Whiskey and Bourbon are two of the more confusing and misunderstood segments of the spirits industry. The bottom line is, all bourbons are whisky, but not all whiskeys are bourbon, just as all Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne. Here’s a brief bare-bones discussion of whiskey and bourbon – note that some are properly spelled “whisky.”
Whiskey’s General Identity: Spirits distilled from grain mash and aged in oak barrels. Whichever grain is used, that grain must be prominent in the blend by 51%, with the exception of corn whiskey which must contain 80% corn. Whiskies are made from corn, rye, wheat and barley malt.
Straight Whiskey: Always oak-aged for a minimum of two years (corn whiskey is the exception).
Corn Whiskey: Not generally “aged” but when it is, corn whiskey has some major requirements, including aging taking place in toasted or charred oak barrels.
Bourbon Whiskey: Always American-made from 51% corn (and no more than 70% Indian corn), aged
in new (only new) toasted oak barrels. In general, bourbon is considered to taste sweeter than straight whiskey. Bourbon has no restrictions on aging, but the best receive at least two years in-barrel. Bourbon can be made anywhere within the United States. When bourbon is aged under 4 years, but labeled as “straight,” it must have the aging period written on the label. Bourbon can be “blended” but must have 51% straight whiskey in the bottle. The alcohol level cannot exceed 80 proof. As with the fine wine winemaker, there is always a master distiller involved in the birthing of bourbon.
Just as many countries never put the word “Champagne” on a bottle of sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region of France (it’s a matter of respect, not law). Returning the ‘respect,’ “Bourbon” on the label signals that what’s in the bottle is American-made. In general, other countries do not put the word ‘bourbon’ on a label.
Small Batch Bourbons: Generally artisan-styled, specialty bourbons, made in small batches. Blends of different bourbons from different small, select barrels and different ages bring out qualities not found in the distillery’s identity bourbon. The Small Batch tastes different from their identity bourbon, which ideally always tastes the same.
Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey: Considered to be “Bourbon” and meets all the same requirements, but some producers choose not to use the word “Bourbon” on the label, saying that their product has distinguishing characteristics (among them, charcoal-filtering). The product can be ‘Bourbon,’ or it can be Tennessee Whiskey.
Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: The largest producer of bourbon (95% of the entire worlds’ bourbon comes from Kentucky), and is America’s only “native spirit,” so proclaimed by Congress in 1964, originating in Kentucky some 200 years ago. The state claims that the new oak barrels used for long aging are then reused for Scotch and Irish whiskey, rum and tequila. Kentucky relies on it’s iron-free spring water, purified by limestone overflow, for the nature of the bourbon.
American Rye Whiskey: Must be at least 51% rye grains. Aged in new charred oak barrels. With two years of aging, the product qualifies as Straight Whiskey.
Canadian Whisky: Most Canadian whiskies are made predominantly of corn and then blended with rye grains, fermented and distilled separately, rather than as a mash. Canada requires all whiskies to be aged at least three years. Caramel coloring may be added.
Canadian Rye Whisky: No requirement that rye be in the product. (See above for more)
Irish Whiskey: Must be distilled and aged in Ireland, in wood casks (no specific wood designated), for at least three years. It must be labeled “blended” if more than one grain is used. Any spirit aged less than three years cannot be labeled Canadian Whiskey.
Scotch Whisky: Distilled at a distillery in Scotland from malted barley and water,
can be blended with other grains, and aged in Scotland. Must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. The label always identifies the grain(s) used. Caramel coloring may be added.
Scotch Single Malt Whisky: Made from one producer from one malted grain, generally barley, and
generally known as Single Malt Scotch. Restrictions on oak aging, etc. will be save for another time as the restrictions differ from country to country.
I’m sure I’ve left out a favorite or two. If you have favorites, let me now what you like and why. I’m not a whiskey lover, so always appreciate insight.