Whiskey and Spirits Definitions

Whiskey or Whisky?
Whether it is whisky or whiskey has been the basis of many arguments over many years. The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey, with an extra ‘e’. This difference in the spelling comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. Whiskey with the extra ‘e’ is also used when referring to American whiskies. This ‘e’ was taken to the United States by the Irish immigrants in the 1700s and has been used ever since. Scotland, Ireland and America all have a rich heritage in the whisky industry. So what are the differences between the whiskies from these three nations?

The distillation process
It is here that one of the main differences occurs. generally, Scottish and American whiskies are distilled twice and Irish whiskey is distilled three times (there are exceptions to the rule, in all cases). Distilling three times produces a lighter and smoother spirit.

American Straight Whiskey
Straight whiskey (or straight whisky), as defined in United States law, is whiskey that is distilled from a fermented (malted or unmalted) cereal grain mash to a concentration not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (abv) and aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years at a concentration not exceeding 62.5% at the start of the aging process.

The only allowed modifications to straight whiskey prior to its bottling consist of batching whiskey from different barrels (and sometimes from different distilleries, although only from within the same state), chill filtering the whiskey, and adding water to reduce proof while retaining at least a 40% abv concentration. This definition is established for production of American whiskey for consumption within the United States as per the U.S federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits

Scottish Whisky
Scotch whisky is malt whisky or grain whisky made in Scotland. Scotch whisky must be made in a manner specified by law. All Scotch whisky was originally made from malted barley. Commercial distilleries began introducing whisky made from wheat and rye in the late 18th century. Scotch whisky is divided into five distinct categories: single malt Scotch whisky, single grain Scotch whisky, blended malt Scotch whisky, blended grain Scotch whisky, and blended Scotch whisky.

All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Any age statement on a bottle of Scotch whisky, expressed in numerical form, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed-age whisky. A whisky without an age statement is known as a no age statement (NAS) whisky, the only guarantee being that all whisky contained in that bottle is at least three years old.

Irish Whiskey
Irish whiskey is a protected European Geographical Indication (GI).  As of 29 January 2016, production, labelling and marketing of Irish whiskey must be verified by the Irish revenue authorities as conforming with the Department of Agriculture’s 2014 technical file for Irish whiskey.Key requirements include specifications that:

  • Irish whiskey must be distilled on the island of Ireland from a mash of malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals and which has been:
    • saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes;
    • fermented by the action of yeast;
    • distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% ABV in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used;
    • subject to the maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 litres capacity
  • The distillate, to which only water and plain caramel coloring may be added (E150a), retains its color, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to above
  • Irish whiskey is to have a minimum ABV content of 40%
  • Individual technical specifications for the three varieties of Irish whiskey, “single pot still”, “single malt”, “single grain”, and “blended” whiskey (a mix of these two or more of these varieties) are also outlined in the technical file.The use of the term “single” in the aforementioned varieties being permissible only if the whiskey is totally distilled on the site of a single distillery.
  • Maturation only takes place on the island of Ireland

Canadian Whiskey
Canadian whisky is a type of whisky produced in Canada. Most Canadian whiskies are blended multi-grain liquors containing a large percentage of corn spirits, and are typically lighter and smoother than other whisky styles. When Canadian distillers began adding small amounts of highly-flavorful rye grain to their mashes, people began demanding this new rye-flavored whisky, referring to it simply as “rye”. Today, as for the past two centuries, the terms “rye whisky” and “Canadian whisky” are used interchangeably in Canada and (as defined in Canadian law) refer to exactly the same product, which generally is made with only a small amount of rye grain.

Tennessee Whiskey
Tennessee whiskey is straight whiskey produced in the U.S. state of Tennessee. Although it has been legally defined as a bourbon whiskey in some international trade agreements, most current producers of Tennessee whiskey disclaim references to their products as “bourbon” and do not label them as such on any of their bottles or advertising materials. All current Tennessee whiskey producers are required by Tennessee law to produce their whiskeys in Tennessee and – with the sole exception of Benjamin Prichard’s – to use a filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process prior to aging the whiskey. Beyond the perceived marketing value of the distinction, Tennessee whiskey and bourbon have almost identical requirements, and most Tennessee whiskeys meet the criteria for bourbon.

American Rye Whiskey
In the United States, rye whiskey is, by law, made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye. (The other ingredients in the mash are usually corn and malted barley.) It is distilled to no more than 160 U.S. proof (80% abv) and aged in charred, new oak barrels. The whiskey must be put in the barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5% abv). Rye whiskey that has been aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other spirits may be further designated as straight, as in “straight rye whiskey”.

Bourbon’s legal definition varies somewhat from country to country, but many trade agreements require that the name “bourbon” be reserved for products made in the United States. The U.S. regulations for labeling and advertising bourbon apply only to products made for consumption within the United States; they do not apply to distilled spirits made for export.[21] Canadian law requires products labeled bourbon to be made in the United States and also to conform to the requirements that apply within the United States. But in countries other than the United States and Canada, products labeled bourbon may not adhere to the same standards. For example, in the European Union, products labeled as bourbon are not required to conform to all the regulations that apply within the United States, although they still must be made in the U.S.

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be:

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers   
  • Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% ABV)
  • Entered into the container for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
  • Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% ABV)

Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period.Products aged for as little as three months are sold as bourbon.The exception is straight bourbon, which has a minimum aging requirement of two years. In addition, any bourbon aged less than four years must include an age statement on its label.

Bourbon that meets the above requirements, has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may be – but is not required to be – called straight bourbon.

  • Bourbon that is labeled as straight that has been aged under four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
  • Bourbon that has an age stated on its label must be labeled with the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle (not counting the age of any added neutral grain spirits in a bourbon that is labeled as blended, as neutral-grain spirits are not considered whiskey under the regulations and are not required to be aged at all)     

Bottled-in-bond bourbon is a sub-category of straight bourbon and must be aged at least four years.

Bourbon that is labeled blended (or as a blend) may contain added coloring, flavoring, and other spirits, such as un-aged neutral grain spirits, but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon. 

Bourbon that has been aged for fewer than three years cannot legally be referred to as whiskey (or whisky) in the EU.

Rum is a spirit that’s distilled either from fermented molasses (a viscous by-product of the sugar industry) or freshly pressed sugar cane juice. Because of its base material, molasses-based rums generally have a sweet note and flavors of molasses, banana and tropical fruit (their complexity is ramped up by aging them in barrels), while those made with sugar cane juice (like rhum agricole and Cachaça) have pronounced grassy and vegetal notes. Rum is made in sugar cane producing countries, especially those in the Caribbean. Very aged versions are generally sipped neat, while unaged and lesser aged spirits are mixed in classic, Tiki and modern cocktails.

Light rum is also known as white or silver rum and has nearly no color and a light flavor. It is filtered multiple times to remove any impurities and is not aged very long. This is the most common rum in a Mojito.

Gold rum is also known as amber rum. This rum has been aged in wooden casks for some period of time which gives the spirit its signature color and sweeter, richer flavor.

Black rum is also known as dark rum and has been aged the longest of any of these types of rum. The extended time it spends in wooden casks gives it a dark color and deep, smoky-sweet flavor. The most common brands are Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, the iconic spirit in a Dark & Stormy, and Myer’s Dark Rum, used in many tiki drinks.

Spiced rum typically is aged for the same length of time as black rum but spices and caramel colorings are added to give it a signature sweet spice taste. A brand you may be familiar with is Captain Morgan.

In the simplest terms, gin is in essence flavored vodka, made by infusing a neutral spirit with a variety of botanicals that must legally include juniper berries. Gin typically has a higher proof than vodka, and its enticing herbal, floral and/or citrus aromas make it a willing cocktail base. Several styles exist that make gin a versatile category.

Gin can be made from a base of any fermentable material, from grapes and grain to molasses and sugar beet, and most gins undergo two distillations. The spirit is initially distilled in a column still, which results in a high-proof, light-bodied and clean profile; afterwards, juniper berries and other botanicals are used to add flavor. This can either be done through cold-compounding, in which botanicals are macerated in the base spirit before it’s re-distilled, or by suspending the botanicals in a basket over the still during the second distillation (this method is done for the highest quality gins as well as genever, which is pot-distilled). In the latter process, the vapor extracts aromatics and flavors as it travels over the botanicals on the way to the condenser, resulting in a more complex spirit.