You may not be aware of this, but the term “whisky” actually includes an entire host of spirits ranging from Kentucky bourbon to fine Canadian rye and single-malt Scotch. With that in mind, let’s take a tour of what’s what and where your favorite brown mash falls in.
Whiskey or Whisky?
First off, there is a great divide (about as big as the Atlantic Ocean in fact) about how to properly spell the term in general. The word itself comes from the Old Irish term “uisce beatha” which translates roughly to “water of life.” In general, most Irish and American distillers use the spelling with the “e,” as a holdover from when the Irish first exported their strong fermented mash to the new world and used the extra vowel to differentiate what they felt was their superior product from Scottish whisky makers. As such, you can expect Glenfiddich to be classified as a whisky while Jack Daniels is a Tennessee whiskey (more on this below). There are few who go against the grain, however. An example of this is Maker’s Mark who classifies their Bourbon as a whisky.
Here in the States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms sets what they call “standards of identity” for all alcohol. As such they classify all grain based sprits, in which a fermented mash of grain is stored in oak containers, as including whisky (legally spelled without the “e“), Bourbon, Corn whisky—which doesn’t have to be stored in oak, and various blends thereof.
By law, the ATF holds that whisky in the U.S. be bottled in a strength of at least 80-proof with 190-proof (95 percent ABV) being the maximum. These whiskies include such traditional blends as Seagram’s Seven and Calvert’s Extra. These are often Bourbon blends, which are made from at least 51 percent corn. Speaking of which…
Most of the domestic whisky marketed in the U.S. is either Kentucky-style Bourbon or what is termed Tennessee whiskey. A wholly American invention (you won’t find Scotch Bourbon), there is no minimum aging period of this sour mash. Your Kentucky makers include Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Elijah Craig (which is brewed in small batches and stored for up to 18 years), and Mad Man favorite Old Granddad. Your Tennessee whiskey, which is technically a Bourbon that has been filtered, is represented by Jack Daniels and George Dickel.
Most of your Canadian whiskies are rye derivatives. That being said, they have to have at least 51 percent of their mash made up of rye grain. Since this is regarded by many as being more flavorful than corn or other mashes, many regard rye as a more full-body spirit in the world of whisky. Crown Royal, the most popular Canadian whiskey in the U.S. is thought by some to be a rye although there is some debate on this. A confirmed list of ryes include Old Overholt (which is actually an American straight rye) and Alberta Premium. In recent years, several American Bourbon makers to include Knob Creek and Beam have begun to make rye blends.
Good old white lightning, or corn whiskey, is clear since by law it does not have to be aged in oak casks, which in turn impart their char to the spirit. Long the realm of moonshiners, this neglected stepchild in the world of fermented mash is now having something of a Renaissance with new legal distillers turning up every week. Some of the more accepted are imaginatively named Dark Corner and Death’s Door. Interestingly, some mainstream Bourbon makers are tipping their big toes into this pool with Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace marketing their own unique white dog corn liquors.
The grandfather of whiskies, the Scots take their drink seriously, with thankfully over 100 distilleries in operation there churning the stuff out by the barrel. While Americans like corn and Canadians prefer rye, the Scots use barley almost exclusively in their whisky. No matter whether its single malts like Macallan, Glengoyne, Glenfiddich, and Glenfarclas, or blended varieties like Johnnie Walker and Dewars, these are some of the elite of the whisky world.
A smaller operation than the Scots, Irish whiskey (remember the proper use of the “e” here) is often distilled three times while many American whiskies are only done once and Scotch is done twice. This and the fact that peat is rarely used in the fermentation process, and all aging is at least three years is likewise credited with giving Irish whiskey like Bushmills (the oldest distiller in the world), Jameson and Kilbeggan their distinctive taste and aroma.
So there you have it, a crash course into the world of whisky—and what a beautiful world it is.