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Drink like a Gent: knowing the difference between whiskey, bourbon, and rye

The United States is currently experiencing a boom in terms of carefully crafted spirits.  Both beer and spirits see an upward trend of proprietors fanatically devoted to making a quality product, and that's good for the entire market.  That places an implicit (and reasonable) expectation of us: know what you're ordering.  With that in mind, we thought we could give you an easy-to-understand guide to better know the differences among whiskey, bourbon, and rye.

Whiskey

  • any alcohol that is made from fermented grain mash
  • spelled "whisky" in Scotland, where it is also called scotch.  Only whiskies (which they spell "whiskys") 100% made in Scotland from Scottish ingredients, usually from malted barley, and barrel-aged a minimum of 3 years can legally be called Scotch.

Bourbon

  • it is whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn.  All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
  • it is aged in new oak charred barrels (any variety of oak)
  • it must be bottled at no less than 80 proof
  • it must possess no other additives
  • while it is most strongly associated with Kentucky, whiskey meeting the requirements for bourbon may be legally called such as long as it is made within the United States.

Interestingly, there's an entire ongoing debate about whether Jack Daniel's is legally bourbon.  Depends on whether you believe Jack Daniel's or Wikipedia.  It should be noted that JD adds one additional step to its process, filtering their product through sugar maple charcoal, which would seem to be an "additive."  That being said, JD has very much billed themselves as producers of "Tennessee whiskey" which by definition is simply straight bourbon made in the state of Tennessee.  We'll let better minds than ours make a final decision on this!

Rye

  • Rye whiskey matches most of the rules for bourbon, however it is a 51% minimum of rye in the mash, not corn.
  • It does not have to be produced in the United States.
  • Indeed, Canada has such a well-known rye whiskey tradition that in the years before rye had a resurgence in the States, people asking for a rye whiskey would get a Canadian whiskey.
  • Ironically, Canada, well-known as a land of socialism and regulation, has almost no rules at all about what can be called rye whiskey in their country.  Even spirits possessing 1% rye would be enough to label it as such.

All of these alcohols can of course be served in their most elemental form, "neat," which means with no ice, but many connoisseurs of whiskey encourage adding a drop or two of water, at least, to "wake" the whiskey and unlock smell and flavor.

Do you have a favorite type or brand of whisk(e)y?  Share it with us below and get a certificate for a free 3-course hair service that you can share with a friend.

Ben Davis

About Ben Davis

A serial entrepreneur, Ben Davis is founder of The Gents Place and a leading investor in gentlemen's refinement and confidence.

I love 40 Creek Canadian whisky! I’ve drank it for years better in my opinion than Crown…. And 20 years ago when I discovered it much cheaper than today!-!

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