Whisk(e)y Primer

Understanding brown spirits.

By Hope S. Philbrick

If sipped, whiskey can keep you pleasantly warm on a cold night. If drank copiously, it can have you losing your car keys—and the pants you left them in.

To help you get a handle on this spirited spirit, we present this whiskey primer.

To E or Not To E

No, it’s not a typo: Some labels read “whiskey” and others “whisky.” In most cases, the spelling is a key to the spirit’s geographical origin: American and Irish versions are typically “whiskey;” Scottish and Canadian use “whisky.” Either way, the liquors share key characteristics.

“What makes whiskey different are four main rules,” says Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, in reference to the international standards that define this spirit category. First of all, “whiskey has to be made from grain. It must not exceed 190-proof at distillation. That spirit must be aged in an oak container—what we call a barrel or cask. And after it’s aged in oak, the whiskey cannot be bottled for consumption at less than 80-proof.”

Individual countries can define additional standards. For example, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.


In 1964 Congress declared bourbon to be the “official native spirit” of the U.S. To qualify as bourbon, the spirit must be made in the U.S.; law doesn’t require it come from Kentucky, but 95-percent of it is produced in that state and only a spirit from Kentucky can bear that state’s name.

“Bourbon rules [state that the] grain recipe must be at least 51 percent corn,” says Morris; if it exceeds 79 percent it should be labeled ‘corn whiskey.’ In addition, bourbon must not exceed 160-proof at distillation and has a 125-proof cap when placed into barrel. It is “the only whiskey that has to be stored in a new barrel”—more specifically, an American white oak barrel that has been charred on the interior. “And bourbon can only have pure water added to it; we don’t allow for caramel coloring to be added,” says Morris.

Within these boundaries, producers are able to achieve distinct tastes because as long as 51 percent is corn, “the distiller can use any other grains they choose to [such as barley, rye, wheat and oats] in order to achieve the [preferred] flavor profile,” says Morris. Exact recipes are guarded secrets. Other factors that impact results include the number of distillations, individual barrel characteristics, water mineral content, and the climate in the storage warehouse.

To produce Woodford Reserve, Morris explains that whole grains of corn, rye and malted barley are milled then cooked in limestone water. (“Malted” means the grains have started to germinate but are dried to halt that process and preserve some starch.) Sour is added to the mash. (“Sour” is residual mash from a previous fermentation; using it is a way to help ensure consistent quality and character from one day to the next.) The mixture is pumped into a fermenter where yeast is added. “This fermentation process will vary [among producers],” says Morris. “We [at Woodford Reserve] ferment for seven days; we’re the longest. Fermentation is a natural process by which yeast breaks down the sugars and converts them to alcohol. At that point, we have what we call ‘distiller’s beer.’ Technically it is beer, but you wouldn’t want to drink it; it’s very thick like porridge.” That beer is distilled. “Distillation is simply using heat to separate alcohol from the grain, water and yeast that make up the beer. Alcohol has a lower boiling point that water and will be driven off.” Most bourbons are distilled twice, but Woodford Reserve is distilled three times. At this stage the liquid is clear; it’s technically a grain neutral spirit and “not whiskey yet.” Once in the barrel it is rolled into the warehouse for maturation. “We mature Woodford Reserve to get a certain flavor profile,” says Morris. “Every barrel is as individual as you and I are; some take longer than others. When we find a barrel ready to be bottled, we take it out, roll it over, add water to get it to 90-proof, and get it into a bottle.”

By U.S. law, bourbon must be…

  • Made in the USA
  • Made from a mix of grain that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred American oak
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)
  • Put into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.% alcohol by volume)
  • Bottled at 80 proof or higher (40% alcohol by volume)

There is no minimum amount of time required to age bourbon, unless the producer wants to use the word “straight” on the label; a “straight bourbon” must be aged at least two years. Any bourbon aged less than four years must indicate an age on the label.

Blended bourbon must state the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. So a blend of bourbons from 1966, 1986, 2006 and 2016 would be a two-year bourbon in 2018.

Straight bourbon cannot contain any coloring, flavoring or other spirits; a blend, however, can skirt these requirements as long as at least 51% of what’s in the bottle is a straight bourbon—otherwise, it can’t be labeled as a “bourbon” at all.

Learn more in Bourbon Country.

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskeys, such as Jack Daniels, are produced in much the same way as a sour mash bourbon, but differ in one key way: Before it goes into the barrel, it’s filtered through charcoal. This filtration is intended to “soften” the spirit. While Tennessee whiskeys do not share the 51 percent corn requirement placed on bourbon, they are generally rich with corn.

Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey, such as Jim Beam, must be made with 51 percent rye grain in the mash. In other ways, it is produced in much the same way as bourbon.

Scotch Whisky

It is during the malting phase that scotch achieves its distinctive character. Its smoky or “peaty” flavor comes from the fact that the grains are dried over a peat fire.

While ‘single malt’ means a whisky that is produced in a single distillery in Scotland, ‘single barrel’ can refer to any whiskey selected from one barrel and ‘small batch’ refers to whiskies that are selected from a limited number of barrels.

Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskies are aged in barrels a minimum of three years.

Irish Whiskey

Though produced in a way that is similar to scotch, Irish whiskies can be smoother. “With Irish whiskey the grains are dried over a natural heat source with no flavor to it, so [the result is] a smoother flavor,” says a representative for Pernod-Ricard USA. “Plus Irish water is very pure and would impart very little flavor into products.”

Another distinguishing factor is that Irish whiskies are distilled three times. Although there are exceptions, scotch and American whiskies are typically distilled twice. “The more you distill something, the more flavor you take out,” he says. “Producers who distill twice, say, ‘If you do it right, you don’t have to distill three times,’ but the Irish say it takes out all impurities.”

Canadian Whisky

Canadian whiskies are typically blended, which results in a smoother and more light-bodied whisky compared to other styles. Canadian regulations allow for up to nine percent of the blend to include whiskey products from other countries or even distilled fruit juices.

Blended American whiskies contain at least 20 percent of a 100-proof straight whiskey—that is, one that contains at least 51 percent of a single grain—combined with other whiskies or grain neutral spirits, coloring and/or flavoring. If a blended whiskey contains at least 51 percent of a straight whiskey (for example rye), it may be called ‘blended rye whiskey.’

Blended scotch is a mix of malted and unmalted spirits, generally from two or more different distilleries.


— Photos © HSP Media LLC

HopeP_144Hope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. She’s written about wines and spirits for more than 15 years. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.


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