What you need to know: Whisky, Scotch, Bourbon & Rye
The differences between scotch, whisky, bourbon and rye can seem complicated but we’re going to make it easy. Scotch, whisky, bourbon and rye are all sub-categories of whiskey – that’s the easy part done. The main differences that you need to understand are geography and spelling. Once you have those two things clear, it will all make sense. Before we do that though you need to understand whiskey so we’ll start there.
Whiskey is made by distilling fermented grain mash. Water and heat are added to the mixture creating sugar, which then ferments into alcohol. After that, it’s distilled to separate spirits from the mash and then stored in a wooden cask to mature. Now we can move on to the more complicated stuff.
Whiskey and whisky
You may have noticed that there are two ways to spell whiskey. You can thank geography for this complication. Which spelling you use depends on where the whiskey or whisky is produced. If it’s made in America, it’s whiskey. Whisky, spelt without the ‘e’ is how most other countries spell it.
There are strict rules for making scotch whisky the main one being that it has to be 100% made in Scotland, otherwise it’s not scotch. As well as this, scotch must be made from malted barley and matured in an oak cask for a minimum of three years. If you’re in a bar you can order Scotch ‘neat’ (without ice) or ‘on the rocks’ (with ice). Whisky experts advise to add some chilled water to scotch as this can help open up some of the more subtle tastes and aromas, but the flavour that will always let you know that you’re drinking scotch is its signature smoky aftertaste.
When it comes to bourbon there’s no need to worry about spelling, and you will always know where it is from because bourbon can only be called bourbon if it is made in the United States. The rules for making bourbon aren’t as strict as they are for scotch but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules. It has to be made using at least 51% corn and can be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol. In addition, bourbon must be aged in new oak barrels. This means that the barrels must not have contained any other alcohol previously. Whereas scotch gets its flavour and colour from barrels that have previously contained other spirits like bourbon or sherry.
Unlike scotch, bourbon has no minimum aging period. However, straight Bourbon – bourbon straight from the barrel with no added alcohols or blends – must be aged for at least two years. Finally, bourbon is known for its sweet taste with woody and vanilla notes.
Rye is a type of grass and a relation of wheat. Rye whiskey, when made in America, has to be made using at least 51% rye. Like bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years for it to be straight. Here is where things get tricky because once again geography causes complications, and this time we can blame Canada. When made in Canada the only rule for labelling your whisky as rye is for it to have some rye in it. You would assume that rye whisky is made with predominantly rye but you know what they say, never assume. Canadian rye whisky can use a grain mash containing a corn to rye ratio as little as 9:1. Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to have whisky that is nearly all rye. Complications about ratios aside, rye whiskies have a sharp taste creating spicy notes that cut through any sweet mixers creating layers of flavour making them great for cocktails.