Taste and Learn:
Because of the three various grains, aging vessels, and production regulations, each whiskey/whisky is extremely distinct and identifiable. The easiest way to identify Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye is by smoke, vanilla, and spice. Smell (and taste!) the difference for yourself.
Grab a bottle of each (thankfully, whiskey/whisky comes in various sizes, making commitment a non-issue!) and pour into three separate tumblers. Begin to ‘nose,’ that is, take light whiffs, from each tumbler, really focusing on the different aromas within the three. Remember: always smell with your whiskey/whisky with your mouth slightly open; you’ll actually begin to taste what you’re smelling without ever having the whiskey/whisky touch your tongue! More likely than not, you’ll be able to identify which whiskey/whisky is which, instantly. Then, get to the fun part– taste! And if you find that your whiskey/whisky is too strong when served neat (that is, on its own), add a touch of water or small rock (ice chip) to slightly dilute the beverage. Happy sipping!
The Differences Between Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye
Some nights just call for something a little stronger than your daily dose of vino; and for that, we’re turning to a healthy swig of good old whiskey. Whether it’s Scotch, Bourbon, or Rye that tickles your fancy, there’s really nothing that a little helping of fermented mash grains can’t fix. So what is whiskey, and why is it sometimes spelled without an ‘e’? And what’s the difference between the three choices above, anyways? No worries, we’ve got you covered. Follow the simple guide below and you’ll be on your way to grain connoisseur in no time.
What is Whiskey?
Simply put, whiskey is a general term used to identify distilled spirits made from mash of fermented grains. Below this umbrella term, various categories exist, including three of the more popular choices mentioned above. By now, you may have noticed that whiskey can come spelled with or without an ‘e’; the spelling just depends on the country of origin talking about the stuff. In the United States and Ireland, whiskey is spelled with the letter ‘e’ included. In Japan, Canada, and Scotland, whisky is identified without the additional letter.
What is Scotch?
Out of all the whiskies in the world, Scotch is definitely the most famous. This fermented grain mash is made in Scotland and is produced from barley. Unlike Irish whiskey, which generally uses an array of different grains, Scotch whisky almost always sticks to malted barley, making for a (usually) more expensive product.
Scotch whisky is generally twice distilled (unlike Irish whiskey, which undergoes three distillations, making for a lighter product) and is aged in oak barrels for at least three years. A distinct characteristic of Scotch whisky is its renowned smoky character; this comes from the use of peat during the drying process of the barley. Peat is a unique form of decomposed vegetation found in Scotland’s bogs, used to heat fire in the drying process, adding a signature smoky touch to our favorite European spirit. Popular brands include Macallan, Laphroaig, and of course, the various colored varieties of Johnnie Walker.
What is Bourbon?:
When it comes to domestic spirits, Bourbon is just about as all-American as it gets. This blended grain whiskey is required to be made from at least 51% corn. For whiskey to be called Bourbon, it must be made in America, not just Bourbon county, as some may think. However, over 90% of the country’s Bourbon is indeed made in Kentucky. Bourbon is aged in new charred oak barrels and has no minimum aging requirements, though ‘Straight Bourbon’ must age for at least two years. Many times, a process called ‘sour mashing’ is used, meaning that already fermenting, older mash is added to a new batch. Because of its aging in new American oak, Bourbon’s flavor profile tends to be soft and creamy, with strong flavors of vanilla and caramel. Think about your favorite California Cabernet aged in new oak, brimming with those cinnamony, baking spice flavors that feel like a warm hug inside your mouth. Yup, that’s the same sensation that new oak is going to bring to whiskey. Popular Bourbon brands include Jim Beam, Bulleit, and Four Roses.
What is Rye?:
Rye is a bit of a whiskey/whisky beast, in the sense that Canadian Rye and American Rye have two entirely different sets of standards. For Canadian Rye, the whisky actually doesn’t need to be Rye dominant whatsoever; in fact, many Canadian Ryes actually have a higher corn than rye percentage in their bottles. The only requirement for Canadian Rye is that rye must exist somewhere within the blend. In America, these rules are entirely different. American Rye whiskey must have a mash bill of at least 51% rye, with corn, barley and other ingredients allowed to round out the rest of the blend.
Like its Bourbon counterpart, Rye must be aged in charred new oak barrels, and to be labeled ‘Straight,’ must be aged for at least two years. Rye whiskeys tend to be rougher and spicier, as rye is a heartier grain than barley or corn. For awhile, 100% Rye whiskeys were nearly impossible to find, though the trend is becoming more common amongst distillers. The most well-known brand for 100% Rye Whiskey is WhistlePig.