Whiskey is a family, and if you're not familiar with the branches, then the family tree can be difficult to understand. But it's well worth learning about this spirit.
Whiskey is distilled using fermented grain mash, which could consist of barley, corn, rye, and wheat. This mash is typically aged in wooden casks, often previously used or made up of charred oak.
There exist different standards for whiskey throughout the world, with the distinctions being caused by ingredients, age, distillation process, or geographical location.
Whiskey has two different spellings, whiskey and whisky, both of which are accurate when used to describe their appropriate spirits. It's a fairly simple distinction, however. Should the whisky originate in Canada, Japan, or Scotland, it's spelled whisky. However, should the whiskey come from Ireland, the United States, or any other country, it's spelled with an 'e.' Just to complicate things further, a few American distilleries have started to use the whisky spelling, including Old Forester and Maker's Mark.
Bourbon? Tennessee? Rye? Oh My!
It can be overwhelming to try to remember when to use what type of whiskey, or even what their differences are. Once you get past that, you have single malts, blended malt, blended whisky… the list runs on. But, the most important starting place is whether a whiskey is a bourbon, Tennessee mash, or rye whiskey.
This type of whiskey could be considered the sweetest of the three. While not sweet in the way of sugar, it does have hefty notes of caramel, vanilla, and wood, often with an exceptionally smooth taste. It can have a bite after, but its initial flavors are what sets it apart.
Typically made in the United States, but also made around the world, bourbon will be aged for at least two years in new oak barrels. The fermented grain mash will be at least 51 percent corn, and the rest is different mixes of barley, rye, and wheat.
Normally a bit sharper with a stronger bite, rye has strong notes of spice, but it's also a bit lighter than its bourbon counterpart. It's not spicy as in hot like a jalapeño, but spicy with a pepper flavor due to the tannins from the distillation.
Like bourbon, it's made throughout the world but primarily in the United States. Rye is also aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels, with at least 51 percent of rye, instead of corn, and the rest is made up of corn and barley.
Made exclusively in Tennessee, it's sweet with charcoal flavors, making it an incredible middle ground between rye and bourbon. It has gentle notes of toasted oak, caramel, and vanilla, but it's a bit more subtle than bourbon.
The mash is made from 51 percent corn, then a mix of barley, wheat, and rye. What sets the process apart from bourbon is the charcoal filter. Just prior to aging the mash in barrels, it's filtered through charcoal.
But the Malt and Casks…
At its core, malt whiskey is made primarily from malted barley, and grain whiskey is comprised of any type of grain, easy!
Single malt whiskey is made from a mash that uses only one malted grain, and blended malt is a mixture of those single malt whiskeys from separate distilleries. The same holds true for blended whiskeys, however, the whiskeys may come from the same distillery or separate distilleries.
Cask strength, otherwise known as barrel proof, are whiskeys that are considered to be rarer, as they are bottled after aging without any dilution. Single cask, or single barrel, are often numbered as they're bottled from one single barrel. The taste can vary from barrel to barrel.
Where to Go With Whiskey?
Whiskey is a storied spirit, with books upon books about the process, ingredients, and elaboration on the chemistry of the whiskey process. But the best way to learn is to sample. Whiskey is such a celebrated spirit that whiskey flights have become fairly easy to find. Ordering a whiskey flight is the best way to sample an array of this spirit. So find a whiskey bar, pull up a chair, sit back, relax, and learn.