types of whiskey
Types of whiskey
Spelling: Ask a whiskey drinker what whiskey is and you will probably get as many different answers as the number of folks you ask. Well, first of all, how you SPELL it will differ depending on where you are. In general, here in the United States, we spell it “Whiskey”. They also spell it that way in Ireland and a few other places. In places like the Scotland, Canada and Japan (and other places) they spell it “Whisky”, without the “e”. Although their is a difference in spelling there is fundamentally not much difference between the way they are made (but…..there are always exceptions). There can, however, be quite a big difference between the way whiskey from different countries tastes.
A Definition: So, what is “whiskey/whisky”? Let’s go with the what the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau says (paraphrased). Whiskey is an alcoholic liquid distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (ABV) (or….190 proof), and “having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey and bottled at not less than 40% ABV (80 proof)". As you can see, this is a pretty general definition. With the increase in popularity of “flavored” whiskey, the whole question of “having the taste….” is somewhat liberally interpreted. Interestingly, the U.S. does NOT have an age or aging vessel requirement for what can be called whiskey. So……as soon as that first drop comes off the still, it can still legally be called whiskey. This explains why the popular “moonshines” that are being commercially produced (vice being made “back in the mountains”) can also be called “whiskey”.
Just as a comparison, in Scotland, Canada, and Ireland, you can’t legally call it whisky unless it has spent at least three years aging in a wooden cask.
What whiskey REALLY is….a distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from a fermented grain mash. Basically, this means it is a liquid that you can drink, that has alcohol in it, which was made via a distilling process from water, grains, and yeast. [NOTE: There are tons of good websites out there that describe the distilling process, and if you are interested, I urge you to explore them.]
One More Thing: It is often overlooked, but unlike wine, whiskey does not further mature or “get better" once it is in the bottle. Like wine, however, once a bottle is open, it may effect the flavor (I find, usually to the better.). Unlike wine, however, only in very rare circumstances (like if you store your whiskey in open bottles on the roof of your house…..in the desert) will an open bottle “go bad”. You can drink a properly stored/sealed bottle of whiskey you opened 10 years ago and it should be just as good (if not better) then when you first opened it. Just remember to put the cork/stopper/lid back on it when you store it.
The first basic thing you need to know is that “Whiskey" is the “big” category and there are many sub-types of whiskey under the general category of whiskey. For example, Bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Tennessee, Rye…these are all types of whiskey. They all differ slightly from each other, mostly in the way they are made, sometimes in WHERE they are made, but they also have different taste profiles. Below are most of the (American) types you will find on this website. It isn’t all of them, but it will get you started.
Bourbon: Since this website concentrates heavily on bourbon, let’s take a look at that first. In order for a whiskey to be able to be legally sold as bourbon in the U.S., the following must take place. It must be made in the United States to be sold as such in the United States. Contrary to some popular belief, it does NOT have to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon, so it can be distilled ANYWHERE in the U.S. (And, there are now LOTS of states that produce bourbon!) Bourbon must be distilled from at least 51% corn. It has to be aged in a NEW, charred oak container (oddly, not necessarily a "barrel"….but usually it is). “New” means it can’t have been used to age whiskey before.) It must be no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol). It has to enter the aging barrel at no more than 125 proof. And, it has to be bottled at least 80 proof. There is no age requirement for something to be called bourbon. UNLESS….it is called “Straight Bourbon”. If it is called “Straight Bourbon”, it has to be aged at least 2 years. AND..if it is aged less than 4 years, it has to say so on the label. If it is labeled “Kentucky Straight Bourbon”, it has to follow the rules of “Straight Bourbon” AND has to have been distilled in Kentucky and aged at least one year there. IF a bourbon is made from multiple bourbons (i.e. “blended”), the age statement must reflect the youngest bourbon in the blend. IF the bourbon is bottled in a state other than the one in which it was distilled, it must reflect that on the label. There are a few other requirements in the bourbon world, but these will get you started. Again, I urge you to check out the many, MANY other great websites out there that have additional information. One factor that a lot of people miss is that bourbon cannot contain any added flavoring or coloring. THIS is a VERY GOOD thing!
Rye: Similar to the rules that apply to bourbon, for something to be called Rye in the U.S., it has to be made from at least 51% rye and it has be aged a minimum of 2 years. It cannot have any additional flavoring or coloring and all the rye in the bottle must be distilled in the same state.
Straight Rye: Straight Rye includes all of the above for Rye AND….it must be aged a minimum of 2 years. It may not contain any additional flavoring or coloring. And….all the whiskey in the bottle has to have been distilled in the same state.
Barely Legal Rye: You may hear this term bandied about. Although there is no “legal definition”, all it really means is that the rye has at or close to the minimum amount of rye in the mash bill to call it rye. (So….around 51%.)
High Rye: As you might expect, a “High Rye” has an awful lot of rye in the mash bill. As much as 95% and some are even 100% rye. There are also “High Rye Bourbons”. Usually, any bourbon with over 18% rye in the mash bill is considered “high rye”.
Wheat Whiskey: Wheat whiskey has all the constraints of other whiskeys and all the “rules” of bourbon, but instead of corn, it must be made from at least 51% wheat grain. Don’t confuse wheat whiskey with “Wheated Bourbon”. A “Wheated Bourbon” usually uses wheat grain instead of rye in the mash bill but it still conforms to all the requirements of “bourbon”.
Corn Whiskey: Most often referred to as a variation of “moonshine”, corn whiskey must be made with at least 80% corn grain. It CAN be unaged (aka “moonshine”), but if it IS aged, it must be aged in used or uncharred oak containers. It can’t be higher than 160 proof (80% alcohol) and, if aged, must be barreled at lower than 125 proof.
Bottled in Bond: Any whiskey which is labeled “Bottled in Bond” must be aged at least 4 years (unless it is from pre-1958, in which case it is 8 years). All the whiskey in the bottle must have been distilled within the same calendar year and at the same distillery Bottled in Bond (“BinB”) must be bottled at 100 proof. The aging process for “Bottled in Bond” takes place in a federally-bonded facility, under government supervision.
Finished or Flavored Whiskey: “Finished whiskey” is a whiskey that has been modified in some way. Any whiskey so labeled must state the type of whiskey and “with ( ) flavoring” or “finished in ( )”. Technically, once it is “finished” it can’t be called bourbon, if it started out as a bourbon.
Tennessee Whiskey/“Lincoln County Process”: This can be a little bit confusing. The term “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t like bourbon, because it is not protected by the Federal Standards of Identity of Distilled Spirits. A 2013 Tennessee state law requires that Tennessee Whiskey use the Lincoln County Process (with the exception of the Benjamin Prichard Distillery, which does not use the process and got an exemption). This process is used to describe straight whiskey distilled in Tennessee that was filtered through maple charcoal before aging. Although they do it a little bit differently, the two most well-known distillers who use this process are Jack Daniels and George Dickel.