A popular spirit, both neat and in cocktails, whiskey is one of the most versatile liquors to have in your collection. So what is whiskey?
In simple terms, whiskey is basically distilled beer, which is then aged.
Distilling begins with heating the fermented wort in a device called a still. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the alcohol vapors are collected, condensed and cooled to form the unaged whiskey.
Whiskey begins with many of the same grains that are used to make the beer: rye, corn, barley, wheat, etc. Like beer, various amounts of these grains are added to water and heated. This is mixture is called mash, while the specific ratios of grains used in the mash is referred to as the mash bill. The liquid portion, called wort, is then filtered off and yeast is added. The yeast then ferments the wort, just like beer. Now comes a key difference, beer is then prepared and bottled, while whiskey is distilled to concentrate the alcohol and aged in oak barrels prior to bottling.
Another major difference is that beer typically includes hops, which are bitter, to balance out the sweeter flavor of the beer. Whiskey becomes more balanced during aging and doesn’t need the hops to produce its flavor profile.
Moonshine is usually white because it is unaged. Most illegal producers want to sell their product fast rather than wait around for it to age.
If you were to look at whiskey after distillation but prior to aging, it would be clear. This is often referred to as white dog, or white mash. It is through the process of aging that whiskey gets its darker color. The amount of color largely depends on two major factors:
The length of time the whiskey is aged and whether or not the barrels are new or reused.
- A 20 year aged whiskey will have a much darker color out of the barrel than 3 year aged whiskey.
- Alternatively, scotch uses previously used barrels, and thus will pick up less color than bourbon, which is made only in new barrels. In this case, all other variables being equal, a 20 year scotch will be lighter out of the barrel than a 20 year bourbon.
WHISKEY OR WHISKY?
Further compounding the confusion is inconsistencies among a specific type of whiskey. For example Maker’s Mark refers to their bourbon as whisky, while the rest of the bourbon community calls their product whiskey.
Why is it sometimes spelled whiskey and other times spelled whisky? Confusing isn’t it. Many folks use these terms interchangeably, while others are offended by people adding an “e” to their whisky. It’s most likely that the name was changed to differentiate the specific type of whiskey, or whisky, from the competition. I’ve read this in relation to the Irish calling it whiskey to differentiate it from Scotch whisky. Flashback to the 1800s, when Scotch was typically lower quality –how times change.
Others say it was to differentiate bourbon whiskey from Scotch whisky. Still some have suggested maybe differences in dialects account for the difference. Regardless of the reason, the spelling typically differs by country.
As a general rule American and Irish distillers spell it whiskey, while Scotch, Canadian and Japanese distillers spell it whisky.
For simplicity, I will refer to the broader category as whiskey, since the majority of cocktails use American whiskey – bourbon and rye. When talking about specific whiskys, such as Scotch, I will use the appropriate spelling.
WHAT TYPES OF WHISKEYS ARE THERE?
Barrel = Cask. The term barrel is more often used when referring to bourbon, while cask is a term more commonly used with scotch.
Is bourbon and whiskey the same thing? What about Scotch? or Rye? These words are thrown around, sometimes interchangeable and can be confusing at first. Essentially, they all refer to variations in the production of the spirit, and thus all fall under the broader category of whiskey.
Since there are many types of whiskey and many terms used to describe them, we will split each major type up to focus on them individually.
Each section will briefly discuss what makes that particular type of whiskey unique as well as define some related terminology. This will give a frame of reference when shopping, tasting or talking about whiskey. The main focus will be on rye and bourbon, as these are the most popular whiskeys used when making cocktails.
Meanwhile a separate page will be updated as we progress through some recommendations on which whiskeys to use when making cocktails. The idea being that if you just want to look for recommendations, they are all in one place and you don’t have to hunt through each type of whiskey individually.