Detailed Guide to Whiskey, Whisky, Scotch & Bourbon
Detailed Guide to Whiskey, Whisky, Scotch & Bourbon
Depending on where you’re located in the world, or more importantly, where your drink traces its origin to, there are many different ways to enjoy the wide and often complex flavors of a good whiskey, whisky, scotch, or bourbon.
But before you head off to your local drinking establishment to savor the flavors of your favorite dark spirit, consider asking yourself first if you know the difference between the various types of Whiskies mentioned above.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DISTILLED SPIRITS
The history surrounding the family of liquors known as Whiskies is ancient and can trace its origin back thousands of years ago to at least the time of the ancient Babylonians. Although there is little evidence that ancient cultures were creating 18-year-old single malts, there is quite a bit of evidence that they were developing the basic techniques used to distill flavors from fermented liquids. To find the first concrete evidence of alcohol distillation, we have to travel to Italy and the High Middle Ages of the 13th Century. At that time, written accounts suggest monks distilled liquors almost exclusively for “medicinal uses.”
Jump nearly 200 years forward to the early 1400s and the modern age of Irish and Scottish distilled spirit production begins taking form. By this time, the distillation of liquors had moved from being 100% monastic to being the job of private citizens. Although the idea ofwhiskey as we recognize it today was starting to take form, these early modern liquors were not allowed to age and were no doubt, a bit rough.
Time travel another 300 years to the 1700s and modern distillation really begins to take shape. In particular, the year 1707 changed the history of Scottish whiskey production forever. For those of you with knowledge of English and Scottish history, this was the year of the Acts of Union merging the Kingdoms of England and Scotland under one government, Great Britain. Consequently, the extra taxation resulting from these acts quickly pushed the production of Scottish whiskey almost completely underground. In fact, this period also has the distinct honor of claiming the first use of the word Moonshine by small volume home distillers often waiting for the dead of night to fire up their illegal pot stills.
Along with creating a strong history of distillation in Europe, the language of Whiskey was one of the first exports of European settlers in the New World. In fact, many of the Founding Father’s (including George Washington) were major distillers, creating the woodwork for America’s unique and rich history of whiskey production. By the time the American Prohibition was in full force, whiskey had become the choice alcoholic beverage in American Society outside of beer.
At the most basic level, a distilled spirit comes from fermenting a mixture of ingredients (including water, a sugar source, and yeast) to create an alcoholic mash. In the whiskey family, the sugar comes from grains (either malted or unmalted). From there, the mash is left to ferment until deemed ready for distillation. At that point, the mash is placed in a still (there are many different types including Scotland’s famous small batch pot stills and the more industrial column still) and heated until the alcohol begins to steam off from the mash. As a still allows for distillers to capture the alcoholic steam and cool it back to liquid, the exiting product is officially a distilled spirit, although no where near ready to consume. Depending on the final product, the often potentially highly potent distilled product will go through a variety of aging, blending, and filtering processes before being ready to consume.
But what makes the Whiskey family of distilled spirits different from other alcohols? In just a few words, strong tradition and oak barrels. Unlike other distilled beverages, this family of alcohols gets much of their distinctive flavors not just from the specific ingredients used to make the mash, but also from the unique aging process most commonly achieved by use of charred oak casks.
SO IS IT WHISKEY, WHISKY, SCOTCH, OR BOURBON?
The real differences between Whiskey, Whisky, Scotch, and Bourbon revolve almost entirely around the origin of the distillery. Although there seem to be as many regions of Whiskies as there are countries, four main regions make up the majority of production. These are Scotland, Ireland, The United States, and Canada. An easy way to remember the correct spelling of Whiskey or Whisky within a region is as follows; if the country of origin starts with a vowel, add an extra vowel “e” near the end. Be warned though, these rules are not set in stone. There are many exceptions to the rule.
Ireland + United States = Whiskey
Scotland + Canada = Whisky
Scotland may be the center of the Whiskey universe. With its history and sheer concentration of distilleries, the Scotch Whisky family contains some of the most complex, respected, and highly valued spirits in the world. Much of this acclaim results from the fact that most Scotch whisky is the product of small batch pot stills. In fact, there are over 90 distilleries in Scotland today. As a general rule, there are 3 major things a Scotch Whisky connoisseur needs to know:
Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay & Campbeltown. These are the key regions within Scotland’s iconic realm. Each region tends to have its own broad characteristics in regards to production and flavor, but if you have to guess what region a specific Scotch Whisky is from, it’s most likely Speyside. This tiny region (by land volume) in northeast Scotland contains over 50% of the current distilleries in Scotland!
Types of Scotch Whisky
Single Malt / Single Grain / & Blended Scotch Whisky
Scotland takes their Scotch Whisky seriously. In fact, there are very specific laws about what defines a Scotch Whisky and what defines different types of Scotch Whisky. As a result, a bottle can have many different labels on it. Here are the important ones:
Single Malt: This means the Scotch Whisky comes from a single distillery and contains only malted barley.
Single Grain: This means the Scotch Whisky comes from a single distillery and contains malted barley and at least one other grain in its mash.
Blended Malt: This means the Scotch Whisky is a blend of multiple single malt Scotch Whiskies from multiple distilleries.
Blended Grain: This means the Scotch Whisky is a blend of multiple single grain Scotch Whiskies from multiple distilleries.
Blended Scotch Whisky: This means the Scotch Whisky is a true mixture of both single malt and single grain whiskies.
Along with the type of Scotch Whisky contained in the bottle, many labels also include age. As a general rule, the age shown on the bottle expresses the youngest whisky contained in the bottle. For example, if a bottle is labeled as a 18-year-old blend, the youngest whisky is 18 years old.
Ireland, like Scotland has a great distilling history. But unlike Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey has simpler (and much less controlled) naming rules that tend to be much easier to follow. With Irish whiskey, there are a few things that a good connoisseur should be aware of.
There are only Four Distilleries in Ireland
It is a bit hard to believe, but until just a few years ago, there were just three. Back in the day (the 1700s), there were a reported 1200 or so small time distilleries in Ireland. But thanks to the so-called Luck of the Irish in the early 20th Century, including a brutal war for independence against Great Britain (their largest export market), prohibition in the United States (their second largest export market), and finally World War II, the industry was basically destroyed within a 20 year life span. Thankfully a few distilleries survived and there are signs the industry is seeing continued growth.
Types of Irish Whiskey
To be called Irish Whiskey the brand must follow a few rules. The first is self explanatory; the spirit must be made in Ireland. The second requires the spirit must be distilled to a level of alcohol no greater than 95% and must reflect the flavor or the materials used to make the spirit. The third requires that the spirit be aged a minimum of three years in wooden casks. Along with these basic requirements, here is how Irish Whiskey is named:
Irish Grain Whiskey: This means whiskey was produced from a mash of unmalted grains no matter what grain(s) were used. Furthermore, many of these grain whiskies are the product of column stills. Whiskies produced via this type of still are often harsh and lacking of the complexities of spirits created via small batch pot stills.
Single Malt Irish Whiskey: This means the whiskey was produced in a single pot still with only malted barley.
Single Pot Irish Whiskey: This means the whiskey was produced in a single pot still from either a single unmalted grain or a combination of unmalted grains.
Blended Irish Whiskey: This means the whiskey is a blend of multiple whiskeys. This is by far the most popular and common type of Irish Whiskey.
Canadian Whisky is often labeled Canadian Rye Whisky, but that’s not always the truth. Officially, the naming laws in Canada only require the spirit to be made in Canada and aged a minimum of three years in wooden cask. Outside of that, you will have to do your research as to what exactly your whisky is made of. One common thing that does make Canadian Whisky unique is the way blends are often produced. Unlike many blended spirits from other regions (where the grains are blended and used to make a blended grain mash), it is very common for Canadian distillers to use multiple single grain spirits to create a blended Canadian Whisky.
AMERICAN WHISKEY AND BOURBON
American Whiskey is perhaps the most diverse and easily the most interesting group of spirits out of the entire Whiskey family. It’s also the member of the family currently experiencing tremendous growth via a modern day revolution in American craft distilling. Like the earlier American craft beer craze, the craft whiskey industry is currently helping grow the number and variety of American Whiskies to levels never seen before. That being said, we Americans take our origin very seriously and our naming traditions ever more seriously. Here are the American Whiskey naming rules a good connoisseur needs to know:
American Rye Whiskey: This means the whiskey was created from a mash containing 51% or more unmalted rye.
American Rye Malt Whiskey: This means the whiskey was created from a mash containing 51% or more malted rye
American Malt Whiskey: This means the whiskey was created from a mash containing 51% or more malted barley.
American Wheat Whiskey: This means the whiskey was created from a mash containing 51% or more wheat.
Bourbon: Although most Bourbons are created in the Bourbon region of the American South (centered in Kentucky of course), there is no legal requirement that it be made within a certain area of the United States. What is legally required is that the mash be 51% or more corn and the resulting spirit must be less than 80% alcohol by volume after distillation. Furthermore, the spirit must be aged in charred oak barrels and aged at or below 62.5% alcohol. At bottling, the Bourbon must be 40% alcohol at the minimum. With all of these rules, there is little doubt why this particular version of American Whiskey has such a loyal following.
Tennessee Whiskey: Speaking of the American South, the idea of state based identity has a deep history. And there is no better example than Tennessee Whiskey. Although Tennessee Whiskey is technically a Bourbon (it’s made of 51% corn or more and follows all the rules for Bourbon), you will be hard pressed to find a Tennessee-made Bourbon.
American Corn Whiskey: Another invention of the American South. Although identical to both Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey in mash ingredients, American Corn Whiskey does not require aging. As a result, it is well known for being served virtually straight from the still. When created illegally, it’s also known by another well known name: Moonshine.
American Blended Whiskey: Blended whiskies are an open book for what they contain. At a bare minimum, blended whiskies must contain 20% or more straight American Whiskey.
American Straight Whiskey: This means the American Whiskey (of any sub-type) has been aged at least two years and began the aging process at no more than 62.5% alcohol. In reality, this means you are getting American Whiskey with a very high level of flavor.