The world of whiskey is a complex maze of grains, flavors and distillation processes. Four countries produce distinctly different whiskies: Ireland (Irish Whiskey), Scotland (Scotch), America (Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Blended American Whiskey), and Canada (Canadian Whiskey), although whiskey is made throughout the world. This wide market ensures that almost everyone will find a brand or type that they prefer and, when asked, every whiskey connoisseur has a pointed opinion on which is the best whiskey.
Considered to be the father of all whiskey, Irish Whiskey is often a blend of pot-stilled malted and unmalted whiskey and column-stilled corn-based grain whiskey or, as in the case of Bushmills, triple distilled malted barley (single malt). This complex blend and the fact that Irish Whiskey malt is dried in a closed kiln, away from fire and smoke, distinguish it from its closest whiskey cousin, Scotch. Great care is taken during distillation to keep the temperature low so as not to break the delicate sweet, toasty honey flavor. It is aged in used bourbon (or various wine) barrels for at least 3 years.
Irish whiskey comes in several forms. Most Irish whiskey contains alcohol continuously distilled from malted and unmalted barley and other grain, but there are a few Irish single malt whiskies made from 100% malted barley distilled in a pot still. Grain whiskey is much lighter and more neutral in flavour than single malt. Most grain whiskey is used to blend with malt to produce a lighter blended whiskey.
By tradition and standard, Scotch Whisky uses the spelling for whisky without the “e”. The distinct smoky flavor of this distilled classic is due to the malt drying process. Part of which is done over a peat-fueled fire, which allows the smoke to come in direct contact with the malt. Although smoke does define Scotch, each region of Scotland produces a different and distinct flavor characteristics. When choosing a Scotch you will find either “single malt” or “blended” on the label along with an age statement. In the case of blended, the age is that of the youngest whiskey in the blend.
There are two major categories, single and blended. Single means that all of the product is from a single distillery, while Blended means that the product is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries.
Bourbon is an American whiskey, a type of distilled spirit, made primarily from corn and named for Bourbon County, Kentucky.
When one thinks of Bourbon, Kentucky and a Mint Julep immediately come to mind. Bourbon whiskey received its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky (where no bourbon is made today), however it can be distilled in any American state. According to a 1964 act of Congress, it must have a mashbill of at least 51% corn, with other grain whiskies comprising the rest. This straight whiskey, known as “America’s Native Spirit,” must be distilled at 160 proof (80% alcohol) or less and be aged a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels, although it is often aged for four years or more. No blending or additives (except water to reduce to bottling proof) is allowed in Bourbon.
Tennessee sour mash whiskey is very similar to Bourbon. It only need to be distilled of 51% of corn, with a maximum of 79%. The distinct difference in Tennessee Whiskey is due to a filtration process where the whiskey is allowed to slowly drip through 10 feet of sugar-maple charcoal, a process that can take up to 2 weeks for one batch and is known as the “Lincoln County Process.” The whiskey is then transferred to a charred barrel for aging, a minimum of two years. It is common to perceive a charcoal taste in Tennessee whiskey, most prominently in the two most famous brands, Jack Daniels and George Dickel.
Wheat and barley are commonly used to make Rye Whiskey, however US law mandates that at least 51% of grain used is rye. Rye Whiskey is most similar in taste to Bourbon although there is a spiciness and slight bitter flavor to it that is due to the natural bitterness of rye. During Colonial times Rye Whiskey was very popular, especially in the northeast, however Prohibition damaged the industry and only a few distilleries continued production after it was repealed. Rye has made a comeback in recent years with renewed interest in classic cocktails, which called for it on a regular basis.
Rye Whiskey can refer to two types of whiskey: 1) American rye whiskey, must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye; 2) Canadian rye whisky, may or may not include rye, so long as it possesses the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky it may legally be labeled “rye”.
American Blended Whiskey:
Like blended Scotch, American Blended Whiskey is a careful selection of straight whiskies and grain spirits combined to create one distinct spirit. A blended whiskey must contain at least 20% straight whiskey and premium brands may have as many as 75 different straight whiskies and grain neutral spirits. This art of blending produces a balanced, rich, light-bodied whiskey, each with its own character.
When a cocktail calls for “whiskey” you may want to choose a good Canadian Whiskey because it is light-bodied, versatile and very mixable. Made primarily of corn or wheat and supplemented with rye, barley, or barley malt, Canadian Whiskey is aged in used oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years although most are aged for 4-6 years. Almost all Canadian Whiskey is a blend of various grain whiskies of different ages.
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