Since Ramshackle Pantry started in 2017, we have looked at several whiskey drinks, including the Penicillin, Manhattan, and Old Fashioned. While we have touched on differences in whiskey, we haven’t gone full deep dive yet. Today that changes and we are going to explore the different types of whiskey and give a whisky 101 Tutorial.
Table Of Contents
- Whiskey vs Whiskey
- What Is Whiskey?
- Different Types of Whiskey
- How To Drink Whiskey
I, myself, have a lot to learn about whiskey and look forward to diving into this topic with you!
Whiskey vs Whisky
So, before we dive too deep, you may have noticed that I spelled Whiskey in two different ways. ‘Whiskey’ is the American and Irish way of spelling it. ‘Whisky’ is the Scottish (and Canadian and Japanese) way of spelling it. Usually, however, we use the spelling as a way to refer to the origin of the whiskey. So, if we are talking about a Kentucky Bourbon (a type of whiskey), I will spell it ‘whiskey.’ If, however, I am talking about a Single Malt Scotch (a different type of whisky with origins in Scotland), I will spell it ‘whisky’. Both refer to a similar product, but the spelling helps denote an origin.
Ultimately, they are the same damn thing.
What Is Whiskey?
It is the tasty stuff that goes in your cocktail, right? That is a perfectly legitimate definition in my book, but we are here to get a little nerdy about whiskey. Webster’s dictionary defines whiskey as:
A liquor distilled from fermented wort (such as that obtained from rye, corn, or barley mash)
Clear as mud? We should all know what liquor is, but there are few phrases in here that might not be familiar to everybody.
What is Fermented Wort?
If you are a homebrewer, you may be familiar with the word wort, but many are not. So, before whiskey is made, grains are steeped in hot water (also called mashing). This process activates the starches in the grain and are turned into sugar. So, once the grains have been steeped and the sugars extracted, the remaining liquid is Wort.
Some common grains that are used in the distillation process to make wort are malted barley, rye, wheat, or corn.
Then, after the wort has been made, yeast is added to the wort. Yeast enables the fermentation process. These little microorganisms love the sugar that is in the wort and goes to town on them. After the yeast ‘eats’ the sugars, the result is alcohol left behind. The wort has now been fermented.
What is ‘Distilled’?
Distillation is the process of separating components of a liquid with boiling and condensation. So, different compounds (such as alcohol) have a different boiling point than others (such as water). So, in terms of distilling liquor, alcohol will evaporate at a much faster rate than water because of its lower boiling point. This evaporation of the fermented wort is collected and BLAMMO…. Liquor.
What Separates Whiskey from Other Liquors?
So, all spirits must have some sort of fermentation and distillation, but wat separates Whiskey from other liquors. What makes it uniquely different than vodka or brandy? It comes down to the initial ingredients and aging. For whiskey, we are talking about barley or wheat, as opposed to vodka, which uses potatoes. Cognac uses grapes and is basically distilled wine. Whiskey is basically distilled and unhopped beer.
What is a Grain Bill?
A Grain Bill is the list of, and amounts of, the grains that are used in the mash. So, if a whiskey has a 75% Rye grain bill, it will likely fall under the specific definition of Rye Whiskey. This becomes important in defining the more specific kinds of Whiskey that we are about to get into.
Different Types of Whiskey
To explore this, let’s look to the US Code of Federal Regulations that defines Whisky. As a note, these definitions from the US are not the definitive definition of these products and there may be some slight variations across the globe. It is, however, the standards of the US government and a great place to start! I will unpack this one by one.
(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.
Pretty standard Whiskey definition here.
Popular Whiskey Variations
(1)(i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.
As you can see here, many of the most famous American whiskeys are defined by the grain they are mashed from. This part helps define the difference between a bourbon (predominantly corn grain bill) and a rye (predominantly rye grain bill).
(ii) “Corn whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn grain, and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 125° proof in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood; and also includes mixtures of such whisky.
Note the main difference between bourbon and corn whiskey is the required amount of corn in this type of whiskey. Bourbon requires 51% corn in the grain bill, but corn whiskey requires 80%. There is a further difference in that corn whiskey does not need to be aged in barrels.
(iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whisky”, “straight corn whisky”, and whisky conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as “straight whisky”. No other whiskies may be designated “straight”. “Straight whisky” includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.
This really means something. There are minimum age requirements of a straight whiskey. So, if you see this on the bottle, you know that there has been some level of time that the spirit has been aging.
(2) “Whisky distilled from bourbon (rye, wheat, malt, or rye malt) mash” is whisky produced in the United States at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored in used oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. Whisky conforming to the standard of identity for corn whisky must be designated corn whisky.
(3) “Light whisky” is whisky produced in the United States at more than 160° proof, on or after January 26, 1968, and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies. If “light whisky” is mixed with less than 20 percent of straight whisky on a proof gallon basis, the mixture shall be designated “blended light whisky” (light whisky—a blend).
This is kind of an interesting style. Following WWII, whiskey took sort of a popularity hit in the USA. Products like vodka really took off and one of the appeals is that the flavor and liquor could literally hide behind other flavors. The popularity of non-tasting liquors didn’t mean good things for whiskey, which relied on the flavor of the grains, the barrels, and the entire process.
To help the whiskey industry, the US made a new category called Light Whiskey. Unlike Bourbon, which required a new barrel for aging, light whiskey did not. It also did not require the use of charred barrels. The combination of these two factors helped produce a whiskey that did not have quite a bold as flavors and helped companies compete with the vodkas of the time.
(4) “Blended whisky” (whisky—a blend) is a mixture which contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and, separately, or in combination, whisky or neutral spirits. A blended whisky containing not less than 51 percent on a proof gallon basis of one of the types of straight whisky shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “blended rye whisky” (rye whisky—a blend).
You can find great blended whiskies, but the definition above can really muddle the waters and allow for junk. Kool-Aid I suppose. It can be as little as 20% whiskey. What is the rest? Nuetral spirits, coloring, flavoring. It can also be up to 100% whiskey. So you can have a blended Whiskey that is made up of really quality other-whiskeys that does not fall into any of the other definitions.
A Blend of Straight Whiskies
(5)(i) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) is a mixture of straight whiskies which does not conform to the standard of identify for “straight whisky.” Products so designated may contain harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a).
(ii) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky, and not conforming to the standard for straight whisky, shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “a blend of straight rye whiskies” (blended straight rye whiskies). “A blend of straight whiskies” consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky shall include straight whisky of the same type which was produced in the same State or by the same proprietor within the same State, provided that such whisky contains harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as stated in 27 CFR 5.23(a).
(iii) The harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials allowed under this section shall not include neutral spirits or alcohol in their original state. Neutral spirits or alcohol may only appear in a “blend of straight whiskies” or in a “blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky” as a vehicle for recognized flavoring of blending material.
(6) “Spirit whisky” is a mixture of neutral spirits and not less than 5 percent on a proof gallon basis of whisky, or straight whisky, or straight whisky and whisky, if the straight whisky component is less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis.
I haven’t tried this, but it looks like this would be on the cheap side of things.
(7) “Scotch whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Scotland, manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom regulating the manufacture of Scotch whisky for consumption in the United Kingdom: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Scotch whisky” (Scotch whisky—a blend).
Here we are starting to get into some of the great European Whiskies. Scotch is a regional thing and must be made in Scotland. Beyond just being from Scotland, there are further regional distinctions. The Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay are all distinct Scotch producing regions, each with there one characteristic.
A great Scotch and the first I really liked, Glenlivet is in the Speyside region and another popular one Glenfiddich is here as well.
What makes an Islay Scotch appropriate for the Penicillin is the characteristic smokiness of whisky from that region. The smoky flavor comes from peat. Peat has been an energy source in Scotland for a very long time and has become a traditional part of the whisky-making process. The smoke in the whisky comes from using burning peat to dry the barley.
(8) “Irish whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Ireland, manufactured either in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland, in compliance with their laws regulating the manufacture of Irish whisky for home consumption: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Irish whisky” (Irish whisky—a blend).
Note the subtle spelling change I made here While Scotch is ‘whisky’, Irish Whiskey is ‘Whiskey.’ What is the difference between Scotch, other whiskey and Irish Whiskey? Well, that Irish Whiskey is distilled in Ireland, of course! Ireland holds some of the world’s oldest Whiskey distilleries with Bushmills and Klibeggan and was once the most popular spirit in the world. Unlike Scotch, peat is rarely used in the distillation process of Irish Whiskey.
(9) “Canadian whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada regulating the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada: Provided,That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Canadian whisky” (Canadian whisky—a blend).
Windsor was one of my college go-to drinks with Coke as a mixer, but much has changed. Since the US defines this whiskey as a product of Canada that complies with the Canadian manufacturing rules, it is important to talk about that.
I think there are two big points with Canadian Whisky. First, added coloring can be in Canadian Whisky. Second, it can contain up to 9.09% other spirits. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This means that Canadians might port in some quality American Bourbon to mix in with that Canadian Whisky! The problem is that this can also end up with a product with a neutral spirit, as well. Just additives.
Like ANY country, there are some great Canadian Whiskies and not-as-great Canadian whiskies.
Oh good gosh, there are still many other regional whiskeys and methods of distillation that I have not made here. Just because we only mentioned Scotch, it doesn’t mean that other regions (Japan among others) aren’t making some great Scotch-like whiskeys. There are specific stills that distilleries use that bring story, character, and flavor to the end products and we just aren’t covering in today’s 101.
How To Drink Whisky
Drink what tastes good and how you want to drink it! That is my first rule of drinking anything. I will say that there are people who feel you can get better and more flavor from a whiskey depending on how it is served.
In a Cocktail
There are plenty of famous whisky cocktails, such as the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Penicillin. You can learn how to make some great recipes right at home or hop on down to your local bar establishment and have your local drink slinger mix up a classic!
Adding Water To Your Whiskey
We are starting to get into some more nuanced Whiskey decisions. First, all whiskey has some water in it from the get-go. But do you add more? Some feel a few drops help open up the flavors of the whiskey and help the drinker get the most of their whiskey. Some, however, think you should just drink it the way it was bottled. Here is an article on adding water to your whiskey! Personally, I like to add a splash of water to my straight whiskey.
Adding Ice to Your Whiskey.
This serves two purposes. First, it can dilute your whiskey a little bit, but large hunks of ice (a single block or sphere) tend to be more popular of an ice. Small pieces of ice will dilute faster, which is generally not considered ideal.
The other reason to add ice is that the coolness can cut into that alcohol flavor that is associated with alcohol. Some consider this a downfall, but, once again, drink what you like. 🙂
I generally, but not always, add an ice block to my whiskey.
What To Serve Whiskey In
While any glass works, there are four distinct glasses that I feel are appropriate for a whiskey. The most common that many people might have in their house already is the Low Ball glass. This is great for cocktails, but also a perfect vessel for pouring a nice finger of whiskey.
Second, we have the Glencairn Glass. This is like a stemless tulip glass. After watching a million whiskey videos, this seems like the glass that people use for drinking whiskey. Everybody (except for everybody I know) has some of these laying around apparently. Obviously, I am just a bit jealous of these trendy glasses. Perhaps I should pick some up. A big benefit of these glasses is the tulip shape that allows for a good concentration of the smells of a whiskey.
Third, is the traditional tulip glass based on the Copita, or Sherry, glass. It is basically the same as the Glencairn Glass, but has a fancy stem on it.
Finally, the Neat Whiskey Glass. A glass that is designed specifically for whiskey and meant to allow for great flavors, ability to get a ‘nose’ for the drink, but not the harsh smells when you drink.
I have a feeling that I will be coming back to this post over and over again. Both to revisit my thoughts, but too continually add to it. Whiskey is not a small subject and I am just learning about it. Keep on checking back with this post as we grow and evolve it into something that has more!