You’ve been to a bar that proudly displays a whiskey wall – hundreds of bottles stacked up, sparkling a spectrum of sunlit ambers and browns. Where do you begin? A helpful bartender who can discern bottle to bottle is a great friend to have, but it helps to walk in knowing the basics. How does bourbon taste compared to Scotch? What's moonshine, anyway? Should you spend $25 on a single glass if you don’t really know what you’re doing?
No, probably not. At least that’s out of the way.
There are only three main differences between whiskeys: where they’re made, what they’re made from, and most importantly, what they taste like. Having examined some of the technical sides in The Beginner's Guide to Understanding Whiskey, we’re going to move onto the fun parts: taste and variety. If we start getting creative with spelling and paint especially colorful anecdotes, you’ll know why.
Let’s start close to home. There are tons of different kinds of whiskey from right here in the States, roughly (but not always) divided by the region it comes from.
Whiskey that's made in the United States, uses at least 51% corn in the mash bill, is aged in first-use charred white oak barrels, and bottled between 80 and 160 proof.
Bourbon is America’s most prominent contribution to the world of whiskey, and we really pulled out the stops on this one – the word itself bubbles off the lips like sweet molasses on a Southern summer day. Bourbon accounts for two-thirds of US distilled spirit export and is a tidy billion-dollar industry, and that's just here in America.
Where bourbon came from is a fact lost to history, probably because there was no clear front-runner. Distillation and aging booze was nothing new. Other, older whiskeys were made from barley, but the New World called for a new booze given that way more corn was growing here than barley.
Bourbon, by US law, has to be made in the US and of at least 51 percent corn mash, aged in new charred oak barrels. It also has to be at least 80 proof, but not more than 160 proof.
To be considered straight bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years – other bourbons are aged for as little as three months. Straight bourbon also can’t contain any added colors, flavors, or other spirits. Blended bourbon, on the other hand, can contain all of that, as long as it’s at least 51 percent straight bourbon. Are you writing this down? You should probably be writing this down.
Bourbon was probably either named for Bourbon County, Kentucky (where some say a Baptist preacher/American hero first made the stuff) or Bourbon Street in New Orleans – the whiskey that was shipped down the Mississippi enjoyed a boom in NOLA as an alternative to French cognac.
As with all whiskeys, it’s really hard to say it tastes like this because so much variety exists between distillers. The main characteristics, however, are sweetness and smoke. The sweet comes from corn, the most sugary whiskey ingredient. The smokiness comes from the legally stipulated charred oak barrels.
Straight bourbon that's made in Tennessee with an extra filtering process.
This is basically bourbon. And we know, that sentence right there has the potential to convince the South to rise again, but it's true.
Tennessee whiskey distillers don’t identify it as bourbon even though all the hallmarks of bourbon – the corn, the oak, the America – are all in there. That said, there is an extra process that Tennessee whiskey undergoes called the Lincoln County Process. It’s essentially a charcoal filtering technique from (you guessed it) Lincoln County, Tennessee. It basically filters impurities and jumpstarts the aging process.
Some say that any tasting differences between regular bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are due more to differences in mash bills. For example, big-time Tennessee Whiskey distillers Jack Daniels and George Dickel use very little rye in their mash – filtering process or no, that's gonna majorly affect the taste of the finished product compared to a mash bill that uses more rye. More or less, though, it all pretty much tastes like bourbon.
American Rye Whiskey
Whiskey that meets all the same requirements as bourbon, but with 51% rye instead of corn.
This stuff has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts lately, at least in the public consciousness. Articles are singing the merits of this peculiarly spicy bourbon cousin, and legendary rye enthusiast Don Draper made men everywhere reconsider their go-to bottles.
Before Prohibition, rye was America’s boozy sweetheart. It was easy to produce, as its namesake grain is amenable to American soil – hearty, easy to grow, resilient. George Washington himself made rye whiskey at Mount Vernon.
We were making millions of gallons of the stuff, and then the dark days of Prohibition happened and rye has yet to recover. It’s admittedly a harder sell to some than bourbon, though, because it replaces the sweetness of corn with the fiery spice of rye. Similar rules to bourbon govern American rye: it has to be at least 51 percent rye, at least 80 proof but not more than 160 proof, and aged in new charred oak barrels. Straight rye has to be aged for at least two years.
Canadian rye whiskey was once synonymous with "rye," and both enjoyed coexistence north of the border for a long time, though label laws there are somewhat laxer than here at home. To be labeled “Canadian rye whiskey”, a spirit can contain as little as, oh, zero percent actual rye, so the distinction doesn't really mean anything. Do we sound smug? Sorry about that.
White Whiskey and Moonshine
Any whiskey that hasn't been barrel-aged.
Rounding off the Western hemisphere’s contribution to the world of whiskey, it’s worth mentioning the considerable market of white whiskeys and so-called moonshines.
First, if it’s in a store with old-fashioned letters, it’s not moonshine. There are literally no rules to designate a certain hooch as “moonshine” except for the fact that it’s made illegally with no taxes, licenses, or other trappings of the organized liquor trade. America, particularly the Appalachian region, has a rich history of moonshining that shaped the economy, culture, and identity of those thirsty hamlets where it boomed.
If you ever have the opportunity to sample local under-the-radar wares, do so at your own risk. Stories of people drinking bad moonshine and going blind aren’t totally unfounded – sometimes purveyors fashion stills out of whatever's handy, including car radiators, so in addition to a corn or wheat base you’ll also have tasting notes of lead and antifreeze.
White whiskey, on the other hand, is any whiskey that hasn’t been aged. That’s probably what you’re seeing most of the time in stores, sold by brands that use the moonshine moniker as a gimmicky sales tactic. These whiskeys typically have a strong corn or grain flavor and aren’t as smoky or mellow as their brown, aged cousins.
Whisky made in Scotland with water, malted barley plus other whole grains, yeast, caramel coloring, and nothing else. It's aged at least three years in oak casks, and bottled at 80 proof or higher.
Heading to the other side of the pond, we’re momentarily dropping the “e” – the Scots traditionally omit it in their spelling.
Even more so than bourbon, it’s hard to talk about Scotch as a single entity. I mean, this is an old science – the first written mention was recorded in 1495. There are five major regions of Scotland that produce the stuff, all of which have distinct flavors. There are, however, a few commonalities.
All Scotch must be made in Scotland, with Scottish materials, and it's typically made from malted barley or grain. It must be aged for at least three years, and the age must be printed on the bottle, with the number reflecting the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle (particularly important in the case of blended whiskies).
The Scotch flavor profile is a little more challenging than that of a typical bourbon, but it could also be said to be more complex, especially when you start cataloging differences between single and blended malts, single casks, and grains. In the interest of space, we'll save the breakdown of all those terms for a solely Scotch-focused article.
In any case: the more you drink, the more your palate will develop, and before you know it you’re the guy everyone asks about Scotch. And let's be honest: who doesn’t want to be that guy?
Overall, you can expect a lot of smokiness as well as something we’ll call "peatiness." Peat is a plant that grows all over Scotland, and is a big part of the distilling process – grains are dried over smoldering peat fires, so the smoke gets in the whiskey and contributes a very earthy flavor.
Any whisky made in Japan, often in the Scottish tradition.
What started as a novelty is now some of the best whisky in the world.
In the 1920s, a businessman named Shinjiro Torii started a whisky distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto that had incredibly pure water. Understanding his ingredients and staff had to be the very best for a satisfactory product, Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as his distillery executive. Taketsuru had lived and trained in Scotland, which is probably why many people today compare the taste of Japanese whisky to that of Scotch.
While there's a growing range of options, it's safe to basically think of these as Scotch that just so happens to come from Japan instead of Scotland. Suntory and Nikka are the brands you're most likely to see here in the States, and both produce blended and single malt varieties as well as blended malt whiskeys. Just like their Scottish counterparts.
Whiskey that's made and aged for three years in Ireland.
Even though this stuff is made so close to Scotland, the rules governing its production are entirely different. If it’s aged for three years in Ireland, it’s Irish whiskey. That’s pretty much it.
It’s ironic that the requirements are so relatively lax, given that the spirit itself probably originated in Ireland. The word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic word “uisce beatha” which aptly translates to "water of life." Truer words were never spoken.
The story of Irish whiskey, like so many stories in Ireland, is one of endurance through strife. The drink enjoyed an extreme popularity in the United States, until American Prohibition ruined the market and effectively closed many Irish distilleries. The Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish civil war didn’t help, either.
Trade was disrupted all over the place, resulting in just a few distilleries remaining open into the 1960s. In 1966, these few pooled their resources by becoming the Irish Distillers, figuring it would be better to sink together than go out of business separately. At that time, only about 500,000 cases were being produced, down from 12 million cases in 1900.
Fortunately, those dark days are clearing up. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit in the world, with a projected return to 12 million case production in the next couple of years. And it’s really no wonder – this stuff is delicious. There's a lot of variance, obviously given the lax production rules, but it's generally less sweet than bourbon, less spicy than rye, and smoother than Scotch.
So there it is. Whether you’re the kind of guy who’s slapping down $120 for an ounce of John E. Fitzgerald or just mixing your first Old Fashioned, the world of whiskey has room for you.
It’s a great unifier that the more you drink, the deeper your appreciation for the spirit grows. Whether you’re toasting health, happiness, misfortune, or manliness, a dram of whiskey in your glass means you still have something to fight for. A drink in your hand and a fire in your belly – that’s all a man needs.