At my age, most guys have worked their way up the liquor ladder and find themselves grasping at the final rung. Having fallen in (and out of) love with vodka, moonlit with rum, and fooled around with tequila, young professionals everywhere have finally graduated to whiskey. With so much love for America’s liquor flying around, I’m amazed how many people ask, “What’s the difference between scotch and whiskey?”. Seeing as this subject is near and dear to my heart, here it is: your definitive guide to all things mash.
What is Whiskey?
A general definition of whiskey is a distilled spirit obtained from the fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers. The scholar in you may realize that this is an extremely broad definition that describes a plethora of booze. Well that’s exactly what the word whiskey is: a broad definition that can be used to describe scotch, bourbon, rye, irish whiskey, or Canadian whiskey. To be considered whiskey, alcohol must be distilled to no more than 190 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Different kinds of whiskey depend mainly on the kind of grain used in the mash.
The United States and Ireland use the spelling “WHISKEY” whereas Scotland, Canada, and Japan opt for “WHISKY”
At 36 bottles every second, Scotch Whisky is one of Scotland’s greatest exports. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, the legislative group responsible for governing the production of Scotch, this genre is defined as a distilled liquor made from malted barley, water, and yeast… that’s it. To officially qualify as Scotch, it must be produced in Scotland and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. There are four regions in Scotland from which Scotch is produced: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, and Cambeltown; all have their own distinct characteristics. My personal favorite, Oban’s 14 Year, is a West Highland Scotch with notes of honey and jam.
My personal favorite, this genre of whiskey is more American than apple pie and boat shoes. Much like it’s European cousin, Bourbon must be produced in the United States to be worthy of the moniker. The grain mixture must be at least 51% corn and must be stored in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon has no minimum aging requirement but to be called “straight bourbon” it must be aged at least two years. With Bourbon, the first impression is often fruity notes followed by a distinct, sweet woodiness. Bourbon is my partner in crime and I choose Blanton’s Original Single Barrel. With notes of burnt sugar, caramel, orange, and cloves, Blanton’s Original is brewed in small batches with each batch number handwritten on the bottle.
To determine the flavors present in a whiskey, you can drop a bit into your palms and rub them together until the liquid evaporates. The scents that are left behind will give you an idea of what ingredients were used in the whiskey’s creation (credit: Sam Dehority, Men’s Health)
As the name implies, Tennessee Whiskey is just bourbon produced in the Volunteer State. Essentially, not much sets Tennessee Whiskey apart aside from it’s unique filtration process. Known as the Lincoln County Process, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal chips before going into the casks for aging. This process, made famous by Jack Daniel, gives the whiskey a smoother finish with softer notes of caramel and vanilla. For that distinct flavor, stick with the original: Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7.
This category is where you will find most of your Canadian distilled whiskeys. To be considered rye, a whiskey must simply contain some portion of rye mash. American Rye’s must contain at least 51% rye to be named as such whereas the Canadians are governed by no such law (those bastards). The main difference between Rye and Bourbon is the kind of wood in which the whiskey is matured. Since Rye isn’t necessarily aged in new casks, it tends to be lighter and possess a less woody flavor. A great rye to start off with is Bulleit Rye which has a reddish color with smooth notes of vanilla, honey, and spice.
Besides the aforementioned Canadian Rye, Irish Whiskey has the most relaxed rules, making for a product that differs greatly from bottle to bottle. Leave it to the Irish to throw a bunch of shit in a cask for three years and then get drunk off it. Technically, Irish Whiskey describes any whiskey distilled in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland which is made from yeast-fermented grain mash in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used. Bushmills 16 Year Single Malt is definitely worth trying with a palate that is all over the place with hints of pine oil, Christmas spices, and peach.
Born in the belly of the United States, Moonshine is essentially unaged whiskey with a devilishly high alcohol content. With hints of corn, Moonshine is drenched in southern traditions, often served in mason jars and mixed with sweet tea. Many experts believe that NASCAR can thank moonshine for it’s creation as the sport started thanks to smugglers racing their souped up cars for bragging rights. ENJOY WITH CAUTION, but when you do, choose Ole Smokey Tennessee Moonshine.
If you ever find yourself in the south, offered home made moonshine (much like I was), pour a small amount on a table and light the booze on fire. A blue flame means it is pure ethanol, red means there’s some kind of impurity in there and that hooch ain’t good.
There you have it: the major types of whiskey from around the world. Have any questions about my favorite liquor? Leave your comments below!