A Brief Guide to Everything Whisk(e)y

Illustration by Julia Lea

If you’re not entirely certain how to explain the differences among whiskey, whisky, Scotch, Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey, you’re not alone.

Marianne Eaves, the first female master distiller in Kentucky and curator of her own line of tasting kits, Eaves Blind, understands how consumers might get flummoxed by category distinctions and industry jargon.

“There’s also the fact that so much of the lingo used in marketing of different products doesn’t have a standard meaning,” she says.

All Scotch whisky
Scotch flight / Getty

Random Ward, the Dallas -based brand ambassador for Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, encounters uncertainty about the differences between whiskey and Bourbon “on a semi-regular basis,” he says. “Usually, it’s presented to me as a dislike for one or the other. ‘Oh, I can’t drink whiskey, I only drink Bourbon.’ ”

In reality, Bourbon is one of many subtypes of whiskey, a spirit category with two spellings, multiple offshoots, and an array of rules that spans continents, mash bills and more.

What’s the Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky?

The spelling of whiskey is usually determined by its country of origin.

“In general, Irish and American whiskeys use the ‘e,’ while Japan, Scotland, Canadian and world whiskeys that are influenced by Scottish production eliminate the ‘e,’ ” says Heather Greene, author of Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life.

Within these geographic guidelines, however, variations abound. There’s no official law that governs the spelling of whiskey or whisky, says Greene. This is why Loretto, Kentucky-based Maker’s Mark self-identifies as “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky,” while brands like Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Woodford Reserve use the “e.”

“The difference also carries on into the plural,” says Greene. “For whiskey, the plural is whiskeys. For whisky, it’s whiskies.”

Heather Greene whiskey
Heather Greene / Photo courtesy Milam & Greene Whiskey

The origins of the spelling distinction are unclear, but most spirits professionals trace it to 19th-century Ireland.

“Historically, the use of the ‘e’ was a marketing tactic used by Irish distillers,” says Ward. “At that time, Irish whiskey had become the higher-quality spirit between the two primary whiskey producing countries of Scotland and Ireland. In a bid to differentiate the spirits, Irish distillers added the ‘e’ to whiskey.”

This might surprise some consumers who, prior to the recent surge of well-regarded Irish whiskeys, previously regarded Scotch single malts as top-shelf sippers and blended Irish whiskey as fodder for shots or mixed drinks.

What are the Differences Among Scotch, Bourbon and Whisk(e)y?

Much like that Venn diagram from science class that shows how all whales are mammals but not all mammals are whales, whiskey is an expansive spirit category, and subtypes within it include Scotch, Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.

“Whiskey is the umbrella term for a spirit made with water, yeast and grain,” says Greene. Those grains might include corn, rye or barley malt.

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), whiskey must be distilled “from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof)…and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).”

Manhattan cocktail whiskey
A Manhattan cocktail / Photo courtesy Woodford Reserve

Ingredients and aging requirements determine whether a whiskey can be called a Bourbon or Scotch.

“In order to be considered Bourbon, whiskey has to have a mash bill that is at least 51% corn and must be aged in new charred oak barrels,” says Jarmel Doss, the assistant bar director at The Aviary in Chicago. “It has to be put into the barrel at 160 proof and aged until it’s at least 125 proof, and then it has to be bottled at no less than 80 proof.”

If a distiller wants to label its spirit “Straight Bourbon,” it must be aged for at least two years.

“Bourbon has a lot of rules,” says Doss.

10 of the Best Bourbons and American Whiskeys for $40 and Under

Scotch, on the other hand, is made with malted grain, usually barley, often but not always heated over a peat fire. The spirit must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years before it’s bottled.

Scotch must be made and matured in Scotland. Bourbon previously had to be produced in Kentucky, but, following the passage of a 1964 law, it can now be made anywhere in the United States.

Tennessee whiskey is another American iteration. It follows the same production requirements as Bourbon, but it “must be manufactured in Tennessee and mellowed through maple charcoal prior to aging,” says Eaves.

Herein lies more potential confusion. “Tennessee whiskey is Bourbon, whether brands choose to say it or not,” says Eaves.

Marianne Eaves whiskey
Marianne Eaves / Photo courtesy Marianne Eaves/Eaves Blind

Understanding All the Types of Whiskey

The TTB lists 41 subtypes of whiskey, including rye, wheat whiskey, corn whiskey and more. Plus, subtypes have divisions within them, like single malt Scotch, which requires 100% malted barley to be distilled using a pot still at a single distillery.

“In my book, [Whisk(e)y Distilled], it takes about 200 pages to get through all the styles of whiskey and the subtypes, including how they are made, what they generally taste like, and the stories behind how they got there,” says Greene.

If that sounds daunting, rest assured that even bona fide category experts like Greene consider whiskey education an ongoing, lifelong process.

“It has taken decades to get to know all of them and I’m still learning all the time,” she says. “My advice to anyone starting out is to take your time and enjoy the journey.”

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Published on September 21, 2021
Topics: Spirits Basics