It’s Not All About Scotch Whiskey
Whiskey is an alcoholic beverage with a few different associations. It’s either drunk in sophisticated clubs or lounges with lots of wood and leather (the older the whiskey, the better), or it is drunk liberally in a southern bar or on a rickety back porch (see: moonshine).
Where do these associations come from? What do they have to do with the various definitions of whiskey? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Scotch vs. Whiskey vs. Bourbon vs. Rye
So, what’s the difference between bourbon, rye, Scotch, and whiskey? If you’re new to this liquor, you may be surprised to learn that whiskey is a broad term: Scotch, rye, and bourbon are all types of whiskey. Whether a type of whiskey can be officially termed as one of the three categories has to do with how it’s made, where it’s located, and how it’s aged.
Scotch from Scotland
Scotch is a type of whiskey (or “whisky,” as it is spelled overseas) that is made from fermented barley mash and aged in charred oak barrels for at least three years. This isn’t all, though. In order to be officially termed “Scotch,” the whiskey must be produced in Scotland and do its initial aging there.
Scotch whiskey brands cannot include the term on their labeling if the liquor doesn’t measure up to these standards.
Good Scotch whiskey is entirely a matter of taste. Some people enjoy the strong, smoky flavor that’s typical of whiskeys from Scotland’s various liquor regions, and some people find them too harsh.
Most aficionados recommend working your way up to stronger Scotches by first tasting lighter, smoother varieties that are “unpeated.” This simply means that the malted barley isn’t dried over a peat fire before it’s milled. As a result, “unpeated” Scotch whiskies don’t have that characteristic, strong smokiness that most people love or hate.
Bourbon from the United StatesBourbon is whiskey made in America, usually Kentucky. It’s made from fermented corn mash and stored in charred oak containers. Whiskey made from corn is often associated with moonshine, or homebrewed liquor (or, historically, illicitly brewed liquor from corn).
Moonshine has a long history in the United States, but the most famous point in the past that it is associated with is probably the Prohibition of 1920, when all alcohol, including the production and sale of it, became illegal. Illicit moonshine was a roaring trade in those days, and it was regularly served in speakeasies (hidden, secret bars and watering holes for social drinking in the days of Prohibition).
As a novelty, the phenomenon of the speakeasy is making a comeback in modern U.S. culture. These bars are hidden, just like their 1920s counterparts, and they serve up classic Prohibition-era cocktails, like the sidecar, the mint julep, the old-fashioned, and the whiskey sour.
Rye from Canada or the United States
Rye is a grass that’s a member of the wheat family, and is related to barley. To put it simply, rye is used to make rye for American rye whiskey. The American stuff is aged for at least two years.
Canadian rye whiskey, on the other hand, doesn’t have to have rye in it at all. Instead, it is a blend of various grains, with corn being the main one. This mix is triple distilled, and the resulting liquid has another whiskey added to it for flavoring – this flavoring is the component that may be rich in rye.
In general, however, rye is probably associated with Canadian whiskey because rye is a hardy crop that grows well in northern climates. This was essential to early whiskey production in the country.
How to Drink Whiskey
Generally, whiskey is not a liquor to throw back in the manner of cheaper spirits, like vodka, rum, or tequila. Whiskey’s more expensive price tag means that it invites savoring and sipping. If a dram of whiskey can’t be appreciated (or emptied), then it’s considered a waste.
That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy whiskey cocktails and mixed drinks. However, it goes without saying that these, too, should be sipped, not gulped. Whiskey’s complex flavors can become even more interesting and intriguing when they are expertly mixed with other elements, such as citrus, a splash of soda, or bitters.
Those new to whiskey should try classic cocktails to get their feet wet. The old-fashioned is an iconic bourbon drink made with muddled bitters and sugar, and a soda splash.
However you drink whiskey, be prepared to enjoy a sophisticated drink that has a long history all over the world.