Some Basic Whisky/Whiskey Terminology

In the next few weeks, I’m going to start adding tasting notes to the various whiskeys that I acquire, or taste in public settings. But before I do this, it would be to all of our benefit if I clarified a few of the words and phrases common to the whiskey world.

(NOTE: My spelling of whiskey varies in the text below, for reasons that are specific to the regions. Scotland and Canada typically spell it Whisky while Ireland and America typically spell it Whiskey. I’ve tried to keep the spelling relevant to the areas discussed in the definition, but I probably failed more than not, especially when it comes to the plural. All I ask is that you cut me some slack on this whilst I try to figure out a decent solution for dealing with the militant whiskey/whisky fans who will leap at the opportunity to mention how I misspelled their favorite spirit.)

  • Scotch Whisky: Whisky which has been produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (and other whole grains). The grains have to be processed at said distillery, converted to a fermentable substrate through natural means, and fermented only through the use of yeast. It also has to have been aged in oak casks of a capacity of not more than 700 liters, and matured for three years or longer. Anything less than three years, and it’s not scotch. It also has to be no less than forty percent alcohol by volume (ABV) at the time of bottling.

    There are other specific (and very legal) conditions that must be met in order for a whiskey to be called “Scotch”, but we’ll use the above as the primary definition.

  • Irish Whiskey: Distilled in Ireland from a mash of cereals and matured in oak casks for at least 3 years, and bottled at no less than forty percent (ABV). The Irish typically use barley as their grain of choice.
  • Bourbon: American Whiskey made primarily of corn (at least 51%) and at least 21% of other grains within the mash. Bourbon must then be matured in new, charred, white oak barrels for at least two years. Bottling proof for whiskey must be at least 40% ABV.
  • Tennessee Whiskey: Tennessee whiskey is essentially bourbon with an additionally filtering step put in place. Called the Lincoln County Process, the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before it is put into the charred casks for aging.

    According to Charles Maclean, in his book Whisky Tales, Bourbons and ryes also use this sour mash process, but only the Tennessee Whiskeys use it as part of their appellation. I hope to verify this sometime in the near future.

  • Rye: America’s first whiskey, made from a mash of at least 51% rye, and the rest of the mash consisting of corn and barley.
  • Canadian Whisky: Canadian Whisky is almost always a blend (which I define below). Typically the blend is dependent upon rye whisky, but this will vary from producer to producer. The laws surrounding Canadian whisky are less stringent than those found surrouding Scotch and Bourbons, but there is a three year maturation rule.
  • Corn Whiskey: Whiskey made from a mash containing a mixture of at least 80% corn. There are no aging requirements for corn whiskey.

Within the above categories there are often other subcategories that have their own definitions that need explaining.

  • Malt Whisky/Malt Whiskey: A whiskey/whisky made from a mash comprised completely from a single type of malted grain. Barley is the best known malt whiskey, at least world wide, but ryes also are known.
  • Single Malt Whiskey: A whiskey/whisky which is distilled at a single distillery, and is made completely from a single type of malted grain
  • Grain Whiskey: Whiskey made from a combination of grains other than barley, or other than those mashes used in bourbons and ryes. Typically speaking, these whiskeys are closer to pure alcohol than malted whiskeys, and rarely have maturation requirements. Grain whiskeys are often used in blends.
  • Blended Whisky/Whiskey:A blended whiskey is the product of blending different types of whiskeys. It is generally the product of mixing one or more single malt whiskeys with other grain whiskeys or neutral grain spirits.

    There are two basic reasons that blends are produced:
    1) Economic: Blended whiskeys can be cheaper to produce and the cost savings can be passed on to the consumer.
    2) Standardization: While Single Malt Whiskeys can vary from year to year (and from age to age), a decent blender can replicate a specific taste from the variety of whiskeys available to them, and produce a similar product over the years.

  • Pure Malt Whisky: A blend of malt whiskies.
  • Vatted Malt Whisky: The same as pure malt whisky.
  • Single Cask: Bottled from a single cask, rather than from a mix of casks (which is the standard).
  • Non Chill Filtered: Typically a whiskey/whisky’s temperature is reduced to zero degrees C and pushed through several filters prior to bottling. Non Chill filtered means that this process was avoided, often to keep the roughness of the whiskey/whisky intact.
  • Cask Strength/Natural Strength: Implies that the whisky/whiskey comes straight from the cask and it’s alcohol content not been intentionally reduced. The ABV rate of these are typically higher than the standard 40% ABV.
  • Wood-Finished/Double Casked: The whiskey has been matured in one cask, and the re-casked and re-racked for the final months of maturation.
  • Age: In a non-blend, this is the amount of time the whiskey/whisky has matured in a cask. In a blend, this is the age of the youngest spirit found within.
  • Pot Still Whiskey: Whiskey made in the older tradition of the pot still as opposed to the more popular (and more cost-efficient) column still.

This is not a complete list, but it’s certainly enough to give a starting point to read labels once the tasting notes commence.

Update: Fixed some mistakes.

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