Whiskey, Scotch, bourbon, rye – this popular spirit goes by many names, and the jargon can be confusing for the uninitiated. To clear things up (and to help you sound super smart the next time you're ordering the brown stuff), we've created a quick guide to all things American whiskey.
So what is whiskey anyway?
Whiskey is a spirit distilled from a fermented grain mash. Barley, corn, rye or wheat may be used depending on the variety. After distillation, the spirit is often barrel-aged in wooden casks.
Whiskey vs. whisky
It may seem like a small thing, but whether or not you spell the word with an "e" matters quite a bit. The word "whisky" typically only refers to the variation produced in Scotland.
Anywhere else in the world (including the U.S.A. and Ireland) and it's written "whiskey" with an "e." To make things more confusing, some Canadian and Japanese producers also favor dropping the "e".
Photo courtesy of Newnow/iStock
Bourbon: America's native spirit
The most popular whiskey produced in the United States is bourbon. For a spirit to legally be called bourbon, it needs to be produced in the USA, made from at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak barrels and bottled at no less than 80 proof.
This produces a different flavor profile than Scotch, which is made from predominantly malted barley and must be produced in Scotland.
Tasting notes: The higher corn content in bourbon makes it slightly sweeter than other whiskeys, and it has smoky notes from the charred oak.
Brands to know: Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam
A tale of Tennessee whiskey
Many Tennessee whiskeys also qualify as bourbons, but not all bourbons are Tennessee whiskeys. That's because in addition to the bourbon requirements, Tennessee whiskey must legally be produced in – you guessed it – Tennessee.
It also gets steeped in or filtered through charcoal chips – a step called the Lincoln County Process – before it goes into the barrel to age.
Tasting notes: Many drinkers can't distinguish Tennessee Whiskey from bourbon, but others will swear the charcoal filtering yields a more mellow whiskey.
Brands to know: Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Prichard's
And what about rye?
In the U.S., rye whiskeys must be made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye, though corn and barley are often added. Like bourbon, it must be aged in charred new oak barrels.
If you're drinking Canadian rye, the requirements are different; any amount of rye is good enough, so long as the whiskey exhibits the characteristics in aroma and taste of a Canadian whiskey.
Tasting notes: Rye has more of a burning bite and full body than a bourbon.
Brands to know: WhistlePig, Knob Creek, Bulleit
Moonshine, a.k.a. white whiskey
If you've perused a liquor shelf lately, you've probably noticed spirits labeled as moonshine. Since "moonshine" was a term used to describe illegal alcohol made at home, what you're seeing in stores is in fact white whiskey.
What makes it white? It gets bottled without spending time in oak.
Tasting notes: Without the oak flavors, white whiskey tastes similar to vodka.
Brands to know: Buffalo Trace White Dog, Few White Dog, Popcorn Sutton