It is not uncommon that at some point during my Friday/Saturday night, someone will confuse whisky, scotch, rye and bourbon.
It’ll go something like this:
Ignorant Drinker: This scotch is really good!
Me (mumbling under my breath): Jack Daniels isn’t scotch, it’s a type of bourbon whisky…
But how does me being passive-agressive help you understand the differences between scotch, bourbon and whisky? Well, it doesn’t. So I’m going to tell you about the differences.
The problem with calling a drink whisky is that it’s misleading; it makes you think that whisky is a special drink that contains a special ingredient not found in scotch, bourbon, etc. This is false. Scotch, bourbon and rye are all types of whisky; they are all liquors distilled from fermented grain that are then aged in casks for a given period of time. When you think about scotch, bourbon and rye, imagine them as members of the whisky family. For the sake of this oversimplified explanation, let’s consider anything that is not specifically scotch, bourbon or rye to be an unspecified member of the larger whisky family. Like that cousin you didn’t realize was your cousin until you two were awkwardly introduced.
If whisky is a family, Rye is the whisky family’s younger brother who tries too hard to be cool. Rye is a forage crop, not unlike wheat. There are two types of Rye liquor: American Rye and Canadian Rye. The former contains at least 51% rye and is usually not distilled above 160 Proof (80% alc). Rye is aged in oak casks, but usually they’re new, so not much is added to the flavor. Unlike scotch, rye is not usually aged for very long. This is why it costs less at Rite-Aid.
You’re more likely to have heard of Canadian Rye. The most famous Canadian Rye is Crown Royal, because it is over advertised. It’s also widely considered the best Canadian Rye, because of its smooth taste and accessible flavor. Interestingly, Crown Royal usually avoids the word “rye” in its advertising, because it hopes you will confuse it for a bourbon, which are generally more popular in the United States.
If you’re at Rite-Aid: Canadian Club is solid, especially if you’re making a mixed drink. More affordable than the top shelf.
Scotch whisky is your successful uncle who doesn’t show up to the family reunion [Ed. My Rabbi loves scotch]. As its name suggests, scotch encompasses all Scottish whisky (note: whisky can also be spelled whiskey, the latter is the American spelling), which is usually made from wheat and rye. There are two main types of scotch: single-malt and blended. When a scotch is called single-malt, is has been made with only water and malted-barely. For reasons that are beyond my comprehension of science, the water in Scotland produces whisky with a very smooth taste that can present strong and at times intricate flavors.
Blended scotches worth mentioning, because they’re what you’re most likely to run into on this campus (in terms of scotch). Because they are composed with wheat and rye from multiple different crops, blended whiskys are cheaper and a good way to figure out whether or not you like scotch. Blends are also usually younger whiskys. One of the best blended scotches is Johnnie Walker Black Label. I hear it’s Christina Hendricks’ favorite drink.
In the land of single malts, the word you need to remember is Speyside, a sliver of northern Scotland wherein some of the best are made. If you are in a liquor store and you know nothing about Scotch, buying one made in Speyside is probably your best guarantor of quality. Some of the most famous single-malt scotches are The Macallan, The Glenlivet and Glenfidditch. Because it is typically aged at least 10 years before bottling, even lower-end single malts can cost between $50 and $60. A note: there are not many single-malts that have a place in a mixed drink.
If you’re at Rite-Aid: The Glenfidditch 12 Year Old is a good place to start. It comes in a green box.
Bourbon is your cousin that has more fun than you do. Bourbon is usually made from corn and derives its name from its roots in Bourbon County, Kentucky and French House of Bourbon, in that order. It is the South’s contribution to American drinking culture. The best bourbons come from Tennessee and Kentucky, though there is a distinction in flavor betweens states. When your friends talk about Jack Daniels, they mean the Tennessee bourbon whisky (which is also the most popular whisky in the world). Bourbons are generally a rockier drink to take straight. Then again you don’t hear about people getting shit-faced on scotch, do you.
Bourbon is an all-American drink, by which I mean Congress mandated in 1964 that only whisky produced in the US can be called bourbon. Most is produced in Kentucky. Because many popular bourbons are not very aged, Bourbon is generally less expensive than scotch (especially single malt) and more commonly found than Rye whisky. This means you can mix it or take it straight, though it won’t go down as sweet as rum would.
If you’re at Rite-Aid: Jack Daniels is probably best on the low end. If you have a little more to spend, Makers Mark is great.
There you have it. This is only a primer on whisky. Books and books have been written on the distinctions between each variety. Now go forth and impress your friends.