One of my most frequently asked questions is, essentially, ‘what’s a whiskey?’ Is bourbon a whiskey? What’s the difference between Scotch and Irish Whiskey? Why do we call it rye in Canada? What the hell is sour-mash? With minimized technical jargon, let me set the record straight.
Scotch, or Scotch ‘whisky’
Scotch is usually known simply as whiskey made in Scotland. However, Scotch has some of the richest history and strictest regulations of any whiskey produced in the world. Legally, to be called a Scotch, the whiskey has to meet a series of strict criteria, ensuring the production occurs exclusively in Scotland, the only grain used is malted barley, and the alcohol content falls between 40%-94.8%. Other rules include prohibiting the addition of any substances besides water and caramel colouring, and how the yeast fermentation is done. In essence, Scotch is a highly technical drink. While there are five categories of Scotch, the two you will most commonly encounter are single malt Scotch whisky and blended malt Scotch whisky. Single malt Scotch means the whiskey was made with a single malted grain from a single distillery. Blended Scotch means at least two single malts were blended from one or more distilleries. Both can be excellent whiskeys, but I personally prefer a good single malt. Tasting what the distiller was able to evoke from a single grain can be very invigorating. A fine example would be Auchentoshan 12, an affordable entry level scotch. For a blend, try Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years Old Scotch Whisky.
Irish Whiskey is very similar to Scotch (but don’t tell this to an Irish or Scotsman). The regulations surrounding its production are much simpler than Scotch. It must be produced in Ireland, can be made from a variety of ‘cereal grains’, has to be between 40%-94.8% alcohol and if made with more than one grain, it must be labelled ‘blended.’ The stipulations Scotch has surrounding single-malt do not apply to Irish Whiskey, and no legal definition exists for a single-malt Irish Whiskey, however, most Irish distilleries conform to the Scottish expectations. Try Connemara Cask Strength Peated Single Malt, for a smokey, earthy endeavor into Irish Whiskey.
Every Canadian is familiar with rye. Or are they? Most Canadian whiskeys are referred to as ‘rye’ because traditionally most Canadian whiskeys used the rye grain in the distillation process. This is no longer the case, and many Canadian ‘ryes’ no longer even contain rye grain, Crown Royal being a prime example. In fact, in Canada, there is no legal stipulation requiring a ‘Rye Whiskey’ to even contain rye. Instead, Canadian whiskeys are mostly made with corn, with perhaps only a bit of rye being used in the distillation process. In the United States, a rye whiskey is legally required to be made from at least 51% rye grain. Thus, ironically, the odds of you drinking a true rye whiskey are much higher in America, despite Canada being famous for it. Rye is notorious for imparting a distinctive spice or fruit flavour to the whiskey, making it quite unique. If you’d like to experience this, try Alberta Premium, the only Canadian whiskey made using 100% rye grain. It packs a wallop, but at less than $24 for 750ml, it is an incredibly reasonable price to try a piece of real Canadian history.
Bourbon is absolutely integral to American whiskey culture. Bourbon is a primarily corn whiskey, most famously produced in Kentucky. Many legal requirements must be met for an American whiskey to be labelled a ‘Bourbon,’ although these vary internationally. In the States (and in Canada), a Bourbon must be distilled with at least 51% corn, contain no more than 80% alcohol, and be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Tennessee Whiskey must meet all the legal requirement s of a Bourbon, and thus can be marketed as such. However, most Tennessee whiskey producers abhor this label, insisting Tennessee whiskey is different. Jack Daniel’s is a notorious example of this. Bourbon gains its rich dark colour and smokey flavour from its aging in the charred-oak barrels which impart the caramel flavour and colour to it. Internationally, almost all American whiskey is known as Bourbon, despite not meeting the stipulations requited in the States. For a quintessential of Kentucky Bourbon, try Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon a big, woody whiskey that just screams ‘Murica.
Sour mash refers to the process of using spent grain mash, previously used in a batch of whiskey, in the next batch. The spent grain still contains live yeast and is acidic. The acid helps mitigate the growth of bacteria that could otherwise spoil the whiskey. Almost all Bourbon’s and Tennessee whiskeys are considered sour mash whiskeys, so the term merely adds a different point of reference to the whiskey, as opposed to being a form of unique classification.
Whiskey is a hell of a drink. Everyone has their favourite, and someone who loves Scotch might find Bourbon untenable. Think of the different whiskey varieties as cousins on a sprawling family tree. So get out there, buy some bottles, sample some styles, and meet the family. Just remember to sip them slow.