10 things you must know about whiskey and whisky

Whiskey on the rocks

Whisky on the rocks

Whiskey and whisky are the same thing, the only difference comes from where and how they are made

1. Whisky vs. Whiskey 

American and Irish distillers call it WHISKEY (except Maker’s Mark) while Canadian, Scottish and Japanese producers call it WHISKY. There are differences between all of these types of whiskeys, such as bourbon and scotch, but we’ll get to that. Apparently this can get pretty heated, so avoid spelling it all together and just say it out loud to your bartender.

2. Bourbon is not just from Kentucky

Bourbon is just American whiskey that is at least 51% corn with the remainder of various other grains and rye, while Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey don’t use corn. Bourbon can be made from anywhere but is primarily made in the United States. Kentucky just makes the best (unless you’re from Tennessee then I mean they make the best). Straight bourbon has  a slightly more specific definition too.

3. Bourbon is the beginning of the barrel’s journey

Jim Beam rack house

Jim Beam rack of whiskey barrels

Many large-scale bourbon distilleries build their own barrels, age their bourbon and sell the used ones for Scotch. Most bourbons age 4-7 years (but some can get up to 23 or more or less than a year at young craft distilleries), which is why they tend to be so dark and spicy. That’s why Scotch is aged 12-25 years, usually, and why they are lighter, because most of the oak was extracted by the bourbon. Alternatively, folks buy bourbon or scotch barrels for beer, gin and other experimental good times.

4. Ireland only had two distilleries up until recently, now it only has four

Irish whiskey

A tiny sampling of Irish Whiskeys

Irish whiskey is extra smooth and malty because it’s made from malted barley and/or wheat, does not use rye and is triple distilled, meaning they distill the shit out of it to eliminate impurities (the burny flavors that make you cry). Irish whiskey is the new up and coming whiskey, so try it, right now.

5. Moonshine is whiskey and pretty good

Moonshine was just prohibition, bath tub hooch. Now it’s what craft distilleries use to make start-up money while other batches age. Moonshine tends to follow the rules of American whiskey but without any aging, making it more harsh unless the distiller actually spends some time on it. You can also barrel age your own to make “bourbon.”

6. Whiskey starts out as beer, then gets more violent

Jim Beam distillery

Small batch distillery columns making Knob Creek Rye in the Jim Beam factory in Kentucky.

Whiskey is water, grain and yeast just like beer but without the hops. Once the wort is created, that’s where they stop being the same as the alcohol is essentially evaporated off of the yeasty, grainy mess then aged in barrels and served on the rocks. That’s bourbon shooting out of the pipes at an incredible speed. The distilling column for Jim Beam Bourbon is 5-stories tall…you’re going to need a bigger glass.

7. Single malt and blended scotch

Single malt scotch just uses one type of whiskey from the same distillery (not single grain or even single batch or barrel). Blended means it’s multiple whiskeys often from different distilleries. Taste is a matter of taste.

8. Why are scotches smokey?

Not all of them are, just the ones people brag about (and the ones with flames on the label). The flavor comes from setting ancient marsh mud, called peat, on fire and smoking the grains. The longer they smoke it and the more they use with unsmoked grains, the more burning firewood flavor makes it into your glass. This is especially common in Islay region and lowlands, while it is much less common in Speyside and the Highlands generally.

9. Proofing means adding water and proof is twice the alcohol percentage

Almost all whiskeys are proofed down from their original “cask strength” (unless it says cask strength on it) by adding water before bottling, which is why the Maker’s Mark debacle was stupid (they should’ve pretended proofing was carried out by magical elves, not water). Booker’s Bourbon, for example, ranges from 130-132 proof  (65-66% alcohol) and will destroy you if you’re under 56.5 years old and don’t smoke cigars every day.

10. There is no wrong way to drink whiskey…but they are better ways

While many people will scoff at the method in which you drink whiskey (no matter how you do it), they are mostly assholes. Jim Beam and other whiskey sommeliers agree that you can drink whiskey however you want, but that doesn’t stop them from giving you advice on how to enjoy it more. One preferred method, especially in England and Scotland, is to try the whiskey neat (plain, room temp, no ice) to get an idea for the flavor, then add room temperature water to bring out extra flavors and aroma.

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Mike Higdon

Editor & Publisher at Drinkable Reno
Mike Higdon is a journalist passionate about beer and cocktails. He started the site because no one else covered Reno's growing craft scene at the level of detail required to stay in the know about all things drinkable in Reno.