For good and for bad, there is more whiskey on shelves today than there has been in the history of the spirit. More competition between producers makes better products, no doubt, and the quality of whiskey on shelves is in all likelihood also at an all-time high, but the wealth of options breeds confusion, too. How is corn whiskey different from bourbon whiskey? Is light whiskey for people on a diet? Why does Tennessee insist its whiskey isn't bourbon? We've got your answers. Here are all the types of whiskey you should know about, and what they are.
The "straight" prefix on a whiskey like bourbon or rye indicates that, legally, the whiskey inside those bottles has to have been aged in charred new oak containers for at least two years. In line with any whiskey designated as a bourbon, it is illegal for straight whiskeys to include added coloring. Ninety-nine percent of all decent whiskey is "straight" under these terms.
Bourbon is whiskey made from a mash of at least 51 percent corn. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon (though Kentucky is often appended on the name of bourbon made there for marketing purposes). Bourbon also must not exceed 80 percent ABV (160 proof) in the mash, and cannot enter maturation barrels — all of which must be charred new oak — above 62.5 percent ABV (125 proof). Bourbon is the largest American whiskey category, and is known for appeasing a wide range of tastes and preferences. There is more variance and choice within bourbon than any other whiskey category, and though it was once considered great value for the money (especially compared to pricier scotch whisky), bourbon pricing has risen dramatically in recent years.
Rye has the same production proofing rules bourbon has — mashed below 80 percent ABV (160 proof) and aged below 62.5 percent ABV (125 proof). The difference is in the balance of grains used in the mash with, as you might guess, rye making a majority of at least 51 percent. While no rules exist without exceptions, most rye whiskey is relatively affordable, and the spirit is known to reach peak maturity — when the whiskey is at its best — sooner than other whiskeys. Expect more pepper and spice-forward whiskeys from the rye category, but don't be surprised by rye whiskey that's nearly indistinguishable from bourbon. Plenty of ryes (especially those made in Kentucky) are made with the minimum rye grain and aren't nearly as aggressive as those made popular by mega-distillers in Indiana.
Like bourbon, rye and most American whiskeys, wheat whiskey is subject to the same production proof thresholds and must matured in charred new oak barrels. Wheat whiskey is created from a mash of at least 51 percent wheat, too, and it far less popular than rye or bourbon. For whiskey purposes, wheat is often considered the opposite of rye: where rye gives strength and spice, wheat brings soft sweetness and floral notes. The most popular wheat whiskey is probably Heaven Hill Distillery's Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey.
Set to the same standards as wheat, rye and bourbon, but built off a minimum 51 percent malted barley mash. For most whiskey drinkers, malt whiskey is first and foremost scotch whisky, because most scotch is malt whiskey of some kind. But there's plenty of American malt whiskey as well, most of which is coming from craft distilleries like Westward, Stranahan's and Copperworks experimenting with new mashbills.
Single Malt Whiskey
Though not defined so strictly for American labeling purposes, single malt whisky is very well defined in its native Scotland. All malted barley and entirely made at a single distillery, single malt whisky (without the "e," this time) is Scotland's most famous export. American whiskey makers are not bound to follow Scotland's single malt production restrictions (one could make a single malt American whiskey with malted barley and rye, for example), but many abide by them regardless.
A mostly forgotten category dominated by the very cheap Mellow Corn and its corn-obsessed cult following. Corn whiskey must be made of a mash of at least 80 percent corn and is subject to the usual production proof restrictions. Interestingly, according to the TTB, corn whiskey cannot be subjected to any manner of extra treatment to charred wood beyond the standard aging process. Corn whiskey is notably sweet, and very few distilleries make it.
It's not diet whiskey. Born in 1968, the light whiskey designation is rare nowadays, but some craft distillers (notably High West) have released bottles of the stuff. Light whiskey exists somewhere between standard whiskey and neutral grain spirit (it's lighter than whiskey, but darker than grain spirit, in color). Production proof must be greater than 80 percent ABV (but less than 95 percent), and it has less strict maturation requirements. In modern times, most "light whiskey" is used as a part and parcel to blended whiskey, most commonly Canadian blended whisky.
Tennessee whiskey is not a legally defined style of whiskey, but most location-based whiskey styles aren't either. Tennessee whiskey makers like George Dickel and Jack Daniel's pride themselves on not being bourbon makers, but for all intents and purposes this is bourbon with an additional step added. That step, called the Lincoln County Process, sees the final distillate run through charcoal (chips or a proper filter) before entering barrels for maturation. It's said that this process smooths the rough edges of the distillate.
Irish whiskey is famously light and easy-drinking because of the region's focus on malt-based whiskey and virtually no interest in peat. The law of the land in Ireland states Irish whiskey must have malt in the mash. Other grains may be added, but malt is a required. It must also be produced in Ireland or Northern Ireland, and it must be bottled above 40 percent ABV. Unlike American whiskeys, Irish whiskey makers may use caramel coloring to deepen the color of the whiskey in the bottle.
Some Japanese whisky makers are making strides to further define the category, but for now it's a little complicated. The gist is many whiskies marketing themselves as Japanese are made, at least in part, outside of Japan. This is done to keep up with demand and lower costs, but the cost is consumer confusion.
As far as distilling methods and ingredients are concerned, legitimate Japanese whisky shares a great deal with scotch whisky, but because the rules are more touch-and-go in Japan, there's room for more creativity. Japan's larger distillers may blend dozens of malt and grain whiskies aged in everything from extremely rare mizunara oak casks to sherry butts to ex-bourbon casks. Therein lies the trade-off: when made with integrity and purpose Japanese whisky is exceptional, but a lack of rules creates opportunity for more unscrupulous producers as well.
Canadian whisky has a little more wiggle room with some classic spirit-making no-nos than other designations. Producers can use coloring and added flavoring (up to 9.09% of the bottled spirit) and any mix of cereal grains they please. Because most Canadian whisky is blended, most finished whiskies contain some combination of rye, corn, wheat and malt whiskeys. Naturally, it also must be produced in Canada. Canadian whisky is usually bottled at lower proof points than its American whiskey contemporaries which, combined with a preference for malt bases, creates a nice and light drinking experience.
It must be made in Scotland, first of all. Other rules that define scotch whisky include a minimum 40 percent ABV, some production proof requirements and malted barley in the base mash. Scotch producers may use other cereal grains, but malted barley must be present. They're also permitted to use coloring if they so choose. Though the peaty single malt scotch is what comes to mind for most whiskey drinkers, peat and single malt are merely popular iterations of the spirit rather than rules of production. Depending on the producing region — Speyside, Islay, Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown — the production method and taste may vary widely. In other words, there is no "best" scotch or a singular scotchy flavor profile, but there are lots of great options.