So maybe you already enjoy a fine dram of the water of life; and it wouldn’t surprise me if you do, but perhaps you are just a little bit confused about the whole thing. Is it spelled ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’? Well both actually. What about Bourbon, Scotch or Rye is there a difference? Blended vs. Single Malt? There does seem to be quite a lot to learn. So I’ll attempt to distill it all down to it’s spirit(yes pun intended).
So whisky is really just a clear grain alcohol, made from either a single grain like barley, or a mix of grains including corn and rye. It basically starts out as beer then the alcohol is isolated by the distillation method(collecting and re-condensing steam). What really makes it whisky though is that the resulting distillate is then aged in oak-barrels for a number of years to obtain flavour and colour.
There are four main varieties of the stuff which roughly correspond to the country of origin with laws and traditions governing the manufacturing process. There is Irish Whiskey(Ireland), Scotch Whisky(Scotland), Bourbon Whiskey(U.S.A.), and Rye Whisky(Canada). Any serious aficionado would be able to identify the country of origin in a blind tasting, an understanding of the varying processes and a bit of experience in tasting is all that is really required. The processes I can help with, the tasting, well you would have to do that for yourself.
Scotch is typically made from malted-barley only(single-malt) which is barley grain which has been sprouted to increase the level of sugars in the grain. The Scots malt their barley by exposing it to the smoke and heat of a fire. This fire is oftentimes fueled by bog-peat(decomposing plant material). Even though the resulting whisky(the Scots don’t use the ‘ey’ spelling) is run through the distillation process twice you will still taste the smoke and the peat in the finished product. I personally find these flavours to be offensive to my palette and in no way would I recommend scotch to a whisky novice. It might be enough to turn you off of the stuff altogether. It won’t hurt your pocketbook either to avoid the premium prices attached to scotch. If you must I would recommend The Glenlivet 12 Year as a good starting point.
Irish whiskey(note the ‘e’) is typically blended from a number of different grains the noticeable differences from the scotch process is the absence of peat and the whiskey is distilled three times rather than twice. Irish whiskey is very drinkable and you wouldn’t do too bad to try a bottle of Jameson to get a pretty good idea of what the style is all about.
Bourbon is American whiskey made from a mash. A mash is a big pile of corn, barley, and rye that is fermented together. Whichever grain makes up a majority share of the mash determines whether it is a ‘straight bourbon whiskey'(>50% corn) or a ‘straight rye whiskey'(>50% rye) or a ‘straight malt whiskey'(>50% barley). The whiskey is aged in new oak barrels and they are usually charred. Bourbon is sweet because of heavy corn use and the new-oak tends to add vanilla and caramel flavours to the finished product. Jack Daniels tries to pretend that they are not ‘bourbon’ because the style originated in the state of Kentucky and JD is in Tennessee, forget the marketing hype Jack Daniels is really just bourbon filtered through charcoal. If you want to get to know bourbon you should probably grab some Jim Beam Black, it’s very flavourful.
‘Rye’ whisky is essentially a synonym for Canadian whisky. The early settlers of several centuries ago made their whisky from wheat, when some distillers added rye grain to their product it added a spice to the otherwise boring and flavourless whisky. Customers began demanding “rye” and the rest is history. Rather than making whisky from a mash, Canadian distillers make single-grain whiskys and blend them after the fact. This production difference separates the finished products to such a vast degree that even if you used the exact same proportions of grain and aging the mash would be sweeter and the rye spicier every time. Canadian whisky is aged in used barrels, usually purchased from bourbon distillers in the U.S.A.. ‘Rye’ is mostly used for mixed drinks it’s generally unexciting straight-up. In recent years however Canadian distillers have been going through a revival of high-percent rye blends. These are my current personal favourite. Give Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye a spin to get a real feel for what Rye is all about.
So there you have it. Surely this information is generalized and you are going to have exceptions to every generalization. I hear the Japanese make a fine whisky but I have yet to try it. Get out there and give the wide world of whisky a shot(or two, or three)…