Confession time: before I began prepping this post, I couldn’t have told you what makes Scotch Scotch. I mean, I knew it was a kind of whiskey, but that was about it. I didn’t even know exactly what whiskey was, either. But in the spirit of, well, spirits, I’m taking a cue from Shaker & Spoon and expanding my knowledge base along with my mixology repertoire. And with the Summer Scotch Box just having shipped, I figured there’s no time like the present to, well, present some whiskey facts as I consider Scotch in an estival light.
So let’s start with the basics: whiskey is alcohol distilled from fermented grain mash (basically just distilled beer). And what’s grain mash, you ask? That one’s pretty simple: it’s mashed-up grains! More specifically, it’s a mix of grain, malt, and water that’s been heated to create a malty liquid called wort. Under the whiskey umbrella, there are a bunch of subcategories, but differentiation between specific types depends primarily on the kinds of grains with which they’re made, and the containers they’re put in. There’s grain whiskey—made at least partially from any grain other than malted barley (like corn, wheat, or rye)—and malt whisky—made entirely or primarily from a malted grain that’s generally assumed to be barley (even though, yes, barley is a grain). Most American and Canadian whisk(e)y is grain based.
Here in North America, the types of whiskey with which you’re probably familiar are bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye. To be called bourbon, whiskey must be made in the U.S. from grain that’s at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon typically uses a “sour mash” process in which an older, previously fermented batch of mash that still contains live yeast is used to start fermentation in a new batch. The acid introduced by the sour mash helps control bacterial growth and improves the consistency and quality of the liquor. There’s no minimum aging period for whiskey to be considered bourbon, but in order for it to be “straight bourbon,” it must be aged for at least two years, and free of additives (like color, flavoring, and other spirits). Blended bourbon can contain additives as long as at least 51% of it is straight bourbon. There are also rules about the percentages of alcohol by volume that must exist at various points along the bourbon-making way, but to avoid getting too bogged down by those, just know that without all the other stuff I just mentioned, bourbon isn’t bourbon.
You may have thought, like I did, that Tennessee whiskey was way different from bourbon. Turns out that’s not true; it’s just straight bourbon made in Tennessee, where producers don’t want to label their spirit as bourbon because it goes through a charcoal filtering process. Yep, that’s the only difference; otherwise, all bourbon rules apply.
In the rye category, there’s American rye whiskey, which must be made from a mash of at least 51% rye, and otherwise produced just like bourbon. It can only be called “straight” if it’s been aged for at least two years. There’s also Canadian rye whisky, but Canucks are a little more lax about specifics—this kind of whisky just needs to have enough rye in it to “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky” (according to Canadian food and drug regulations). It also has to age for at least three years in small wooden barrels, but they don’t need to be new oak, or charred.
Still with me? Let’s talk about a couple of whisk(e)ys across the pond. There’s Scotch whisky, which must be made in Scotland, produced from malted barley, and aged in oak casks for at least three years. Unlike its American counterpart, though, Scotch doesn’t have to be aged in new barrels. In fact, many of the barrels used to age Scotch are actually used bourbon barrels from the States! The ability to freely choose the aging vessel also means that Scotch can have a greater variety of flavors, allowing even single distilleries to put out multiple versions of the same whisky that’s just been aged in different barrels. With Scotch, water and caramel color are the only permitted additives. It’s worth noting that, with Scotch, the ingredients are well-regulated, while, with American whiskey, the process is more regulated (a holdover from Prohibition times). Therein lies the magic behind Scotch—the taste of the spirit can morph completely with a change-up in the process, while keeping the same ingredients.
For the purposes of this post, the last whiskey I’ll mention is Irish whiskey, which needs to be distilled and aged in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Any cereal grain is allowed, but Irish Whiskey is considered “blended” if it uses two or more kinds. Like Scotch, it must also be aged for at least three years in wooden casks.
And one last thing to keep you on your toes: semantically-steadfast as I am, I looked into that spelling variation of whiskey vs. whisky you may have noticed above, and found that the alternate spellings really just depend on regional language conventions, with “whiskey” as the preference in the U.S. and Ireland, and “whisky” everywhere else. Neat, eh? Maybe like that Scotch you’re about to pour, hmm? . . . Unless you’re about to mix it into a special summery cocktail 😉