I can’t tell you how many times I show someone my bar and hear questions like “What’s the difference between Scotch and Whiskey?” , “What’s Japanese Whisky?” , “Why’s that one say Whiskey while this other one says Whisky?”
The world of Whiskey can be a bit intimidating. There’s a lot of terminology, tradition and high brow snobbery that surrounds the spirit. The majority of people in the world really have no idea what makes whiskey whiskey, Scotch Scotch and Bourbon Bourbon.
What is Whiskey?
If we’re going to explain the difference between whiskeys, you should first understand what whiskey itself it. Quite simply, whiskey is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash. The only exception to grain is some whiskey being made from corn. All whiskey must be distilled at a minimum of 40% and a maximum of 94.8% alcohol by volume.
What is Scotch Whisky?
To qualify as a scotch the spirit must be made from malted Barley, with many scotches using nothing more than barley, water and yeast. You are allowed to include whole grains of other cereals as well as caramel coloring. No fermentation additives or short-cuts are permitted.
The spirit must be aged in oak casks for no less than three years, and must have an ABV at less than 94.8%. Finally, Scotch is not Scotch unless it was made 100% in Scotland, from Scotland.
The difference between whiskey and whisky is simple but important: whisky usually denotes Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, and whiskey denotes the Irish and American liquors.
The word itself (both spellings) is of Celtic origin, and modern whisky/whiskey distillation practices originated in Ireland and Scotland. Using whiskey to refer to Scotch whisky can get you in trouble in Scotland.
What is Bourbon?
Whiskey must follow a specific set of legal requirements to be called a bourbon. It’s unique to the United States and must be made here — but it doesn’t have to be from Kentucky. It must be made of at least 51 percent corn and feature no other flavor additives beyond water. It must be distilled at 160 proof or less and barreled at 125 proof or less in only new charred oak barrels. It must be also be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. If it doesn’t meet all of those rules, it’s not a bourbon.
Much like how Scotch must be made in Scotland, Bourbon can only be labeled as Bourbon if it was made in the United States. While the rules are slightly more loose with Bourbon than with Scotch it still has to form to a few requirements.
The spirit must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol (160 proof) and be no more than 62.5% when put into casks for aging in new charred oak barrels. Finally Bourbon has no minimum aging period, but to call your product Straight Bourbon it must be aged for no less than two years (and can have no added coloring, flavor or other spirits added).
Blended bourbon is permitted to contain coloring, flavoring and other spirits, as long as 51% of the mix is straight bourbon. The age on the bottle of blended bourbon must be the age of the youngest whiskey used in the mix.
What is Tennessee Whiskey?
Tennessee Whiskey is straight bourbon made in the state of Tennessee. The people who produce this spirit, such as Jack Daniels, don’t want their whiskey labeled as Bourbon, claiming that they are the only type of whiskey which puts the spirit through a charcoal filtering process.
As a result they believe their drink deserves to be distinguished with a separate name.
What is Rye Whiskey?
Rye is a tricky whiskey to define.
Canada has distilled Rye for almost as long as the country has existed, and historically the majority of the mash was comprised of Rye mash. But with no actual rules in place the spirit is now produced with a mash made of a corn to rye ratio as high as 9:1.
The only rule to label your whiskey as Rye in Canada is for it to have some rye in it, and to “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whiskey”… whatever that means.
In America, Rye whiskey must be made from a mash made from no less than 51% rye. The other ingredients commonly used include corn and barley. Same as Bourbon it must be aged in charred new oak barrels distilled to an ABV less than 80% (and like bourbon it must be no more than 62.5% when added to the cask).
Again, as Bourbon, only Rye which has been aged more than two years may be referred to as Straight.
What is Irish Whiskey?
Irish whiskey is pretty much any whiskey aged in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland. Like Scotch it must be distilled to an ABV of less than 94.8.
It must be made from yeast-fermented grain mash in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used. If more than two distillates are used it must be labelled as blended.
Finally, the whiskey must be aged for at least three years in wooden casks.
What is Japanese Whisky?
Japanese whisky has been commercially produced since since the early 1920s, when the Yamazaki distillery was first built near Kyoto. Throughout the 20th century, Japanese whiskies were primarily sold and consumed within Japan, yet recently they have become very popular in Europe and North America.
Japanese whiskies were first modelled on Scottish whiskies so they are produced in much the same way, distilled twice using pot stills. Many distilleries even use malted and sometimes peated barley imported from Scotland.
As Japanese whisky has much in common with Scottish whiskies, rather than the Irish or American varieties, its name follows the Scotch tradition and is spelled without an “e.”