If you’re somewhat new to the world of whisk(e)y, you’ve probably wondered what makes one whiskey a bourbon and another a Scotch. Well, your Pal is here to help clear up the mystery. In this article, we’ll give you a bit of an overview of the more common whiskey styles — we’ll follow up with future articles to go deeper into the various styles.
Whiskey is a part of American history, with many of the country’s founders — including George Washington himself — having made their own. There are several sub-types of American whiskey, but all of them are made from a mash of cereal grain and distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume.
Bourbon whiskey (or just bourbon) is an American whiskey made from a mash containing at least 51% corn. It is aged for a minimum of 2 years in new oak barrels. While most commonly associated with the South, particularly Kentucky, it can be made in any state. Some of the most well-known brands are Wild Turkey and Jim Beam.
Quite similar to bourbon, Tennessee whiskey production happens in the state of Tennessee. The biggest difference from bourbon is the charcoal filtering process, known as the Lincoln County Process. This process is used for all Tennessee whiskeys except one — Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey. Most of this style of whiskey meets the legal definition of bourbon, though the producers of Tennessee whiskey shy away from that label. Jack Daniel’s is the most well-known example of this style.
Rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye and aged in new oak barrels. There are also rye malt whiskeys in which the rye used is malted; these are labeled as “rye malt whiskey.” To be labeled as straight rye whiskey, it must be aged at least 2 years and not blended with other spirits. Rye gives the whiskey a somewhat spicy flavor. Sazerac and Templeton are 2 examples of this whiskey style.
Confusingly, whiskey produced in Canada does not actually need to contain rye in order to call it rye whisky (Canadians don’t use the “e” in whiskey). The terms Canadian whisky, Canadian rye whisky, and rye whisky are all legally interchangeable and can be applied as long as their taste and character are similar to what is normally thought of as Canadian whisky.
Scotch whisky is unique, and many consider it the most sophisticated of the whiskey styles. First, notice the spelling — there is no “e” in Scotch whisky. Aside from that, it must be produced in Scotland, must be aged at least 3 years in oak barrels, and is made from a mash of malted barley to which other cereal grains may be added. While American whiskeys are always aged in new oak, this is not a requirement for Scotch; these whiskies are often aged in barrels that previously contained another spirit, commonly bourbon though producers use a number of other spirits as well. Many whiskies use more than one type of barrel, and each lends its own unique character to the whisky. Popular brands of Scotch include Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker
Irish whiskey must be produced and matured on the island of Ireland. It is made from a mash of malted cereal grains with additional grains being optional. Bottles contain no less than 40% alcohol by volume and distillation must be at most 94.8%. Unlike Scotch, the malting process does not traditionally use peat, although there are exceptions. Jameson and Bushmills are 2 well-known examples of Irish whiskey.
Canadian whisky is produced in Canada and must be aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels. The barrels used can be new or used and may be charred or not. This style is usually predominantly made from corn, and traditionally contains a small amount of rye. Though the rye content is not usually very high, Canadian whiskies may be labeled as rye whisky, Canadian rye whisky, or Canadian whisky interchangeably. As we mentioned previously, rye is not even a requirement. The high corn content produces a whisky that is smoother and lighter than many other styles of whiskey. Examples of this type of whisky include Canadian Club and Crown Royal.
This is a style that has come into its own in recent years. Prior to 2001, Japanese whisky was not available outside of Japan. This whisky style most closely resembles Scotch whisky, and this is intentional. Japanese whisky producers have striven to recreate the style, and have done a remarkable job. The variety available from Japan is on par with true Scotch from Scotland. Suntory and Nikka are the two most widely known whisky brands in Japan.
There you have it, I hope I’ve helped you along on your neverending journey of whiskey appreciation. We’ll be adding more in-depth articles for some of the most popular styles over the coming months. Feel free to add your feedback below.