Whisky. It’s a broad term, covering all manner of brown liquids from across the globe. But differences aside, these bottled works of art all share a few things in common.
They’re all distilled alcoholic beverages, able to get everyone from a fresh-faced 18-year-old to a weathered old sailor more than a little tipsy. They’re all born of fermented grain mash (grain mixed with water and heated), be it of barley, rye, wheat or maize. And they’re all typically aged in wooden barrels, which stack yet another layer of complexity on top of an already multifaceted palate experience.
So, with this liquid so varied in origin, style, taste and even spelling, what should you know when looking for your perfect whisky partner? Grab a tumbler and one of those fancy spherical chunks of ice - it’s time to dissect what is perhaps the most celebrated and distinguished spirit on the planet.
Whisky vs Whiskey
First things first. How do you spell it - whisky or whiskey? No need to stress, there are no wrong answers in this little test - both are correct. The spelling is a largely regional phenomenon.
As a general rule, “whiskey” is used by producers in Ireland and the US, while “whisky” is used by everyone else, including Scotland, Japan, Canada and Australia. This rule is far from hard and fast, as seen on the whisky labelling of popular American brands such as Maker’s Mark, George Dickel and Old Forester.
Whisky, scotch, rye or bourbon?
The next piece of labelling confusion often stems from the many synonyms and similar drinks that fall in or near the whisky sphere. Are scotch, rye and bourbon different from whisky? Or are they simply variations on a theme?
- Whisky: As stated above, whisky is a rather broad term that covers any distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash.
- Scotch: Scotch is whisky from the home of the drink, Scotland. Scotch is most commonly made from malted barley, although this isn’t a must.
- Bourbon: A decidedly more specific affair, bourbon is an American whiskey (predominantly made in Kentucky) that must use at least 51% corn in its grain mash, must be distilled at 160 proof (80% alcohol) or less, must be barrelled in newly charred oak at 125 proof (62.5%) or less, and cannot contain any additives.
- Rye: In the US, rye refers to whisky made with a mash of at least 51% rye, although Canada uses the term a little more flagrantly, even slapping it on whiskies without any rye in the mash. The lesson? Don’t trust Canadian whisky makers, I guess...