Do you know the difference between Irish whiskey and American whiskey? What about Scotch vs. Canadian whiskies? There are seemingly endless variations of whisk(e)y from all around the world, but the first thing to know about whisky is that they all start off virtually the same – no matter where in the world it’s made!
In a nutshell: Whisk(e)y is an umbrella term to describe pretty much any distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash, and it is usually aged in white oak casks. Various grains are used for different types of whisky, including barley, corn, rye and wheat.
How do you differentiate between whiskeys from different countries? What makes them unique from each other?
To reiterate, all whisk(e)ys are alike in that they are all distilled beverages made from a combination of grains, water and yeast (the fermented grain mash), and nearly always aged in wooden casks.
Though some people tend to think that Irish whiskeys (as well as Scotch, Japanese, Canadian whiskeys, etc.) have their own unique characteristics and recognizable flavor profiles, the only true differentiating characteristic of whiskeys made in different countries is – very simply – the country it was made in.
I.e., Irish whiskeys are always made in Ireland, American whiskeys are made in America, Scotch is made in Scotland, and so on.
However, there are some basic differences – starting with the spelling! Irish and American whiskeys are spelled with the “e,” while Scotch, Canadian and Japanese whisky drops the “e.”
Why are there two different spellings of “whisk(e)y”?
The widely held belief is that sometime in the 19th century, Irish whiskey distillers began to spell their product with the “e” in order to distinguish themselves from their Scottish neighbors and fierce competitors in the industry. Irish immigrants to America brought their delicious whiskey to the New World, where the spirit – as well as its unique spelling – was quickly adopted and popularized. Similarly, Scottish settlers brought their whisky to Canada, and established the standard spelling of the word in the country.
Some whisky enthusiasts will maintain that despite “whisky” being an umbrella term, whiskies of different countries do often have distinct general characteristics. That is definitely not always the case, but different countries’ liquors do tend to have different traditions and traits, as well as very specific production regulations for their whisk(e)ys.
Irish whiskey is one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, developed sometime in the 12th century. Irish whiskey is typically triple distilled – the more distillations, the lighter and cleaner the spirit. The main ingredients in Irish whiskey are barley, malt (sprouted or germinated barley), and water. Irish whiskeys are aged for a minimum of 3 years to ensure depth and complexity of flavor, and must be minimum 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Scotch whisky has similar ingredients to Irish whiskey, but the ingredients are often dried over a peat fire, giving the spirit a uniquely peaty, smoky smell and taste. All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years, and must be at least 40% ABV. Scotch typically has an age statement on their bottles, which state the age of the youngest whisky used to produce the product; this is called a “guaranteed-age whisky,” Scotch bottles without an age statement are called a “no age statement,” or NAS, and is only guaranteed to be at least 3 years old.
Canadian whisky is typically made with a blend of rye, wheat, corn and barley. Canadian whisky must be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada, must be aged in small wooden casks for a minimum of 3 years, and must contain at least 40% ABV. Canadian whisky is nearly always made with some rye content; in fact, in Canada the terms “Canadian whisky” and “rye whisky” are often used interchangeably.
According to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), whiskey is a spirit that is “distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof).... and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).” American whiskey is made from corn, rye, malted rye, wheat, malted barley, or a combination of those grains. American whiskeys are aged for a minimum of two years. There exists a very wide range of American whiskeys, such as: rye whiskey (made from mash that consists of minimum 51% rye), wheat whiskey (min. 51% wheat), corn whiskey (min. 80% corn), and bourbon (min. 51% corn).
At the end of the day, though, whisk(e)y is any distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash! It is typically warm amber in color and taste, and can range in flavor from smooth, clean, buttery-sweet or smokey-sharp, and can be relatively straightforward or incredibly complex and rich. This fascinating spirit is currently the most popular liquor in the United States for good reason! Enjoy whisk(e)y neat, on the rocks, or in a fantastic cocktail!