Fire water, water of life, juice—whatever you call it, whiskey (also spelled “whisky”) is having a moment. But with so many different whiskeys available, learning the particulars of even one type can be challenging. To help out, we’ve put together a list of answers to your most frequently asked questions about the brown spirit. Consider this your Whiskey 101 cheat sheet.
1. WHAT IS WHISKEY?
The answer is trickier than you might expect: What can be labeled "whiskey" varies from country to country. Many of the moonshines and white whiskeys available in the U.S. can’t legally be labeled as whiskey elsewhere, for example, because they haven't been aged. Exactly how long the spirit must age to be called whiskey varies by country, but all whiskeys do have one thing in common: They're made from grain.
2. WHY IS WHISKEY SOMETIMES SPELLED WITHOUT AN E?
You’ve probably noticed that some whiskey labels read “whiskey” while others are spelled “whisky.” The current convention is that Irish and American whiskeys are spelled with the e, and that Scottish, Canadian, and Japanese whiskys are spelled without. But some bourbons and Tennessee whiskies—including Maker’s Mark and George Dickel—are spelled without the e. Go figure.
3. WHAT IS BOURBON?
To be considered whiskey in the U.S., the spirit must be distilled from grain and be between 40 and 95 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) [PDF]. Usually it is distilled twice. Unlike other countries, there is no minimum aging requirement for most types of American whiskeys.
In the States, bourbon is king. To be called bourbon, the product must not only meet the baseline definition of whiskey, but must also be distilled from at least 51 percent corn. It must be under 62.5 percent ABV once it goes into a barrel, and it must be aged in charred new oak containers. To be called “straight bourbon" (or "straight" whiskey of any kind), it has to aged for at least two years. As far as taste goes, bourbon is typically thought to be sweeter than other whiskeys (such as rye or Scotch), and has a slight smoky flavor.
And last but not least, bourbon has to be made in the United States. It is so ingrained (no pun intended) in our culture, even NAFTA restricts the word "bourbon" to whiskey made in the States.
4. IS BOURBON THE SAME AS TENNESSEE WHISKEY?
Tennessee whiskey is not to be confused with bourbon, although legally, there are only a couple variances between the two. In addition to meeting all the federal requirements for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey must also be produced within the state’s limits. Since 2013, it has been required that all Tennessee whiskey is “filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging,” which is known as the Lincoln County Process [PDF] (although one distiller received an exemption from the law).
Aside from these two huge categories, the U.S. also produces rye whiskey (which must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye), wheat whiskey (which must be distilled from 51 percent wheat), unaged white whiskeys, and grain whiskeys made from everything ranging from corn to quinoa, which isn't a grain at all.
5. SO, WHAT IS SCOTCH?
Like American whiskey, Scotch varies greatly in terms of its taste—although it's generally thought to be smokier and peatier than its cousins. By law, it must be made in Scotland and aged for no fewer than three years in oak containers. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these containers are former bourbon barrels. As American law requires bourbon to be aged in “new oak,” used bourbon barrels are frequently shipped to Scotland for use in making Scotch. Traditionally, all Scotch whisky was made using malted barley.
6. WHAT IS MALT WHISKY?
Malt whisky must be made from a mash of malted grain (usually barley), which means the grain has been soaked, allowed to start sprouting, and then roasted to halt the process. The whisky's level of smoky, savory peat flavor comes from how long the barley is dried over a peat-fueled fire: The longer it's over the fire, the smokier the whisky is.
A single malt means the whisky was made at only one distillery. So, a single malt Scotch is whisky made in Scotland using malted barley in a single distillery.
7. WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES PRODUCE WHISKEY—AND WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT THEIR PRODUCTS?
The other biggies in terms of whisk(e)y production are Canada, Ireland, and Japan. Here are the basics:
Canada: Of all the whiskey-producing countries in the world, Canada (arguably) is the most misunderstood, and it’s not hard to see how it got a bad rap: 75 percent of all Canadian whisky that’s produced is shipped to the U.S., but only about 10 percent of the premium products leave Canada (which means Americans are usually tasting the less-than-stellar stuff). One of the most common misconceptions about Canadian whisky is that it was popularized within the U.S. during Prohibition. Not so, says Canadian whisky historian Davin de Kergommeaux in Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. According to his research, whisky's generally anesthetic properties made it useful during the Civil War, and since many American distilleries were burned down during the fighting, we needed to turn to our neighbors to the north for our supply.
Legally, the regulations surrounding Canadian whisky provide distillers and blenders a lot of leeway in creating new products. Here, whisky must be distilled from grain to no less than 40 percent ABV, and be aged in wood for at least three years. Canada was the first country in the world to require a minimum age for whisky, which it did in 1887; Britain would follow suit about 25 years later.
Ireland: Ten years ago, there were only three whiskey-producing distilleries in all of Ireland. Thanks to the craft spirits movement, 13 others have opened up since 2006. Irish whiskey must be aged for three years, most is distilled three times, and it must be distilled to at least 40 percent ABV (as in the U.S.).
Japan: Although it’s been produced since the early 1920s, Japanese whisky has only recently become available in the U.S. And as it’s become more available, its celebrity has also grown: The 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible(Murray has ranked the world's best whiskeys since 2003) named a whisky from Yamazaki Distillery as the best in the world.