Whiskey 101

**Note: Since creating this post, I’ve attended training and have passed the certification to be an Executive Bourbon Steward. During the course of this training, I’ve learned that a couple items in the original post were incorrect. I’ve edited the content for accuracy.

I was boarding my flight to New York City when a gentleman in front of me stated, “I can’t wait to get on board, relax and have a bourbon!” and here’s how the dialog went from there:

Me: Yes, but it’s unfortunate that they always seem to run out of Woodford Reserve.

New Yorker: I know! Or they should get more bourbon varieties, like Whistle Pig!

Me: While I like the variety, Whistle Pig is actually not a bourbon.

New Yorker: Well, you know, it really all depends on your definition of what a bourbon is.

Me: Actually, that’s not true. I’m a bourbon guy.

New Yorker: I am a bourbon guy too and technically for it to be called a bourbon, it needs to come from Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Fortunately for me, before he had a chance to lecture me on unfounded facts, I was at my seat and he had to head to the back of the plane where he was sitting, but he at least gave me an idea for a blog post, so I am thankful for that!

Whiskey (or Whisky)

Let’s start with the basics, what is a Whiskey? A whiskey is a spirit distilled from grain. Within the category of Whiskey, there’s a number of sub-categories such as Bourbon, Rye, and Scotch which are not arbitrary descriptions, as some would make you believe (*ahem*Mr. New Yorker*ahem*), but actually distinct definitions with categorization rules that must be met. We will get into those in a minute, but let’s look at the word itself first. You’ve probably seen it spelled either Whiskey or Whisky and you may have wondered if there was a difference. As far as I know, the original spelling was Whisky, without the ‘e’. The origin of the change to using the ‘e’ has many different explanations and storied behind it. The version that makes the most sense to me is as follows…

This dates back to a time where the biggest Ireland distilleries wanted to distinguish their whiskey product from the whisky product being produced in Scotland and started labeling with the ‘e’ in Whiskey. Unfortunately, this was not uniformly adopted and some smaller Irish Whiskey distillers still labelled without the ‘e’. Post prohibition, Irish Whiskey was more popular in America so American Whiskey also adoped the ‘e’ in an attempt to garner more sales. The spelling with the ‘e’ persisted even when Irish Whiskey sales declined and Scottish Whisky sales increased. Today, typically you see Irish Whiskey and American Whiskey utilizing the ‘e’ in the spelling while the rest of the world uses the original spelling without the ‘e’. Interestingly enough, though, American legal documents in the United States, such as the legal requirements for the classification of Whiskeys spell it without the ‘e’. I usually use the ‘e’ and call it Whiskey, but then again, I live in the USA. Go figure.

One general rule of thumb and easy way to remember who spells it with an ‘E’ and who does not, if the country name has an ‘E’ in it, they spell it with an E:

Whiskey: United States, Ireland

Whisky: Canada, Scotland, Japan

Speaking of the legal requirements, as I mentioned, within the United States, it’s laid out in black and white as to what a whiskey is as well as how each whiskey is classified (bourbon, rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, etc). Regardless of the sub-classification of whiskey, in order for it to be a whiskey, all must adhere to the following:

  • Must be distilled from a fermented mash of 100% grain
  • Distilled to no more than 190 proof (95% ABV)
  • Put into an oak container
  • Bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or higher

From this, whiskey can then be broken down into a number of sub-categories. We will now touch on some of the more common sub-categories of whiskeys:


I’ll start off with my favorite of the the sub-categories, bourbon. As it is my favorite, I am much more familiar with the requirements and characteristics of bourbon as compared to the other sub-categories of whiskeys. In order for a whiskey to be called a bourbon, in addition to the above requirements, it must meet the following legal requirements:

  • Must be made in the USA
  • The mashbill must consist of at least 51% corn
  • Must be aged in a charred new white oak barrel container
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV)
  • Entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) for aging
  • Bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV)
  • Nothing may be added to the spirit to enhance color or flavor
  • The only thing that may be added is additional bourbon (when creating a batch) or water to lower the proof prior to bottling

Obviously, it’s possible to create this type of whiskey outside of the USA, but it could not be called bourbon, it would just be a whiskey.

There’s actually no aging requirements on bourbon as the law only states it must be stored in new oak containers. Please note, there is nothing that states this must be white oak and nothing that specified that this must be a barrel. White oak is used because it’s water tight when pressure is applied to it when creating the barrel.

Now, back to the age, you may see bourbons sold that have been aged for as little as three months. If a bourbon is aged less than 4 years, it must include the age statement on the label of the youngest bourbon in the bottle and if a bourbon is aged for more than 2 years, it may be called a Straight Bourbon. Additionally, to be called a Kentucky Bourbon, the bourbon must be distilled and aged in the state of Kentucky for a minimum of one year. The term Bottled in Bond is a sub-category of Straight Bourbon and has the additional requirements:

  • Made at a single distillery
  • Made by one distiller in one distillation season
  • Aged for at least four years in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse
  • Bottled at 100 proof

If you’ve looked at any bourbon, there’s probably some other terms on the bottle which you’ve seen such as barrel proof, single barrel or small batch. Barrel proof means that there was no water added to the bourbon after the aging process and it was bottled straight from the barrel. Blanton’s clarifies this for people by literally calling their barrel proof “Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel”, in case there’s any confusion [although you can’t buy this in the USA]. 🙂 Any bourbon that is not barrel proof has had water added to it after it has been aged to bring the proof down to the bottling proof. Single barrel simply means that all of the spirit in that bottle came from a single barrel of bourbon. Lastly, the term small batch is very ambiguous. There’s no clear definition as to how many barrels are blended to make a small batch bourbon and if you visit each distillery and ask them, they will all give you different answers as to how many they use.

After the 51% corn, the back end of the mashbill is made up of other grains, such as malted barley, wheat and/or rye. The bourbons which are mostly backed by wheat are referred to as a wheated bourbons and they tend to have a more sweet, caramel like finish on them where as the rye backed bourbons tend to have a spicier, heated finish.

Tennessee Whiskey

I’ve been in a number of restaurants and when I’ve inquired as to what they had on hand for bourbon, it’s not uncommon for them to list Jack Daniels as one of those items. When you look at the characteristics of Jack Daniels, it’s easy to see why it might be confusing:

  • Made in Lynchburg, Tennessee
  • Mashbill is 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye
  • Aged in charred, new white oak barrels
  • Distilled to 140 proof (70% ABV)
  • Barrelled at 125 proof (62.5% ABV)

Like many people, I was under the impression that the reason that Jack Daniels is not considered a bourbon is because prior to barrelling the distillate, Jack Daniels runs their spirit through a process that’s often referred to as “charcoal mellowing” or the “Lincoln County Process”. The 140 proof spirit is run through charcoal with the help of gravity to filter the spirit prior to barrelling. This process takes about 3-5 days, according to the tour guide when I took the tour. What I have learned since then, the act of running the spirit through charcoal is a subtractive action and not an additive action. Therefore, by all definitions of the word, Jack Daniels can indeed be considered a bourbon. The truth of the matter is, Jack Daniels does not want to be a bourbon. So in 2013, the State of Tennessee House Bill 1804 passed stating that to qualify as a Tennessee Whiskey, a whiskey must:

  • Must be made in Tennessee
  • The mashbill must consist of at least 51% corn
  • Must be aged in a charred new oak container
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV)
  • Entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) for aging
  • It is filtered through maple wood charcoal before barelling

Rye Whiskey

According to the legal definition of a rye whiskey in the United States, there’s only 2 differences between rye whiskeys and bourbons:

  • Unlike bourbon, rye whiskey is not tied to a specific point of origin so you’ll find rye whiskeys being made all over the world
  • Instead of a mashbill of 51% corn, a rye whiskey must have a mashbill of at least 51% rye (surprise!)

However, realize that since rye can be produced globally, other countries may have different qualifications on what constitutes a rye whiskey, but for this blog, I am going to focus on the United States definitions for all of these whiskeys.

Just like a bourbon, a rye whiskey can also be classified as a Straight Rye Whiskey if it has been aged for a minimum of 2 years. Rye typically has a spicy characteristic about it, however, I’ve found some rye’s, such as the Colonel E.H. Taylor Rye and the Woodford Rye are extremely smooth and don’t have that heat I normally associated with a rye.

Scotch Whisky

Scotch is an unblended whisky manufactured in Scotland and the United States legal definition defers to the legal definition in the United Kingdom. Scotch has been defined in the United Kingdom since 1909 and the current definition falls under the Scotch Whisky Act 1988:

  • Must consist of only three natural ingredients: cereals, water and yeast
  • Must be produced and aged in Scotland
  • Must be distilled from a mash of cereals
  • Fermented to an ABV of 94.8% or less
  • Must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV)
  • Matured at least three years in wooden casks not exceeding 700 litres

Note that a scotch does not need to age in a new barrel like bourbon’s and rye whiskeys giving leeway to a number of interesting taste profiles that can be introduced during the aging process. There are actually five different categories of scotch whiskys:

Category Distillation Malted
Single Malt Scotch Whisky pot still Yes No
Single Grain Scotch Whisky patent still Yes Yes
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky multiple patent stills Yes Yes
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky multiple pot stills Yes No
Blended Scotch Whisky multiple patent and multiple pot stills Yes Yes

Personally, I don’t particularly care for scotch. Whenever I drink it, the flavor falls into one of two categories for me; either I am licking an ashtray or I am eating dirt. I have found a few (a very few, one of which is pictured as part of this blog) which I will drink if there’s no bourbon options, but for the most part, I will stay away from scotch whiskeys.

Outside of Scotland, there’s a number of other countries producing malted whiskys as well, most notably among them is Japan. So if you enjoy your scotch whisky, you may want to give a go at something like Hibiki or Yamazaki next time you’re out!

Irish Whiskey

Irish Whiskey, as legally defined in Ireland, has many similar requirements to Scotch:

  • Must be produced and aged in Ireland
  • Must be distilled from a mash of cereals
  • Must be fermented by the action of yeast
  • Fermented to an ABV of 94.8% (189.6 proof) or less
  • Matured at least three years in wooden casks that are no greater than 700 litres in size

Irish whiskey is typically a blend of two or more distillates and while not required by law, usually distilled at a minimum of three times making it a very smooth spirit. Traditionally, Irish whiskey was distilled in pot stills but modern day spirits are distilled in a combination of column and pot stills. Irish whiskeys also don’t need to use a new barrel for aging which also allows a great variance in the finished flavor. One notable difference from scotch is that Irish whiskeys are allowed to add enzymes to assist in the preparation of starches for fermentation. Another difference is that the finished barley whiskey can then be blended with grain whiskeys to produce the final product! With all of these variables, you can imagine the range of flavors Irish whiskies bring to the table!

Tasting Whiskey

What intro to whiskey would be complete without actually discussing tasting whiskey? Wait, you’re probably asking yourself “There’s actually a proper way to taste whiskey?” The answer to that is a resounding YES!

First, let’s talk about the glass. The glass depicted to the left is called a Glencairn Glass and is specifically designed for tasting whiskey. The stem of it is solid glass giving it a firm, sturdy base and the glass itself is actually tulip shaped to allow the whiskey to have a large surface area that narrows to a smaller opening, centralizing the aromas that the whiskey is emitting. This makes the glass an ideal glass for noting the various flavors a whiskey has to offer, however, if you don’t have one handy, don’t let that stop you from tasting your whiskey! You can also pick these up on Amazon or many of the distilleries sell them as well.

Once you have some whiskey in a glass, the first thing you’ll want to do is give it a good swirl. In fact, if you’ve ever done any wine tasting, the process is not much different with whiskey. As you swirl it around, you’re allowing the whiskey to aerate which is also referred to as “opening up” the whiskey. The more a whiskey opens up, the more the flavor of it will actually change and in most cases, will actually smooth out the whiskey. For higher proof whiskeys, you may even want to open them up 15-20 minutes before consuming them.

Next, you’ll nose the whiskey. What this entails is essentially placing your nose into the glass and inhaling the aromas off of the whiskey. Where this differs from wine tasting is that when you do this, you’re going to want to leave your mouth open as you inhale what your whiskey has to offer. By inhaling with your mouth open, you’re subjecting your mouth and tongue to the aromas as well, which will ultimately give you a better idea of what this whiskey will taste like when you consume it.

Following nosing the whiskey, it’s time to taste it. Here’s where there’s a matter of preference in regards to what happens next. For higher proof whiskeys (115+ proof), I prefer to use a priming taste prior to enjoying the whiskey. For lesser proofs, I move right into the tasting phase. There really isn’t much difference between these two with the exception of the amount of whiskey you have in your mouth. The priming taste is a very little amount of whiskey that you will use to coat your mouth as opposed to the actual taste where it’s a bit more.

Regardless of which you’re doing, take an appropriate sip of the whiskey and swirl it around your mouth. Try to coat all surface areas of your mouth like you’re rinsing your mouth with mouthwash. Some people actually like to also inhale air through their lips as well to continue to aerate the whiskey in their mouth. I do not do this. Once you’re coated, swallow the whiskey but do not inhale for at least 5 seconds. After swallowing the whiskey, count out those 5 seconds in your head and then take a breath.

When you sip whiskey like this, you will minimize the amount of heat or burn you feel from the proof of the whiskey and you’ll pick up on alot more flavors in the spirit.

Enjoying Whiskey

Adding a little bit of water to your whiskey will also help open the spirit up. Some people enjoy whiskey with ice, some do not. You may have also seen the “large format” ice cubes either in a sphere shape or as a large cube. The thought process on this is that as a large solid mass of ice, it will melt slower, cooling your whiskey while minimizing the amount of water added to the spirit.

Honestly, there really is no wrong way to drink whiskey. You should enjoy it the way that you like to drink it. That being said, I probably wouldn’t recommend dropping a hundred dollars on a whiskey you’re going to mix with something. When you start mixing whiskey, you’re not going to pick up on the subtle differences that some of the more aged spirits will carry. Personally, I like to stick with some of the higher proof whiskeys or high rye mashbill whiskeys when I am mixing something. Bulleit barrel proof (~125 proof) is probably my “go to” for drinking an Old Fashioned. I also like to swap out the angostora bitters for black walnut bitters, but hey, that’s just me. The important take away here is the best way to drink whiskey is the way you enjoy it most!


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