Whisky is having its moment. You don’t want to miss out.
Fortunately, a little knowledge can take you far when it comes to parsing the jargon of mashes, malts, and barrels.
an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented grain. Beer comes from fermented grains but isn’t concentrated by distillation, and other spirits like vodka and rum are distilled but can be made from things like potatoes and sugarcane. Usually whisky is made from barley, rye, wheat, or corn, and usually it’s aged in wooden barrels. It has to be at least 40% alcohol by volume, but pretty much everything else is fair game.
Some of them are malt whiskies.
This just means the whisky is distilled from malted grains—grains that are sprouted and dried to give them a kind of sweet and yeasty quality.
at its most basic, just one of a number of whisky styles. But you see all the fuss and fanaticism surrounding Scotch so you know that there’s got to be more to it. And there is. There are all sorts of technical specifications that define and distinguish Scotch whisky, and if you really need to know them you can pay a visit to the website of the Scotch Whisky Association. For now, you can get up and running with this: a single malt Scotch is bottled from one batch of whisky, is made from one grain (malted barley), and comes from one distillery. More than one batch, more than one grain, more than one distillery—you’re talking about a blended Scotch. Batches might even be identified down to the individual barrel or cask. And the real deal has to come from Scotland.
Does that mean Irish whiskey is …
Yup! Pretty much the same thing only from Ireland. And they like to put an ‘e’ in there.
True fans of Scotch whisky would take exception with the notion, and it’s true that the Irish Whiskey Society gives distillers more leeway when it comes to the variables, but we’re still talking about single malts and blends of wood-aged malted barley.
There’s Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey; bourbon is by definition an American whisky.
Corn is required to be the predominant grain in bourbon, and it has to be aged in virgin barrels of charred oak. It’s called sour mash if fermented grains from past whisky batches were added to the fresh grains of the new batch before distilling. It’s analogous to sourdough bread where the loaves can contain cultures from an age-old fermented ‘mother dough.’ Sourdough bread, though, really does taste sour, and sour mash doesn’t tart up the taste of bourbon.
doesn’t have to come from Kentucky, although Tennessee bourbon does have to come from Tennessee, but they don’t call it bourbon. It’s whiskey, and for some reason the ‘e’ makes another appearance. Got that?
Then there’s rye whiskey.
Rye whiskey used to be known as Canadian whisky, and the terms are still used interchangeably, even though there might not be any actual rye in the multi-grain mash. These days, when someone says ‘rye’ they’re most likely talking about American rye whiskey (there’s that irrepressible ‘e’ again). Except for the grains, rye is identical to bourbon, but the grains make all the difference. Corn gives bourbon a sweetness and fuller body, while rye whiskey has a lighter, fruitier, spicier profile.
Irish Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon and Rye
These are the fundamentals of the whisky lexicon.
Sure, there’s a lot more to it. There are Lowlands and Highlands and peat smoking and vatted malts. There are whiskies from Japan and Czechoslovakia and Australia, and Danish single malts made with water from the Greenlandic ice sheet and Indian whiskies distilled from fermented molasses.
So you won’t be whisky-fluent, but with this little lesson you will be whisky-conversant.