If all bourbon and Scotch are whisk(e)y, then what is whisk(e)y? What makes bourbon different from Scotch, and what makes Scotch different from whiskey? Why is whisk(e)y sometimes spelled with an E and sometimes without?
The world of whiskey can be a confusing place; but fear not, dear whiskey drinkers, you have come to the right place. By the end of this article, hopefully, you will be navigating yourself through the wonderful world of whiskey and all it has to offer, one dram at a time.
WHISKEY OR WHISKY? WHY SPELLING MATTERS
Let’s start with the spelling differences, shall we? The spelling of the word whisk(e)y is an indication of its place of origin. Whiskey (with an E) refers to Irish or American-made whiskey.
Whisky (without an E) refers to Scottish, Japanese, and Canadian-produced whisky. So the key difference between whiskey and whisky is simply location. This distinction applies in the plural form: The plural form of whiskey is whiskeys, while the plural form of whisky is whiskies.
According to the Scotch Whisky Association,
“Production and maturations of whisk(e)y is governed by law, not the word. Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are often distinguished in spelling’. American whiskey is usually spelt with an ‘e’, while English, Welsh, Japanese and most other world whiskies are not.”
(Note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is a far greater history lesson to be learned surrounding the origin of the word, apart from understanding how to spell whisk(e)y orthographically. That is a whole other rabbit hole worth diving into, but for the sake of our shared sanity, we’ll save it for another time.)
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WHAT IS WHISKEY/WHISKY?
You now know how to correctly spell whiskey– fantastic! But, what the heck is whiskey?
“Whiskey (or whisky) is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain and typically matured in wooden containers for some period of time.” –Whisky Advocate, 2017
But it’s a lot more than that. Whiskey, like wine, is a heritage that identifies a culture. In Scotland, it is considered the “water of life” and is properly emblematic of the land it comes from.
In the US, bourbon whiskey (and other whiskies) have played critical roles in history, including aiding in the rise out of the Great Depression with the repeal of Prohibition. And is there anything more symbolic and “wild west” than whiskey, other than perhaps cowboys and horses?
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HOW WHISKEY IS MADE
To produce whisk(e)y, distillers start with a mash bill (a recipe) of grains, sometimes referred to as a “grain mash”:
- That mixture of grains is combined with water and yeast.
- The yeast will feed on the simple sugars inside the grain mixture.
- The yeast then excretes alcohols such as methanol, ethanol, and carbon dioxide; this is called the fermentation process.
- That fermented liquid is then run through either pot still, column still, or a combination of both to produce the spirit.
- That batch is then usually stored in an oak vessel for maturation. (Note: Whiskey/whisky is usually a brown liquor because of the contact with oak barrels affects the color.)
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TYPES OF WHISKEY & WHISKY
The term whiskey is an all-encompassing title that all styles of grain-based distillate fall into. Within that umbrella term, the whiskey industry is divided into multiple, distinct categories further distinguish the liquid:
- How it was produced
- What it was produced with/from
- Where it was produced (geographic origin)
We’ll discuss some of these types more in-depth here, but these are all the major styles of whiskey (or whisky):
BOURBON VS. RYE
BOURBON: AMERICA’S NATIVE SPIRIT SINCE 1964
First of all, bourbon is whiskey. Let’s just get that out of the way. Unlike the term whiskey, the word bourbon represents one of the most regulated American spirits in terms of production, and the requirements for bourbon are more strict than with some most other spirits.
For a liquid to be called bourbon, it must follow the bourbon ABCs:
A: American-made: No, being made in Kentucky is not a requirement, although the vast majority is. It just has to be made somewhere in the continental US of A.
B: Barrels: Bourbon distillers must age their spirit in new, charred oak barrels from America for a varying period of time – some bourbons have only been aged for 3 months, some over 20 years.
C: Corn: Bourbon must have at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill (“corn mash”). This also gives it a sweeter taste than its rye counterpart.
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D: Distillation proof: Bourbon must be distilled to no higher than 80% ABV (alcohol by volume).
E: Entry proof: Bourbon must be no higher than 62.5% ABV when entering the barrel for aging.
F: Fill Proof: Bourbon must be 40% ABV or above going into the bottle.
G: Genuine: There can be no additives, i.e. coloring agents or sweeteners.
These requirements are just the tip of the iceberg, the baseline into the world of bourbon. From here, terms adding further guidelines can be applied, such as “Bottled in Bond,” “Barrel Strength,” “Straight Bourbon,” and seemingly the favorite, “Single Barrel.”
- “Bottled in Bond” – This must always be 50% ABV– or 100 proof– and must always be bottled and aged in a Federally Bonded Warehouse under United States federal government regulations for no less than 4 years, all in accordance with the Bottle-in-Bond Act of 1897.
- “Barrel Strength” or Cask Strength – This term refers to whiskey that has not been “proofed” down; instead, they filter the whiskey straight from the oak barrel/cask into the bottle.
- “Straight Bourbon Whiskey” – This bourbon follows the same restrictive rules as above; however, it must be aged for a minimum of 2 years with absolutely no additives of any kind.
- “Single Barrel” – Exactly what it sounds like, each bottle comes from one barrel as opposed to being blended with others. It should be known that most whiskeys, in general, are blends of different barrels and different ages.
Tennessee Whiskey operates along with the same strict rules as bourbon and is actually– according to the regulations of bourbon– a bourbon. However, they prefer to retain the name and not dip themselves into the muddied waters of “bourbon.”
Yes, they are one-in-the-same, but with one major technicality: To be called Tennessee Whiskey, it must be filtered through charcoal made seasonally on-site from sugar maple trees; this is referred to as the Lincoln County Process.
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Rye whiskey, the spicy sibling of bourbon, this category is a grain-based distillate that follows similarly rigid guidelines as bourbon, at least here in the US. However, rye whiskey finds itself the main base of many Canadian whiskies, so much so that the two styles run almost synonymously – we’ll get into that later.
The most notable and relatively obvious difference between bourbon and rye is that the mash bill for a rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye grain instead of the 51% corn required in bourbon production. The use of rye as the primary grain gives the spirit its distinctive spice and dryness.
We take a little deeper dive into the differences between bourbon and rye in this article.
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AMERICAN MALT V. SINGLE MALT WHISKEY
Talking American whiskey behooves us to mention bourbon and rye’s malty cousins: American single malt and blended malts. Though not quite as popular as the others, these have gained some serious popularity in recent years.
They offer a similar uniqueness to Scotch, only softer and less “peaty,” while paying homage to that distilling style that has been perfected over centuries now with a flair of modernity.
American malted whiskies follow a somewhat more minimal set of rules than their Scottish counterparts (more on that below):
- Malted whiskeys cannot exceed 80% ABV.
- They must come from a fermented mash consisting of no less than 51% malted barley grain– The only exception is malted rye whiskey, which must be a minimum of 51% malted rye.
- These must be stored in new charred oak barrels at less than 62.5% ABV.
- It may be referred to as “single malt” (or “straight whiskey“) if the whiskey has been aged for a minimum of two years, has no added coloring or flavoring, and has not been blended with any other neutral grain spirits or other types of whiskeys.
These whiskeys offer a playful expression of how far and creative whiskey-making in the US has come and are quickly becoming a hot commodity for whiskey aficionados.
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IRISH WHISKEY VS SCOTCH WHISKY
Scotch whisky is… you guessed it, a Scottish-produced cereal grain whisky or “Scottish whisky” known for its smoky flavor.
While still heavily regulated in its production, Scotch plays by a different set of rules than its American counterparts– bourbon and rye– which are arguably more restrictive, rivaling those of the wine laws in France.
To keep it simple for now, a whisky that bears the title of Scotch whisky must meet the following requirements:
- Be made from only water, malted barley, and other cereal grains
- Must not exceed 94.8% ABV
- Be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years in Scotland
- Be bottled at no less than 40% ABV
- Must be produced in Scotland
Simple and easy rules to follow, right? Wait until we get into the specifics – which could be a whole other article. Like bourbon, Scotch is among one of the most protected spirits in the world, so much so that the Scotch Whisky Association starts their “Protecting Scotch” page with the line:
“It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We disagree.”
To say the Scots are old-school in their approach is barely scratching the surface. Within the base regulations for Scotch are a myriad of bylaws that are specific to each region and style.
Let’s just say there is a law or regulation for pretty much everything when it comes to Scotch – labeling alone offers more restrictions than are imaginable.
Much like how bourbon is a geographical indication for American-made whiskey, Scotch is a protected title that guarantees any liquid (legally) displaying that term is a product of Scotland.
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This means, yes, Scotch can only be produced in Scotland. However, regionality matters; in fact, it is a point of considerable pride.
Scotland is divided into 5 different regions, each with its own indicative style:
- Highland – The largest region in Scotland and perhaps the most well-known, it boasts a wide variety of flavors and styles.
- Speyside – Considered the most populous region of whisky globally, it offers more consistent variations of fruitier and less peaty whiskies.
- Lowland – Speaking of softer Scotches, the whiskies coming out of here have been dubbed the “Lowland ladies” due to their gentle complexity of floral flavors and a more delicate profile.
- Campbeltown – One of the smallest regions, they boast a more robust and deeply complex flavor profile.
- Islay – The smallest region, Islay is a small island whose nearly entire population is dedicated to making some of the most fiery and smoky whisky in existence due to their regularly generous use of peat.
I’ve mentioned peat multiple times now, so what the heck is it? Peat is a boggy soil made up of decomposed organic matter. Yum. Peat is actually used during the kilning of the malt, which is that all-important part of malting the cereals.
During the kilning process, bricks of dried peat are tossed into the kiln fire, releasing a thick gray smoke that envelopes the inside of the kiln. That smoke is then absorbed into the malting grains, leaving the distinct, potent, and peaty flavor and smell that makes Scotch, well, Scotch.
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Like bourbon, there are different styles of Scotch, each with their own identifiers that can be added on along with the title of Scotch; here are the five main types as dictated by the Scotch Whisky Association:
- Blended Scotch Whisky – The most popular and widely exported Scotch whiskies of the world, this is a blend of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies. Barley and other cereals can be used and then distilled in both a pot or patented still (also know as a column or Coffey still).
- Single Malt Scotch – The second-most popular of Scotches out there, a single malt whisky Scotch must be made of ONLY malted barley, water, and yeast; it also must only be made in a single Scottish distillery and made in copper pot stills.
- Single Grain Scotch – This is distilled at a single distillery with water and malted barley with or without whole grains of malted or unmalted cereals in a patented still.
- Blended Grain Scotch – As the name suggests, this is a blend of whiskies, specifically Single Grain Scotches that have been distilled at more than one Scottish whisky distillery.
- Blended Malt Scotch – Another of the blended whiskies, this is a blend of Single Malt Scotches that have been distilled at more than one distillery.
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Next to Scotland lies THE oldest whiskey-producing country in the world. Yes, records of the earliest-recorded whiskey recipes are found in Ireland. Yes, whiskey was invented in Ireland. Rumor even has it that whiskey was first distilled there during the 12th century by monks.
However, it is difficult to find many records of it due to the fact they didn’t really keep them on paper; almost everything was done verbally, which could explain where the stories and rumors originated.
While both potentially created in the 15th century, according to observable records, the first recipe for whiskey in Ireland was recorded as early 1405, whereas the earliest recorded Scotch recipe dates back to 1494.
Keeping with the theme of geographical restrictions, this type of whiskey can be produced throughout the island of Ireland. To be called Irish whiskey, it must follow these guidelines:
- Mash bill must contain malted barley but may include other cereal grains.
- It must not be distilled to higher than 94.8% ABV.
- Spirit must be matured in wooden casks for a minimum of 3 years in Ireland.
- It may contain no additives other than water and caramel coloring.
- It must retain the characteristics of its raw materials.
- The final product must bottled at no lower than 40% ABV.
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Irish whiskey was once the most consumed whiskey in the world, and understandably so. Like many of their counterparts, these whiskeys also offer many different styles and expressions of their proud heritage:
- Single Malt – Whiskeys made from a 100% malted barley in a pot still from a single distillery– May undergo double or triple distillation.
- Single Pot Still – Whiskeys made with a mixture of malted and unmalted barley in a pot still in a single distillery– also referred to as pure pot still
- Grain Whiskey – Whiskeys produced with a variety of grains using a continuous distillation method in column or Coffey stills– On its own, this whiskey is hard to find, and it is typically distilled only to be blended with other whiskeys.
- Blended – Whiskeys made from blending all of the styles above, without any real restrictions on mash build or blending parameters– This is the most common and well-known style of Irish whiskey.
You can’t really think about Canadian whisky without thinking about rye or Canadian rye whisky. The two are synonymous, especially here in the US. There is only one minor caveat: Most of their whiskies are corn-based with rye and other grains in the mash.
Canadian whisky’s history with rye is a fascinating one. Canada has a pretty cold climate, which made it very challenging to grow typical cereal grains– until farmers began to notice rye’s innate ability to withstand the harsher winters of Canada.
Naturally, rye became relatively abundant, naturally finding its way into the mash of early whisky distillers. The potent flavor of rye quickly became indicative of all whiskies made in Canada, despite their regular use of corn.
Thus, every consumer of their spirit knew it as “rye” whisky because of its distinctive taste. So in the government’s eye, they didn’t see the point in stopping a good thing on a technicality.
A rather fun side note on Canada’s whisky history: It played a considerable role in smuggling whiskey into the states during Prohibition. “Rum-runners” would take whisky across key border points– the Detroit River being very popular– and distribute them to illicit bar/club owners like Al Capone.
(One of the chief proprietors of this venture was Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery, which happened to make Canada’s staple whisky, Canadian Club. Convenient!)
OK, back to Canadian whisky’s process and regulations. Surprise, surprise! Canada operates on a geographical regulation much like every other whisk(e)y-making country.
These are the regulations set by the Canadian Food and Drugs Act in order to be called Canadian whisky or Canadian “rye” whisky:
- The whisky must be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada.
- The whisky must be aged in native “small wood vessels” for no less than three years.
- It must be no less than 40% ABV.
- Caramel and other flavorings may be used.
These whiskies are extremely similar to bourbon and US Rye in style and mash build. Typically, corn is the primary ingredient (grain) used.
However, blending whiskies that tend to be rye-dominant are used. These whiskies are often blended into the proprietary corn whisky to add the flavor and aroma often associated and expected from Canadian whiskies.
Beyond the main three, Canadian whisky, Canadian rye whisky, and rye whisky, there are no other geographic designations for Canadian whisky, and they can all be used interchangeably.
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It would be a lie to say Japanese whisky is the new kid on the block–even if they’ve only been known to many people for the last decade or so. In fact, it’s been around for a long time, over 150 years, surprisingly.
But it wasn’t until 1923 that Japan’s first commercial distillery, Yamazaki (owned by Suntory), started up their stills.
In general, Japanese whisky shares more commonalities with Scotch than any other whisk(e)y. A lot has to do with a man named Masataka Taketsuru, Yamazaki’s first executive distiller who studied under the masters of Scotland.
His style and education in whisky-making changed the profile of Japanese whisky as a whole. This paved the way for it to become one of the most sought-after whiskies on the market.
Yet it would take them 78 years to get to the world stage when in 2001, Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi Single Malt took the “Best of the Best” Award by Whisky Magazine.
It’s safe to say they’re doing something right in Japan. And while they continually pay homage to their training roots, their lust for experimentation in blending and distillation methods has quietly gained traction, cultivating some intriguing and ingenious whiskies, allowing them to stand apart from their former masters.
So, what exactly are Japanese whisky producers doing?
Up until recently, their regulations were extraordinarily flexible, resulting in some severe backlash from established distillers.
And Japanese whisky’s rise to popularity was not without other consequences. As the demand skyrocketed, their supply quickly dwindled, opening a rather gaping hole for “snake oil salesmen” to fill the void with questionably-made products, fueling controversy that would have destroyed the brand of Japanese whisky.
To nip that growing problem in the bud, the Japanese government, led by prominent distilleries and Japanese producers, formulated much stricter regulations that follow similar boundaries to that of Scotch and bourbon. However, these regulations actually weren’t put into place until April 1st of 2021!
The new regulations:
- Whisky must always be made with malted grains but may include other cereal grains.
- Whisky must be made with Japanese water.
- Mashing, fermentation, and distillation must take place at a Japanese distillery in Japan.
- Whisky must be aged in Japan in wooden casks for a minimum of 3 years.
- Bottling must take place in Japan and can be bottled at no less than 40% ABV.
- Plain caramel coloring can be used.
Any whiskies that deviate from these regulations will not get geographical recognition (go figure); it may not bear the Japanese flag or names of any person that evoke the country– The rules have certainly gone from frustratingly lax to punishingly strict.
Now that Japan has their own geographical identifying regulations in place, it will be interesting to see how the Japanese whisky industry changes over the coming years. It’s a fair assumption that they will continue to top the charts with their whiskies.
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EXCELLENT WHISKEY NO MATTER THE TYPE
It’s honestly hard to fathom the complexity and the long history of whisk(e)y, from its humble origins with Irish monks to becoming one of the most appreciated spirits in the world.
It is an alcohol with an arguably tumultuous past where iconic styles have almost been lost to history; it was smuggled as part of illicit rum-running and has had its traditions and boundaries pushed, stretched, and tested.
Whisk(e)y is at an ongoing impasse of old versus new. To me, that makes it all the more intriguing, all the more satisfying to enjoy.
Is it any wonder why whisk(e)y is one of the most polarizing spirits? Each world of whisk(e)y offers such distinctive and adventurous perspectives to the same grains.
The only thing that matters is that each style of whisk(e)y is unique and indicative of the names they bear. Each style comes with its own regulations that maintain its identity and its quality. Each comes with their own geographical recognitions–so long as they follow those regulations.
Yet, there is one common denominator between them all: Passion. It’s why we argue over which is better and why each whiskey distiller confidently boasts they have the best whisk(e)y in the world. And it is their regulations that maintain the continuity of that product, creating parameters for the passion that maintain that quality.
Whatever it is you drink, remember everything that goes into making that succulent elixir, and enjoy it passionately.
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