A Whiskey by any Other Name...
So many of us venture to the corner store, or perhaps to the liquor isle in the main grocery store to quickly grab a bottle of whiskey to enjoy later on in the evening. As is usually the case, the majority of individuals tend to fall back on their tried and true brand which they have relied upon for years; often having been introduced to this type of whiskey from a friend or family member. Not surprisingly, we habitually veer towards simply enjoying the drink and not focusing on the technicalities of the trade. For those who seek a little more information on what they're putting down their gullet, or for those with the itch of educational interest, we hope that this will give some helpful initial insight on your journey into the realm of whiskey.
What are the types of whiskey? There is some slight disagreement as to where the line ends for 'main' whiskey categories, so for the sake of thoroughness we will address a fuller spectrum of them. In the spirits trade you will consistently find several types of whiskey: Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, American Blended Whiskey, Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Canadian Whisky, Irish Whiskey, and Japanese Whisky. At first glance we can see that, dependent on the geographic location where the spirit was made, the spelling of the word whiskey can be spelled out as 'whisky' instead. This is no error, simply another correct method of spelling a word based on cultural differences. This has no affect on the actual spirit itself, it is merely the wording. The actual definitions of each whiskey, and the subtle differences in distillation and character are where the differences in type are evident.
Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey (Tennessee Bourbon)
- Is a specific variation of bourbon made in Tennessee and has a additional set of regulations
- 51-79% corn
- Other additional regulation – must be filtered through maple charcoal chunks before aging (called Lincoln county process)
American Blended Whiskey
- At least 20% straight whiskey
- Blended with neutral grain spirits, colorings, and flavorings
- It is generally the product of mixing one or more higher-quality straight or single malt whiskey with less expensive spirits and other ingredients
Bourbon Whiskey (Kentucky Straight Bourbon)
- Originally and most distilleries are from the South, particularly Kentucky, but doesn’t have to be
- Must be made from at least 51% corn
- No additives but water allowed (no coloring, caramel and flavoring additives)
- Must be aged in charred new-oak barrels for at least 2 years to be called “straight” bourbon
- Bourbon can ONLY be made in the United States
- At least 51% rye grain (can range anywhere from 51%-100%)
- Crisper, spicer, and sharper mouthfeel than bourbon
- Charred new-oak barrels at least two years
- No additives but water
- Made in Scotland
- Primarily malted barley (along with other grains, corn, wheat…)
Single-malt whisky – often considered top dog amongst aficionados
- 100% Malted barley in small pot stills, at least 2 distillation runs
- Product of single distillery
- Aged at least 3 years in oak casks
- The pot still (alembic still) – ancient distilling tool virtually unchanged for millennia, produces rich and complex character
- Often is categorized further by region of origin (areas close to ocean tend to absorb a bit of the briny sea air while inland regions are usually more floral from Scotland’s vast plains- also some regions will traditionally use more peat more than others, see “Other notes” below)
Blended malt whisky
- blend of 100% malted barley whiskies from two or more distilleries
- Combining single-malt whisky with corn or wheat whisky
- Used mostly for blending
- 100% corn or wheat
- Lighter body, produced in column still, not the small pot stills
- Other notes: personal preferences are also often determined by the “peatiness” of the Scotch, whether it being mild (or even none) to having a more aggressive peaty flavor. That smoky flavor comes from early in the distillation process. The barley is first soaked and then dried over burning peat.
- Most relaxed rules of the major whisk(e)y nations (each distillery can follow its own production process and methods)
- Must be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada
- Must be aged in small wood for not less than 3 years
- May contain caramel and flavoring.
- Must possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky
- Similar to Scotch, each Canadian Whisky is generally the product of a single distillery (distillers rarely share barrels or buy whisky from each other).
- Regardless of grain, Canadian distillers usually create two whiskies (a base whisky + a flavoring whisky) and then combine them together to create the final product.
- The base whisky is often distilled at a higher alcohol content and matured in barrels that have been used one or more times, reducing the grain and barrel’s influence on the flavor and giving at the characteristic “smoothness” or “elegance” of Canadian whiskies.
- The flavoring whisky is usually distilled at a lower alcohol content, allowing the grain derived flavors to be highlighted. It is also usually aged in virgin barrels or a mix of virgin and used barrels, extracting more flavor from the barrel.
- Made in Ireland
- Shares some similarities to Scotch, but has its own deviations as well
Single-malt whiskey – mostly the same as in Scotland
- 100% Barley in pot stills, usually 3 distillation runs
- A closed kiln heated by coal or gas is used to roast the malted barley, giving a clear barley flavor instead of the smoky peat flavors often found in Scotch
- Product of single distillery
- Aged at least 3 years
- Lighter than single malts
- Corn or wheat distilled in a column still
- Combination of single-malt and grain whiskey
Single pot still whiskey
- Unique to Ireland
- 100% barley, both malted and unmalted, in a pot still
- Single-malt whiskey – mostly the same as in Scotland
- Distillation nearly identical to Scotch.
- Commercially produced in Japan since the 1920’s, and after nearly a century, you’ll frequently find a Japanese whisky listed on “Best of the Best” lists.
- Japanese distilleries will often vary from Scotch distilleries in their use of more still shapes and sizes. Scotland distilleries will usually have just one or two house still sizes, creating a specific style; Japanese distilleries will often have an array of sizes, allowing the Japanese whisky makers to craft a range of styles and tastes according to their individual desires.
What about flavored whiskies? Well the truth is, technically, they're not actually classified as whiskies! Flavored whiskies are classified as liqueurs by the liquor trade. People are attracted by the allure of delicious flavors and unique combinations of aromas and tastes. But in fact, what you're getting is a product that is, typically, lower in alcohol content and loaded with sugars and artificial sweeteners, flavorers and coloring. I encourage anyone that is shopping for spirits, either online or in-store, to thoroughly and completely read the bottle's information to ascertain whether it might be the spirit that you really want. If you are looking for a bottle of whiskey with a higher alcohol-by-volume content, than looking at flavored whiskies is probably not the direction you want to take.
New ages, versions, styles, seasonal editions, flavors and styles of whiskey are constantly being thrown into the modern day market to stimulate both casual and daily drinkers to expand their cache of go-to spirits and open their mind to new and untried products. Truly, there is no shortage of whiskies on the market today for anyone interested in becoming an aficionado, with plenty of opportunities for those looking to start various types of collections. Even the media has jumped into the liquor trade in the last several years. Just recently, Game of Thrones put out a series of Scotch whiskies, including three from Johnnie Walker, that have now become hugely popular among avid collectors of rare whiskies.
When all the smoke clears and all that is left is a couple ounces of whiskey in a tumbler or dram, and all of the fancy marketing with social media and glitter have quieted, all that matters is your opinion of the spirit in your glass. As with all of our blogs, we hope that this does not sway your opinion of any type of whiskey in any direction. Instead, we hope that this has served as an informational reserve for you to draw on whenever you might need it. Transpirits and Park Boulevard Liquor and Deli always wish that you enjoy your spirits safely and responsibly. At Transpirits we wish you, your family and friends, all the safety and serenity on your difficult journey through COVID-19.