I had an opportunity to work in a distillery retail store, which is much like a standard liquor store only with a limited selection. People of all types came along with questions like “do you sell scotch?” At first I was befuddled, that people could be so ignorant of what they were drinking. After a couple of weeks I stopped wondering and started pulling out the details so I could really answer people’s questions. One of the most prominent was “What is Bourbon?”
This is actually a much deeper question than it first appears because it comes right on the heels of the more important question, “What is whisk(e)y?”
The term whiskey simply means any grain spirit distilled to less than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and aged in an oak barrel.
Bourbon, Rye and Single Malt whiskeys are all sub-types of whiskey that specify a specific grain type that predominates. So you could make whiskey with 20% each of corn, rye, barley, quinoa and wheat but you could never call the resulting franken-whiskey anything other than just whiskey. If you have at least 51% of rye you can call it a rye whiskey but anything less and you’re stuck with the general label. Please keep in mind that much of what I’m going to discuss here is based on American regulations or American trade deals with other countries. Some things could be different outside the US and I’m also not a lawyer or an expert on TTB regulations.
Aging and the White Dog
The aging stipulation is actually a funny bit. The rules say you have to age it, but not how long. Another loophole is that predominantly corn whiskey can be sold unaged. This is where moonshine comes from. Moonshine or White Dog is a kind of unaged whiskey where the product spends as little time as possible in a barrel. In some cases this is simply the time it takes to pump the liquor into and out of the barrel. Some distilleries like House Spirits let their White Dog rest for as long as 3 days. Because there is no regulation on the term white dog anyone can use it to mean any number of things. So if a label says white dog but not whiskey then chances are it doesn’t contain the right amount of corn or that they age it in something other than oak, if at all. Moonshine is also an unregulated term so it could just as easily refer to a sugar based spirit as shown in Pink Panty Dropper Watermelon Moonshine.
If the whiskey has been aged for at least 2 years and contains no other flavoring or coloring additives it may also be labeled as Straight Whiskey. This can be applied to any type from Straight Rye to Straight Bourbon. If a whiskey is over two years it gets the option to be called straight, it’s not a requirement but if you see straight on the label you can infer something about the age.
Beyond that the rules regarding age are rather complicated. That is a link to the TTB regulations on Age, whiskey occupies a full 6 pages of this 16 page document. The big take away is that if the spirit is less than 4 years old then an age statement is required.
Bourbon is actually a sub-type of corn whiskey, where corn whiskey requires at least 80% corn in the initial mash bourbon is less stringent and requires only 51% or greater.
All bourbons are aged in new charred american oak barrels, this statement requires some parsing. New means unused previously, only fresh barrels are used for each batch. This means that some of the flavors and mellowing involved in the contact between alcohol and wood never gets to carry over from batch to batch. Additionally it means that there are quite a few used bourbon barrels on the market as the distillery can’t reuse old barrels for bourbon. These get snapped up by beer brewers, rum makers and scotch distillers for use in their own less stringent aging processes.
The next part of the statement is charred, this means that the barrel will be imparting both color and flavor to the spirit as the charcoal filters the spirit over time. Uncharred barrels will generally do this to some degree but never to the same extent that even a lightly charred barrel will. Charring is not an on or off process. Barrels can be charred or toasted to any number of degrees which allows the distiller to control how quickly and to what extent flavors will be imparted over the aging process.
Lastly we come to American Oak, this is important because there are actually many species of white oak from American to French and even an Oregon specific variety. Each has a slightly different character due to climate, soil and species that can impart drastically different flavors to the finished product. For a prime example I suggest tasting the Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon alongside its 4 year counterpart and compare the differences. Requiring a specific species limits the range of flavors that the wood can vary from and also gives a healthy kick to the American Cooperage industry.
Bourbon has some other finicky bits about barrel strength, bottle strength and such but most of these don’t impact the differences between other whiskey.
As bourbon is a sub-type of corn whiskey, so too is Tennessee Whiskey a sub-type of bourbon. Only recently defined by Tennessee state law they have defined Tennessee Whiskey as a bourbon that undergoes the Lincoln County Process.
This means that first off the producers in Tennessee have to adhere to all of the normal restrictions for bourbon with regard to content, age, and process. The Lincoln County Process refers to a process where the raw unaged bourbon is filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to being cut and barreled. This is not an exact process as different distilleries will either soak or trickle the whiskey through the charcoal and will do so at differing proofs and temperatures.
Funny Story, none of the distilleries that use the Lincoln county process are actually IN Lincoln county. Jack Daniels, George Dickel and several others are located in next door Moore County and have been for most of their existence. A little digging shows that Moore county was created out of parts of Lincoln county sometime in the 1850’s which means it’s not a new change.
Additionally, the only distillery actually in Lincoln county is Prichard’s. Through an amazing example of targeted lobbying Prichard’s managed to get an exception to the Tennessee law added which exempts them from the requirement to use charcoal filtering on the basis that they have never used it before. The law was originally sponsored by Jack Daniels and so I don’t really see much wrong with other distillers getting their digs in against a law which promotes exactly the process JD has been using for over a hundred years. What makes it funny is that Prichard’s has only been around since 1997 and was able to have enough sway to get something like this done.
Legally a Rye Whiskey is one in which the grain content has at least 51% rye. As explained above bourbon is primarily corn with the remainder being composed of things like rye and wheat. It is therefore possible to have a rye and a bourbon in which the difference in the content is a 2% change from rye to corn.
I can’t actually name any whiskey that meets this definition as most companies do not publish their grain bill but under the rules it is possible.
Rye tends to have a spicier flavor as compared to the mellow notes of wheat. Rye also has a fairly distinctive aroma. Rye is aged in oak like most other whiskey but unlike bourbon does not have the same level of restrictions on how it is produced and under what circumstances.
This leads to a lot more variance in how rye is composed and a lot less consistency across various brands. Many major brands offer a Rye from Bulleit‘s rather traditional offering to the Ri-One craziness from beam-suntory.
Scotchy Scotch Scotch
First off all scotch is made in Scotland. If it’s made outside of Scotland the definition gets a bit more murky but some alternative names include American Single Malt, Single Malt, Malt Whisky, and of course he catch all Whisky (no e). The second big requirement for all of the types in this category is that they use predominantly barley or malted barley in their grain bill. Third Scotch is aged for three years in oak casks.
When they say made in Scotland they get really picky, it must be processed, converted, fermented, distilled, aged, bottled and labeled IN Scotland.
Their naming guidelines are equally odd. You cannot use the name of a distillery on the bottle unless the product actually came from there. This is in contrast to the US where we are presently having our own growing pains with non-distilling producers.
Single Malt Whisky is actually three terms and not one. The Single portion means how many distilleries were involved in the process. Single means it all happens in one shop, Blended means more than one distillery’s product was combined into the results. Malt means that the contents are 100% malted barley, if instead it said grain it would mean that other cereal grains were used in the grain bill.
More interesting still is that the laws in Scotland actually prohibit the production of non-scotch whisky. So you will likely never see a Scottish bourbon, or a good Scottish rye. It would take forever to list out the more salient details of the various kinds of scotch and I’m nothing like an expert on any of them but suffice to say they are many, manifold and delicious.
As to American Single Malts there have been a number of them arising over the years and several of them have outperformed ancient named Scottish brands in tasting competitions.
Previously one of the most popular types of whiskey, Irish Whiskey has taken a pretty hard fall over the years. Generally similar to scotch, there are considerably fewer restrictions on how it is produced. For one thing most Irish whiskey is distilled three times compared to two for scotch. It is also aged for three years. Beyond that, it simply has to have the character of the component grains to qualify.
For such a famous spirit it is very strange that there are only a bare dozen distilling operations in the entire country. The most famous of which are the distilleries producing Jameson and Bushmills.
What is Malting?
You might only hear the term Malt when talking about scotch but the process itself is used in a number of areas. Essentially what happens is that grains are exposed to water and then allowed to sprout, this begins the process of converting the stored starch in the grain into sugar. The grains are then very rapidly dried and the process stopped creating a product with a lot of accessible sugar and a high content of the enzyme which breaks down starches already active and ready to go. Any grain can be malted but it is not necessary to put this fact on the label, so if you see malted *grain* on your whiskey it was the distiller’s choice to put that there.
In general this provides for a more rapid fermentation than using unmalted product. Additionally, barley contains a much higher concentration of the enzyme than other grains which makes malted barley an excellent product for kickstarting the fermentation process in other grains which might take much longer to begin fermenting on their own.
It is also how you begin the process of fermenting things like potatoes which do not normally contain enzymes of their own and would otherwise not ferment.
More recently synthetic enzymes have come on the market allowing distillers to produce similar results without the addition of barley to their products.
What is Sour Mash?
Sour Mash is another optional label component. The process is a bit like keeping a bit of sourdough starter to begin your next batch. Some of the fermented mash from a previous batch is added to new washes to allow some of the original yeast strains to carry over. This has a big impact on flavor and most of the best whiskey is sour mashed whether they say so on the label or not.