The Difference Between Whiskey and Whisky
By Chad Upton | Editor
It’s the start of another work week, so it’s a good time to talk about drinking.
Frankly, I spent a lot of time researching this subject. I found that after getting over the novelty of drinking, which seems like the primary function of post secondary education, you’ll start to appreciate the subtle flavors in finer varieties of liquor. One of the most popular liquors is whisky.
There are two correct ways to spell it: Whisky and Whiskey. Whiskey refers to whiskeys distilled in Ireland and the United States. Whisky, on the other hand, is generally used for whiskies distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada, Japan and other countries.
Whisky is a confusing subject and not just because the two spellings have distinct means, but because there are so many varieties. The most popular types of whisky are: Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Tennessee and Rye. There are plenty of other types and they come from every corner of the globe.
The name whisky is derived from a Gaelic word that means, “water of life.” Distillation of this water goes back about 4000 years, to the area that is now known as Iraq. It started as a way to purify perfumes and aromatics. It is thought to have made it to Ireland by Irish missionaries in the 6th century and from Northern Africa to other parts of Europe where it spread through monasteries, mostly for treatment of colic, palsy and smallpox.
When distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland, the islands had few grapes, so beer was made from barley and resulted in the development of whisky. In 1725, the English Malt Tax resulted in many of Scotland’s distillers to shutdown or go underground. Distillers began making their whisky at night because the darkness hid the smoke from the stills. This is where the term “moonshine” came from.
In the 1920’s in the United States, all alcohol was banned under prohibition laws. The only exemption was whisky, which could be prescribed by doctors and sold through licensed pharmacies. It was at this time when the Walgreens pharmacy grew from 40 stores to nearly 400. Much like the case of the hemp production ban that currently exists in the US, Canada supplied the medicinal Whisky when it was prohibited too.
Although there are many categories, whisky is generally made in two ways. Malt whisky is made entirely from malted barley. Grain whisky is made from malted and unmalted barley along with other grains, usually for flavor and texture. Whiskies also get their flavor from lactone, found in the oak barrels that many whiskies are aged in. The differences beyond the ingredients start to get very specific and that’s why there are thousands of whiskies in production today. Here is a breakdown of some of the most popular categories and some popular brands in each:
Scotches are one of the most popular types of whisky. They are often distilled two or sometimes three times. International laws require that “Scotch” be distilled in Scotland and aged for at least three years and one day in oak casks. Because many whiskies are blended, the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend must be indicated as the age on the bottle. When there is no age, it’s likely the whisky is very close to the three year minimum. Whisky does not age in the bottle, so the time in the cask is critical to its maturity.
Although “single malt” whiskies are available in all categories, they are more common with Scotch and Irish whiskies. Single Malt simply means that all of the whisky is from a single distillery. They often contain whisky from multiple casks, and only “single cask” whiskies are from the same cask. Single Cask is not necessarily higher quality than Single Malt, it just indicates that the whisky has not been blended with whisky from other casks, which is commonly done to achieve the consistent flavor that you expect from a brand.
Popular examples: Chivas Regal, J&B, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Johnnie Walker.
These whiskeys are typically distilled three times. They must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for at least three years, although it’s common to age them three to four times longer. There are exceptions, but unpeated malt is one of the distinctive characteristics of Irish whiskey. It is mixed with unmalted barley to create “pure pot still” whiskey, which has a bit of a spicy taste that is unique to Irish whiskeys.
Popular examples: Bushmills, Jameson, Knappogue, Tullamore.
Named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, this type of American whiskey is primarily made from corn (maize). In fact, it has to be made in the United States and contain at least 51% corn. Typically, it’s about 70% corn, the rest is wheat and/or rye and malted barley. The high content of corn is the main characteristic of it’s unique flavor. It cannot be more than 160 proof, contain any coloring or flavoring and must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. If it’s aged less than four years, the age must be labeled on the bottle.
Popular examples: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams.
Tennesseee Whisky is almost identical to Bourbon, with the exception that it is filtered through sugar maple charcoal, which is thought to remove some unpleasant flavors and produce a clearer whisky. It was officially recognized as a distinct style of whisky in 1941, before which it was considered bourbon. Until 2009, only three counties in Tennessee were allowed to produce drinkable spirits. The law has been expanded to include another 41 counties, which should lead to more varieties of Tennessee Whiskey.
Popular examples: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Pritchard’s are the only three brands.
Rye is sometimes, often incorrectly, referred to as Canadian Whisky. Although rye is a popular ingredient in Canadian Whisky, the Canadian government does not require any specific proportion of rye in Canadian Whisky. Interestingly enough, Rye whisky from the United States must contain at least 51% malted rye. Canadian blends often contain less rye than American “Rye” whiskeys but more rye than most other types of whisky. The additional rye makes these wiskies among the smoothest of all whiskies.
Popular Canadian Rye examples: Crown Royal, Canadian Club, Seagram’s, Wiser’s.
Popular American Rye examples: Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, Van Winkle Family, Michters.
All whiskies are popular straight up or on the rocks. It is also common to drink them with water, cola, ginger ale or other sodas and juices. Some popular whisky cocktails include: Whisky Sour, Rusty Nail (Scotch), Manhattan (Bourbon) and Old Fashioned (Bourbon).