Whiskey is growing in popularity and with it grows the confusion about what makes one whiskey different from another. Whiskey is a broad overhead of several varieties of deliciousness. Whiskey in general is made from the fermented mash of cereal grains and is usually aged in oak or sherry barrels. Oak more often than sherry.
First, there is what is considered a ‘straight’ whiskey. To qualify as a ‘straight’ whiskey, the spirit created with cereal grain (malted or unmalted) must not exceed 80% alcohol content by volume. The spirit must also be aged for at least two years at an abv concentration not exceeding 62.5% at the start of the process.
Next, there are the ‘blended’ whiskeys, which are exactly what they sound like. A ‘blended’ whiskey happens when you mix a straight whiskey with either a mixed grain whiskey or another straight whiskey. Blended whiskeys are made as lighter and smoother variations of the ‘straight’ whiskey.
The two most beloved varieties of whiskey are the Bourbon and the Scotch but there is also Rye. The differences between these are both geographic and ingredient based.
Generally made in the USA, particularly Kentucky, bourbons are distilled from a mash containing at least 51% corn, the rest being malt and rye. Bourbon is usually aged in new charred oak containers. A further distinction in bourbons is the Tennessee bourbon that specifically filters the spirit through sugar-maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process. No flavors or additives are allowed in bourbon by law but it still somehow tastes usually like vanilla, caramel and, of course, oak.
Scotch on the other hand is made primarily of malted barley that gives it a distinct after taste. To qualify as a Scotch, it has to be both distilled and matured in Scotland for at least 3 years in oak barrels. A further distinction with Scotch is what is called a single malt, which means that it is produced at one distillery.
Then there is what you call Rye, which is seeing a resurgence in small batch special releases. Rye can refer to Canadian whiskey, which may not actually include any rye in its production process, or American Rye, which must be distilled from at least 51 % rye.
There are also those who prefer Brandy instead of Whiskey. I mention this because many people believe Brandy is a type of Whiskey due to its dark brown color and strong proof. However, Brandy is actually made by distilling any kind of fruit juice, including grapes, apples, pears, or any other sweet fruit.
Cognac, while we’re on the topic, is a distinct type of Brandy. Cognac is created specifically in the southwest region of France known as Cognac. Cognac further distinguishes itself because it must originate from white grapes of one of six different terriers (a register of lands belonging to a landowner). Furthermore, Cognac then goes through two separate rounds of distillation which are legally required to happen between October 1 and March 31.
There’s no sure and fast way to say one type is better than another. It all boils down to preference and preference comes from experience. So now that you know the difference in your liquors, go forth to the bar and develop a preference.