-thirds of the country’s distilled spirit export. There are also variations of bourbon in itself.
Straight bourbon is aged for at least two years, and cannot contain any added colors, flavors, or other spirits. Blended bourbon can contain all those extra ingredients, as long as it’s at least 51 percent straight bourbon.
It is a science, after all.
Tennessee whiskey is a straight bourbon that is specifically made in Tennessee, along with an extra filtering process. In other words, Tennessee whiskey is basically another form of bourbon. The only real difference is that it undergoes a charcoal filtering technique known as the Lincoln County Process, which filters out impurities and gets a head start on the aging process.
Maybe that’s the reason there’s for the song, “you’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey…”
Rye whiskey meets all the same requirements as bourbon but consists of 51 percent rye as opposed to corn. Known as bourbon’s spicy cousin, Rye whiskey is in the midst of a resurgence as of late, but it’s been around since the beginning of America. George Washington was known for making himself rye whiskey at Mount Vernon, and before Prohibition, it was the easiest spirit to distill because the rye was ideal for American soil.
In addition to being 51 percent rye, it must also be at least 80 proof, no more than 160 proof, and aged in new charred oak barrels. The main difference between bourbon and rye whiskey is the flavor profile; while bourbon is sweet, rye is spicy. There are also Canadian rye whiskeys, which have a little less structured rules to their ingredient profiles.
Scotch whisky put simply is whisky made in Scotland. Usually, it consists of water, malted barley or grain, yeast, and caramel coloring. To be considered Scotch, it must be aged in oak casks for at least three years and bottled at 80 proof or higher.
Scotch can be difficult to nail down into single commonalities because it can be such a vast reaching spirit. It’s said to date all the way back to 1495 Scotland – and there’s no doubt that Scots claim the “original” whisky title. The Irish dispute this, but we’ll get to that a little later.
Though it tastes a lot like bourbon, it has a little bit more of a bite than traditional bourbon does. A lot of people say scotch can be an acquired taste because it is distilled primarily with barley, which is a malty flavor, while bourbon is distilled primarily with corn, a sweeter flavor. Many scotch whiskys also include peat, which is a plant that grows throughout Scotland and inserts a smoky, earthy flavor into the spirit.
The Japanese tend to make whisky similar to the Scots, but perhaps a little more loosely guided; as Japanese whisky is literally any whisky made in Japan. The first whisky distillery in Japan was started in the 1920s by a man named Shinjiro Torii, who had lived and been trained to distill in Scotland. His techniques remained the constant in the country, and although there are variations, it remains true today.
The two biggest Japanese whisky brands in the country produce blended, single malt, and blended malt varieties of their whisky. Scotch is distributed very similarly.
Isn’t it funny how life’s journeys seem to always circle back to the beginning? Although Irish whiskey is our last variation, rumor has it that the Irish are the ones who actually invented whiskey. Although Scots may disagree, Irish monks were recorded as distilling whiskey as many as 1,500 years ago. By all accounts, this would be the first recorded whiskey there ever was. Even the word itself originates from the Gaelic word uisce beatha, which means “water of life.”
Ironically, the Irish have some of the most relaxed rules when it comes to what is considered Irish whiskey. The only rule they abide by is that if the spirit is aged for three years in Ireland, it’s considered Irish whiskey.
The spirit reached peak popularity just before Prohibition and wars in Ireland came in to put a damper on things. By the 1960s, only a few distilleries were still open. In 1966, the ones that were left banded together to become the Irish Distillers, with thoughts that it would be better if they all succeeded or failed together. The good news is, the Irish always seem to have a little luck on their side.
Today, Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirit around the world. Because there is only one rule to creating it, there tends to be a good deal of variation within the Irish whiskey market. Usually comprised of barley, malt, and water, it will go through three rounds of distillation before it rests in casks, as opposed to bourbon in barrels.
In a nutshell, Irish whiskey is smooth; not as fiery as rye, and not as sweet as bourbon. Some believe it’s just the perfect balance of both.
Whether you’re a whiskey novice or a seasoned veteran, we hope you’ll feel more equipped to make a well-informed decision the next time someone asks, “What’s your pleasure?”