There are seemingly endless brands of whiskey, with more popping up every day. There are also a number of different styles of whiskey out there, and most people know of these different types. But many don’t actually know what makes a Single Malt vs. a Bourbon. I wanted to provide you with a quick rundown of what makes your favorite whiskey taste the way it does, and why it’s different from the next one.
American Whiskey can most easily be split into three categories: bourbon, rye, and Tennessee. They are all made differently and have distinctly different styles.
Bourbon: Most people think of Kentucky when they think of bourbon, but it can really be made anywhere in the US. It just has to follow a few rules. Must be at least 51% corn based. No additives are allowed other than water (no coloring, sweeteners, etc.). Must be aged at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. Fairly straightforward. Bourbon is known for its bolder vanilla and caramel flavors. The use of corn imparts a sweeter flavor.
Rye: Follows the same rules as bourbon but must be at least 51% rye based. Rye tends to have a slightly sharper, spicier flavor to it. I find it can add a little bit of complexity to typical bourbon cocktails.
Tennessee: Similar to bourbon with a few more specific guidelines. Must be made in Tennessee, must be 51-79% corn based ,and must be filtered through maple charcoal. Not a hugely prevalent style other than Jack Daniels.
Canadian whiskey is one of the most relaxed types as far as rules go, each distillery typically has their own guidelines. It must be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada. It is typically more corn based, but you do see rye used as well. It must be aged at least three years in small barrel. They are usually a blend of what they call a base whiskey, and a flavoring whiskey. The base whiskey is usually made at a higher proof and aged in older barrels, which impart less flavor. The flavoring whiskey is usually lower proof, and aged in newer barrels, which imparts more flavor and accentuates the grain flavors in the distillate. Canadian whiskey is known for being lighter and smoother. Its prominence emerged during prohibition, and even to this day the U.S. buys 75% of Canadian whiskey made.
Scotch is one of the most complex whiskies as far as method and style. Not only are there different categories of scotch, but their flavor can be greatly dictated by the region in which they are made. Single malt scotch is often considered the best of the best in the whiskey world. It must come from a single distillery and be 100% malted barley distilled at least 2 times. They must use a pot still and have to be aged in oak barrel at least 3 years. Scotch made closer to the ocean can often have a saltier flavor and the use of peat in the roasting process gives scotch its distinctive smoky flavor. The Islay region is known for being some of the smokiest. You also see a lot of blended scotch, which is just a blend of malted barley whiskey with corn or wheat-based whiskies.
Irish whiskey is made very similarly to scotch with a few distinctions. Also 100% barley done in a pot still, but Irish is typically distilled 3 times. Gas or coal is typically used for roasting which gives a cleaner flavor compared to the peatiness of scotch. Also aged for at least three years. There are only three working distilleries in Ireland, but multiple brands are made in each facility.
Japanese Whiskey, while more recently trendy, does have a fairly rich history going back to the early 20th century. Many of the famous brands are made exactly the same way as scotch and their flavor profiles made to match it as well. Some producers buy their distillate from elsewhere and do their own aging. Some are even made from rice. There is no real distinct style for Japanese whiskey, it is up to each distiller and we have seen a large movement towards more unique whiskies.
While there’s no official name for this category, it is an exciting new trend. The wash that typically goes into making whiskey is called “distiller’s beer,” but it is uninteresting and pretty flavorless. Craft beer producers have started to use their products for distillate to create very interesting and unique whiskies. Your favorite IPA can impart some of its delicious hoppiness to your new favorite high proof libation!
Whiskey is an incredibly diverse industry, and its lovers are some of the most passionate people in the beverage world. We have seen a huge boom in craft distillers which has added even more variety and unique styles into the fold. In a world dominated by large brands people have really begun to care more about the quality of what they’re drinking, and whiskey has hugely benefitted from this. Were only going to keep seeing more great products coming into the mix!
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