At its simplest, the amber alcohol is made from distilled grain, water, and yeast, and is aged in oak barrels. So, what makes whiskey such a complex liquor? Whether it’s the type of oak barrel, the amount of time it’s aged, or even the water source, this basic process is tweaked to produce totally different styles of whiskey -- from single malt to bourbon.
Scotch whisky (notice there’s no “e”) is, by law, distilled and aged a minimum of four years in Scotland, although most Scotch is aged at least 10 years. Flavor-wise, Scotch is lighter than Irish whiskey and has a signature smokiness, which comes from drying wet, germinated (read: sprouted) barley over a fire fueled by peat moss -- a process that releases malt sugars in the barley. Single-malt Scotches are made exclusively from malted barley by a single distillery. [Glenfiddich, Macallen, Glenlivet] Blended Scotch whiskys are made from a blend of malted whiskey and another grain whiskey, usually corn or wheat. [Johnny Walker Black, Dewars, Chivas Regal].
Serve it: Neat, on the rocks, or with a twist.
Irish whiskey (note the “e”) is produced very much like Scotch, but the barley doesn’t come into contact with peat smoke during the drying process, which means it doesn’t have the telltale smokiness. It is also sweeter and fuller-bodied. Most Irish whiskey is blended [Jameson, Bushmills], but there are some high-dollar single malts [Laphroaig].
Serve it: Neat or on the rocks.
Bourbon is American whiskey. Corn is the dominant grain used to make bourbon (instead of barley), which gives it a notably sweet taste, often with hints of vanilla picked up from the oak barrels. Bourbon has a long history in Kentucky, but it can be made anywhere, if it meets certain federal guidelines. The blend of grain must be at least 51 percent (but not more than 80 percent) corn, and it must be aged in charred new oak containers. [Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle, Jim Beam].
Serve it: Neat, on the rocks, or as the base liquor in a classic American cocktail, such as a Manhattan or mint julep.
Tennessee whiskey is made like bourbon, but there are no guidelines that require using corn as the dominant grain (although it usually is). It is also filtered through charcoal to remove any leftover impurities -- a process that makes for a mild and smooth whiskey. [Jack Daniels, George Dickel].
Serve it: Neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of cola.
Rye is also whiskey made like bourbon, but rye is the primary grain used, instead of corn. Rye has a more aggressive, peppery flavor, and it’s a dry (not sweet) spirit, unlike fuller, sweeter bourbon. [Old Portrero, Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey].
Serve it: In a Manhattan or Sazerac cocktail.
Is it whiskey or whisky?
If you ever want to stump a bartender, ask “Why is whiskey spelled two ways depending on the brand?” The answer is no one has a good answer. The best explanation goes back to when whiskey was first produced in Scotland and Ireland. Both countries claim to be the birthplace of whiskey, and the theory is that each country chose a different spelling to differentiate from the other country’s whiskey. Because the Irish were the first to introduce whiskey-making to America, most American brands (with the exception of a few, like Maker’s Mark) use the Irish spelling. Most Canadian whiskys spell it the Scottish way, without the “e”.
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