For years I have enjoyed whiskey, bourbon, scotch and rye without ever really understanding the fine differences between them. When I was asked recently "What's the difference" I took a moment to think about it and decided it was about time I did a little bit of research. Without taking a deep dive into how each style of whiskey is made here's what I found.
Whiskey (sometimes spelled Whisky) is a generic, catchall term for any spirit that is distilled from fermented grains. These grains can include wheat, barley, rye and corn. Bourbon, scotch and rye are all members of the whiskey family but have earned their name due to other specifics in their makeup.
In order for a drink to be considered bourbon, it must meet some specific criteria. To start off, bourbon must be made in the United States. Bourbon is made with a minimum of 51% corn mash which gives this particular style of whiskey a slightly sweeter flavour. Finally all bourbons must be aged/matured in new charred oak barrels. Some popular examples of bourbon are Woodford Reserve, Maker's Mark and Jim Beam.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that scotch is a product of Scotland. In fact this is the first criteria for a drink to be called scotch. This particular beverage is also made from 100% malted barley. There is also a requirement for scotch to be aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak casts. Scotches will generally come in 2 different forms; single malt (one malt source) or blended (multiple malt sources). There are hundreds of scotches on the market, but common brands are Glenfiddich, Macallan and Chivas Regal.
Rye is a very similar drink to bourbon but rye mash is used instead of corn. There is still a requirement of 51% rye mash to be used and the aging process must take place in a new charred oak barrel. Rye's are typically identified from their country of origin with American rye and Canadian rye being the most popular.
We also have Tennessee Whiskey to choose from. Similar to bourbon's, these whiskey's are made from a minimum of 51% corn mash and matured in charred oak barrels. As the name indicates this style of whiskey must be distilled AND aged in the state of Tennessee. There is also a filtering process using charcoal that occurs after distillation. Jack Daniel's is the best known example of a Tennessee whiskey.
Lastly we have Irish Whiskey (no offence Ireland). These whiskies are made from various grains and must be distilled and aged in Ireland. The aging process must take a minimum of 3 years. Jameson and Bushmills are popular brands in North America.
This is not an exhaustive list and we having barely touched the surface of the differences between these various styles of whiskey. That said we hope that this crash course on whiskey styles has enlightened you and we hope that you use this new found knowledge for the betterment of mankind.