Every modern gent should know his whiskey from his whisky, his sour mash from his single malt, and with International Whiskey Day around the corner, there’s no better time to learn a little more about this endearing spirit in all its manifestations.
Most of us love a good whisky from time to time, and we probably have our styles and brands that we like to reach for. However, there has long been confusion about what constitutes whiskey (or whisky), and that often depends on where in the world it’s made, what it’s made from, and which rules its distillers are abiding by – and therein lies the fun. Governments, aided by the distilling industry, have over the years helped define different whisky styles, mainly in an effort to protect home-based industries and locally-produced crops, and the results are nothing short of magical. So, let’s kick-off.
Whiskey vs Whisky
A confusing issue for many, there is a distinct difference between whiskey and whisky. At its base they are the same; whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash which may or may not be malted. Whisky is typically aged in wood casks, which is what gives the spirit its colour and distinctive flavour profile. While it is generally thought that the spelling difference was simply a regional preference, the various whisky-producing regions took it upon themselves to use this discrepancy as a means to further differentiate their whisky styles.
Today we regard ‘whiskey’ as whiskey-styled spirits produced in the United States or Ireland, while ‘whisky’ is used for spirits produced in Scotland, Canada, India (a massive producer and consumer these days), Taiwan or Japan.
Of course, just to confuse things further there are notable exceptions, including George Dickel, Makers Mark and Old Forester, all American whiskies that follow the Scottish spelling.
All clear so far?
Scotch from Scotland
Scotch is generally made from malted barley or grain, with the resulting spirit aged in ex-bourbon oak casks for a minimum of three years. However, as any Scotch lover will testify, there are also significant distinctions within the category.
Single Malt: widely (but perhaps incorrectly) regarded as the best quality or at least the best expression of Scotch, single malt whiskies are made in a single distillery, although as the Japanese and Taiwanese have proven, that distillery doesn’t have to be in Scotland. It doesn’t mean the whisky has to come from a single cask – most single malts are actual blends of whiskies from the same distillery, to ensure a fairly consistent flavour – or a single batch but it does need to come from under one roof.
Under UK regulations, a single malt Scotch whisky has to be made exclusively from malted barley, must be distilled using pot stills at a single distillery, and must be aged for at least three years in oak casks of less than 700 litres.
Of course, distilleries outside Scotland producing ‘single malt’ whiskies might not be beholden to such restrictions, and may, for example, make their spirit from rye rather than malted barley. However, this would not be regarded as “Scotch” – the clue is in the name. If you’re looking for a good single malt without breaking the bank check out these drams.
Single Grain: In keeping with the use of the word “single”, single grain whiskies are made in one distillery. However, they don’t have to be made from a single grain – they could be produced from wheat, corn, or rye, and they don’t even have to be malted. The resulting spirit, which can also be made in the column stills favoured by mass producers, is typically lighter and lacks the smokey distinctiveness of single malts, which makes them easier to reproduce consistently. Single grain whisky is often blended with malt whisky to create ‘blended scotch whisky’. Examples of single grain whisky include Invergordon, Port Dundas and Cambus.
Blended Grain: As the name suggests, grain whisky is a spirit produced from, at least in part, grains other than malted barley. These can include corn, wheat or rye, although a touch of barley is useful because of its active enzymes, and in Ireland and Scotland it’s a legal must. Grain whisky is pretty much the category’s most basic form – many American and Canadian whiskies are technically ‘grain whisky’, and when you blend these spirits, you get blended grain whisky.
Blended Scotch Whisky: This is what most people think of when they drink ‘Scotch’. Blended Scotch whisky is a blend of malt and grain whiskies, sourced from different distilleries to create a consistent product. Major players in the blended Scotch whisky game include Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and Dewar’s.
Then the Irish Arrived
We’re big fans of Irish whisky and you should be too. Typically, Irish whisky, which is enjoying a real renaissance at the moment, is smoother than its cousins in Scotland thanks to a third distillation. Irish whiskey tends to be lighter than Scotch and is made from grain mash or a mash of malted cereals which is aged for three years in wooden casks. Great examples of Irish whisky can be found here.
Bourbon: As Drunk by Men
Then, we have bourbon, quite possibly the manliest of all whisky styles, mainly because of its low quality during the mid-1900s. So, to start, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Distilled ‘American whisky’, as it is often called, is made from corn – a minimum of 51 per cent – and aged in new, charred oak casks (the same ones that then make their way to Scotland for the Scotch industry to use), which deliver a slight smokiness.
Other regulatory requirements (mandated in the Bottle in Bond Act of 1897) include that bourbon must be distilled at no more than 80% ABV and entered into the barrel at 62% ABV or 125 proof, making it a ‘straight’ whisky. It must also be produced at one distillery, in one distillation process, by one distiller – which is why those distillers now enjoy rock-star status. Great examples of the bourbon art include Pappy Van Winkle, Maker’s Mark, Eagle Rare, Booker’s and Woodford Reserve.
Then There’s Tennessee
Most confusion when it comes to ‘American whisky’ is between bourbon and Tennessee whisky. The latter is produced – you guessed it – in Tennessee, the state of country music, barbeque, and first baseman Todd Helton.
Tennessee whisky is a straight whiskey produced solely in the great state of Tennessee and while it is technically a bourbon, there are a few distinctions, including the use of the Lincoln County Process, which sees the distillate filtered through or steeped in charcoal chips before it is aged. Tennessee whiskies also need to be “sour mash” whiskies, meaning material from a previous distillation is held back to kick start the next one – kinda like sourdough. Some of the most famous Tennessee whiskies include Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, and Benjamin Prichard’s.
In Come the Canadians
During Prohibition, American distilleries weren’t running, so whisky lovers had to (illicitly) source their whisky from their mellow neighbours to the north, where rye grew a’plenty. While rye is also enjoying a comeback and can now be made on either side of the US-Canada border, it must be produced with at least 51 per cent rye, and aged in charred barrels for at least two years.
Rye whiskies, which tend to be fruitier and spicier, were often the base spirits for some of the cocktail world’s most enduring drinks, including the Manhattan. Here are some of our favoruite rye whiskies.
Eastbound & Down
Japan and Taiwan have really shaken up the global whisky scene, with sensational drops from the Far East winning awards from across the globe. Whiskies produced in Japan tend to be Scotch-styled and use double malted or peated barley as a base, with the resulting distillate aged in wooden casks. While the Japanese produce both single malts and blends, their whiskies tend to be drier and smokier. Market leaders include Suntory, Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu.
Taiwan tends to be more playful with its whisky, but no less successful. The first Taiwanese whisky distillery only opened in 2006 but since then brands like Kavalan have been creating quite the collection of whiskies, which tend to mature two to three times faster than their Scottish and Irish cousins thanks to the island’s sub-tropical climate (although this does lead to a much larger angel’s share).
The Taiwanese don’t have all the old-school rules to follow so tend to be quite innovative in their use of casks and maturation periods – for example, Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique is matured in casks that contained red and white wines before being re-toasted. Taiwanese whiskies to look out for include Kavalan, Yushan, and Omar.
For more Wines & Spirits inspiration click here.