Considering the amount of exposure we’ve had to the various products in the title of this chapter on TV, in movies and in literature, we should all be experts on the differences between them. We should… but most of us haven’t got a clue. We might pretend when ordering to impress our friends, but really, who are we kidding? Here’s what you should already know.
First off, whiskey and whisky are the same thing with different spellings. “Whisky” is the British spelling (including Scotland, Canada, Australia, etc.), while “whiskey” with an extra “e” is the Irish spelling. The US chose the Irish spelling, so “whiskey” also refers to American varieties. Think of whiskey as the general category, while Bourbon, Scotch and rye are specific types of whiskey.
Regardless of spelling, whiskey in general is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from a fermented grain mash of either barley, corn, rye or wheat, and aged in charred oak barrels. Historically, as the availability of these grains varied from country to country, makers experimented with mash made from whatever grains they had easy access to, resulting in the subtly different variations we have today. Whiskeys are therefore categorized depending on the ingredients used, how they are made, and even where they are made, with strict regional rules governing which names can be applied.
Scotch is a whisky (without the “e”) that must be made in Scotland from mostly malted barley and aged in oak for at least three years. There are a wide variety of Scotch whiskies, each known for their unique and identifiable flavors. Most notable are the single malt whiskies from isle of Islay. The same malted barley whiskey made in the US would be called malt whiskey. “Single malt”, by the way, means it’s the product of only one distillery, as opposed to “blended”, which is a custom blend from various distilleries that produces a unique flavor.
Bourbon is a whiskey distilled from grain mash comprising at least 51% corn. To be called a bourbon it must be aged in charred oak containers and cannot contain any additives. It’s generally associated with Bourbon County, Kentucky, although “Tennessee Whiskey” also meets the requirements to be called bourbon.
Rye is a kind of wheat that is closely related to barley, making rye whiskey is a close relative of traditional malted barley whiskey. Rye whiskey in the US must be distilled from grain mash that is at least 51% rye and must be aged two years or more.