There's whisky and there's good whisky, but there is no bad whisky.
- old Scottish saying
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from grains, oats, or other grasses such as barley, rye, wheat, and corn (yes, corn is a grass). It typically contains about 40-50% alcohol by volume (80-100 proof). The word "whiskey" is a shortened form of the English word, usquebaugh - which itself was a mispronunciation of the Gaelic words uisce or uisge meaning "water"; and beatha, meaning "of life". This is why whiskey is sometimes referred to as the "water of life". A common saying is that "the Irish invented whiskey, but the Scottish perfected it."
Let's not fight about spelling. In the United States and Ireland it is spelled whiskey (plural: whiskeys) while in Scotland and Canada it is called whisky (plural: whiskies). These four countries are the major whisk
ey producers in the world - your country might have its own spelling or translation. I have used the most appropriate word (or both words) based on the context throughout this writeup. Where context did not require one or the other, I defaulted to the American spelling (with the 'e') because, hey, E2 is in the US.
Basically whiskey is to beer or ale as brandy is to wine. Instead of taking grains and simply fermenting them (which makes beer), the fermented liquid is distilled creating a liquor instead. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification of the whiskey-making process, but that is the general idea. The result is often drunk straight, with water, or mixed with other drinks/cocktails.
- Malt Whiskey / Malt Whisky - whiskey made from malted grain (grain that has been allowed to sprout)
Grain Whiskey / Grain Whisky - whiskey made from unmalted grain. It typically is lower quality and less flavorful, but much cheaper to produce. It is often produced simply to be later mixed with a malt whiskey.
Blended Whiskey / Blended Whisky - the most common whiskeys are blended. This means they are the combination of the more high quality malted whiskeys and the cheaply produced grain whiskeys.
Types of Whiskey / Whisky1
Bourbon / Kentucky Whiskey - made from corn. Commonly produced in the United States, the name comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky where it became popular around the American Revolution. Nearly all of the world's bourbon comes from Kentucky; however there is no requirement that it must. Most moonshine is a form of bourbon.
Canadian Whisky - made of a mix of rye, corn, wheat, and barley. By law (yes, Canadian law says so) it must be aged for a minimum of 3 years in a barrel.
Irish Whiskey - made primarily from barley, but often contains other grains. Irish whiskey is believed to be one of the earliest distilled beverages in Europe. It is most often distilled three times which is the main difference from Scotch.
Rye / Rye Whiskey / Rye Whisky - as the name implies, it is made from rye grains.
Scotch / Scottish Whisky - made from barley. Similar to rules around Champagne, International Law prohibits any product from calling itself Scotch unless it is from Scotland even if the same ingredients and distilling process are used. Scotch is distilled twice which is the main difference from Irish whiskey.
Tennessee Whiskey - Very similar to Bourbon, however it also goes through the Lincoln County Process of filtering the whiskey through a 10 foot layer of maple charcoal which gives it a distinctive flavor. See Jack Daniel's.
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1 The main ingredient of these whiskey's are included. In most cases, only 51% (a majority) of the primary ingredient must be used to be able to call it one of these specific names. For example, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn though it is often much more.
"Whiskey" also represents the letter W in the phonetic alphabet.