“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” -W.S. In the whisky world the naming or type of whisky is significant (i.e. bourbon is not created the same way as single malt whisky). I’ve gotten quite a few questions lately about the differences between whisky, whisk(e)y, bourbon, scotch, etc. So I thought I’d clear the air and shed some light on the mysterious world of whisky. Below is a list of spirits which falls under the broader category “whiskey.” Note: the Scots spell whiskey without an (e) which is the spelling I prefer since this blog focuses on single malt whisky whose motherland is Scotland. The key distinctions between the different types of whisky stem from the ingredients of the distillate and maturation process.
Whiskey: broadly defined as a spirit made from fermented grain mash. The word whisk(e)y is derived from the Gaelic word uisge meaning water. Distilled alcohol was known as ‘water of life’ which is uisge beatha in Gaelic. Typically in order to be classified as whisky the spirit must be bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or higher.
Single Malt Whisky: whisky distilled from a mash which contains only three ingredients: barley, yeast and water. Additionally the spirit must be distilled at a single distillery. Scotland and Japan are the two largest producers of single malt whisky in the world. But recently single malt whisky has started to be produced in other countries such as India, United States and Taiwan. These single malts are commonly referred to as “World Whiskies”
Scotch: malt whisky or grain whisky distilled in Scotland. Additionally the malted barley must be distilled using a pot still and be aged at least three years in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 liters. Usually scotch is distilled twice. In order for whisky to be classified as ‘Single Malt Scotch Whisky’ it must meet the criteria for single malt whisky and be distilled in Scotland.
Bourbon: distillate composed of at least 51% corn (other ingredients of the mash usually include various grains such as barley and rye), aged in new charred oak barrels with no specification for minimum aging period. Products aged as little as three months are sold as bourbon. Bourbon that has been aged for at least two years may be designated as straight bourbon whiskey. Bourbon tends to be syrupy, full bodied and sweet
Corn: distillate composed of at least 80% corn, unaged or aged for a few months (typically 6 months or less). It is based on American moonshine. Aging may take place in used or new oak barrels.
Rye: distillate composed of at least 51% rye (other ingredients of the mash usually include various grains such as barley and corn), aged in new charred oak barrels with no specification for minimum aging period. Rye that has been aged for at least two years may be designated as straight rye whiskey. Rye whiskey is known to exhibit spicy and fruity flavors
Irish: distillate may be composed of a variety of grains. In order for the whisky to be classified as Irish whisky it must be distilled in Ireland and aged for at least three years in wooden casks. Typically Irish whisky is distilled three times in a pot still which gives it a smoother, lighter flavor than Scotch.
Canadian: distillate may be composed of a variety of grains but typically contains rye. Must be aged at least three years in wooden barrels in Canada not exceeding 700 liters.
Blended Whisky: produced by blending different types of whiskey and often also neutral and near-neutral spirits, caramel coloring and flavorings. It is generally a product of mixing one higher quality single malt or straight whiskey with neutral spirits and water. Common brands: Johnny Walker, Dewar’s, Jameson, Chivas. In my opinion blended whisky is the gateway spirit into the broader world of whisky. Blends are a key profit generator for alcoholic beverage conglomerates such as Diageo
Here’s a helpful whiskey tree graphic (click to expand) to help you remember all the differences: