The most common discussion I have with people about whiskey in a bar centers around the confusion about what whiskey is and how whiskey, bourbon, and Scotch are different. Is Bourbon a Scotch? Is it a whiskey? While the preponderance of styles ultimately helps the consumer more readily identify what to expect from a bottle, at first it can be overwhelming.
The sad thing is that the vast majority of web searches on this topic pull up articles from what should be reputable sources that contain massive factual errors, so if you didn’t read it here, it’s probably wrong!
If you haven’t read about who and how “the rules” are made, give this article a read. It will help you understand the legal dynamics at play. (And also demonstrate where TheWhiskeyScout.com gets its facts.)
First off, let’s define what we mean by “whiskey.” If you’re wondering about the difference between the “whiskey” and “whisky” spellings, take a read here. Whiskey, at its most basic, is a spirit distilled from a fermented mash made with grains such as barley, wheat, oat, rye, or any other of the cereal grains. The clear spirit condensing from the still is the most basic form of what might be called whiskey.
This is also the beginning of the controversy about what is and is not whiskey. Many people do not call this clear spirit whiskey at all, but rather “new make.” Some other terms are “white dog” and “white whiskey.” While many producers are putting the term “moonshine” on their labels, purists are calling foul as moonshine is a term usually reserved for illegal versions of new make. And we know who usually wins when language purists take on marketers.
At this point, many whiskey experts point out that new make is barely distinguishable from vodka and insist that it is the aging process that truly defines a whiskey. And they have a point, especially when you consider that both vodka and whiskey can be made from grains. What comes off the still is very similar.
This is where regional laws come into play. In the US, the word “whiskey” can be applied to:
1) A spirit made from at least 80% corn with no aging in wood barrels (it may be aged, but not required)
2) A spirit from other grains stored in barrels, but there is no legal length put on the aging process. As such, some American bourbons and whiskeys are aged for times less than even one day.
Other locales, however, are not so lenient. The EU requires spirits to have been aged for not less than three years in order to qualify as whiskey. A spirit aged for less than three years can still be sold, it just cannot be called whiskey. So what may be called whiskey in America is not whiskey in other parts of the world.
The Americans have the most varied categories available to them for whiskey production. The most basic, of course, is just “whiskey.” According to US law, whiskey “is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof . . . 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.” A grain-distilled spirit not meeting these requirements is just a “grain spirit.”
Corn whiskey has a free pass on aging requirements (such as they are) and is “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.”
Bourbon, the most recognizable American variant, has the added distinction of being required to have been produced in America. Anywhere. Some people believe it must come from Kentucky, or Tennessee, or the contiguous US. All lies! It must, however, be made from at least 51% corn and “produced at not exceeding 160° proof . . . and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers.” Notice the lack of length of aging requirements. This is one area where many sources screw up and claim some random number of years a bourbon must be aged. Many also erroneously claim bourbon must use white oak. The type of oak required is never specified, although it must be new, never used. After the first batch, the barrel cannot be used for bourbon ever again. They are usually sold to the Scots. No additives are allowed (color, flavor, etc.).
Rye/wheat/etc. has the exact same requirements as bourbon, except that the 51% must be the grain on the label, naturally.
Straight bourbon/rye/corn/wheat/etc. meets the above definitions with the added requirement of having been aged for at least two years.
Tennessee Whiskey is a bit of a muddle. It is not described in federal legislation and is having a hard time of it in Tennessee state law. The basic attempt here is to create a unique brand. The requirements for Tennessee Whiskey are the same as for bourbon with the additions that it is made in Tennessee and is filtered through maple charcoal. This process is called the Lincoln County Process. While some people argue that a Tennessee Whiskey is also a bourbon, that is incorrect. A bourbon cannot have additives; the Lincoln County process is a flavor additive, and thus no bourbon for you!
The irony is that the only distiller in Lincoln County (Benjamin Prichard’s) does not use this process but is grandfathered into still using the name Tennessee Whiskey. It’s a mess, and the whole law is currently being challenged by Diageo, a global alcohol behemoth.
There are exactly five Scotch variants as defined by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Unlike their American cousins, the Scots do not have a “catch-all” whiskey category. If it does not met the requirements of one of the five “Scotch Whiskies,” you cannot make it in Scotland. There is no such thing as “whisky from Scotland.” All Scotches must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels and may contain “plain caramel colouring.” For a more in-depth discussion, see this article here.
Single malt Scotch whiskies are made from 100% malted barley and come from a single distiller, but can still be a mix of varying ages and barrel types.
Single grain Scotch whiskies are made from other grains but still come from a single distillery. The “single” does not refer to a single grain, but a single distillery. A single grain Scotch contains multiple grain types.
Blended malt Scotch whiskies are made by blending single malts form different distillers together.
Blended grain Scotch whisky is a blend of single grain whiskies from different distillers.
Blended Scotch whisky is a blending of single malt and single grain whiskies.
The Canadians are far less technical when it comes to their whisky. Three years as a minimum age is about it. It may contain coloring and flavoring. It is often labeled as “rye” for traditional reasons and not for any actual rye content. They also require “small wood,” as in barrels of 700L or less.
Like the Canadians, the Irish have few regulations beyond the three-year rule and that it is “distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume.” Most of the “rules” people may refer to (e.g. triple distilled) are merely traditional practices and not requirements.
Even this is simplified, but you get the main points. As with all laws, they change and are filled with nuances that would take way, way too much space to go into. Hopefully this gives you a good start balancing the need to avoid going into irrelevant minutia but not being too simplistic.