If you mash grain, ferment it, distill it, and age it in barrels, what do you get? Depends on the details. The ratio of grains you use, the location of the distillery, and the barrels you use all influence what the final result tastes like, and what it’s called.
So if you’ve ever wondered about the difference between whiskey and whisky, or the defining elements of scotch, bourbon, or rye, read on.
What Is Whiskey/Whisky?
So, just what is whiskey/whisky? Well, whiskey and whisky are essentially the same drink in terms of basic ingredients and processing. But the devil’s in the details; here the deciding factor is location. Spelling usually indicates country of origin. The countries most famous for their whisky/whiskey are Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Japan. If you have to make a guess, check if the countries name has an ‘e’ in it; if so, they probably use the ‘e’ in whiskey.
whisky: Scotland, Japan, Canada
whiskey: Ireland, United States
What Is Scotch?
The key element that defines scotch whisky is similar – it has to be made in Scotland. Originally, scotch was made entirely from malted barley. Different blends involving other grains started being made in the late 18th century. Now scotch must contain some malted barley to earn the label, but it can involve corn, rye, and other grains. Scotch is also aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years.
The Scotch Whisky Association outlines regulations for labeling, including rules surrounding age, malt, and grain label markers. The phrase ‘single malt’ in particular is associated closely with scotch. If you’ve heard the phrase ‘single-malt’, that means the grain was mashed and processed entirely at one distillery and not blended. ‘Single malt scotch whisky’ will also be made entirely of malted barley.
What Is Bourbon?
Bourbon has some of the clearest legal requirements for labeling.
- Produced in the United States
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak containers
There are also a few requirements for the proof level at different distilling steps, but the average consumer isn’t likely to be worried about that distinction.
The definition of bourbon is particular. The history of the name bourbon is a little bit ambiguous. Typically, it’s considered to derive from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Alternately, it could also be inspired by Bourbon Street, New Orleans. New Orleans was one of the early markets for Kentucky distillers. Due to the high corn content, bourbon is generally fairly sweet compared to other whiskies.
What Is Rye?
Whiskey that is labeled “Rye”, confusingly, may or may not contain the grain rye. Canadian whisky in particular is sometimes called ‘rye whisky’ even if it doesn’t contain rye. Historically, the majority of Canadian whiskys did, and the name has held on even as the popular make-up of Canadian whisky has shifted. American rye, however, does contain rye. By law, it makes up at least 51% of the grain mash. Rye is known for adding a spicier flavor to the whiskey.
These four brown liquors are start from a similar base, but the details are the key to everything. Whiskey/whisky can be made from any grain, and the barrel aging doesn’t have many particular restrictions. Scotch involves malted barley and oak barrels. Bourbon involves corn and new charred oak barrels. Rye whiskey involves rye grain – unless it’s Canadian, and then all bets are off.
If learning about liquor tickles your fancy, make sure to try this Liquor by Limerick quiz. The creator was kind enough to ask only one question about this family of liquor, so you’ll succeed even if you still can’t tell whiskey, scotch, bourbon, and rye apart.
Haley is a Content Moderator at Sporcle. She’s likely to walk into the office with a pastry and a book in hand, and a couple weird blog post ideas in her back pocket. Working at Sporcle is a constant learning experience, but she’s probably never mastering the capitals of the world.