Don’t feel bad if you occasionally get confused about different types of whiskey, because it can be very confusing, says The Whisky Cabinet author Mark Bylok. That’s why you need to bookmark this cheat sheet, which illustrates the main differences between how whiskey is made in America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and Japan. And, crucially, how it’s spelled in each place.
“Whiskey is a general term used to describe a spirit that’s made from a distilled grain that’s been matured in oak,” Bylok writes. “Whether you’re drinking bourbon, rye, Canadian rye, Irish whiskey or scotch, you’re drinking whiskey.” Here’s a reminder of how it’s made.
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Different countries tend to use different grains based on what’s naturally available, which greatly affects the flavor profile. For instance, corn makes for a sweeter liquor, rye gives off spicy notes, and barley (which is used in Single Malt Scotch) results in a relatively light drink.
The type of barrel the liquor is aged in will also affect the taste—new oak gives off a strong, vanilla-tinged flavor whereas re-using a barrel results in a more muted effect. In the U.S. where oak is plentiful, new oak barrels are most common.
In Scotland, the cold climate resulted in the development of a very different distilling tradition, says Bylok. “With the harsh winds, trees don’t grow in abundance. So, with oak being a rare local resource, Scotland re-used whiskey barrels from the U.S. and sherry barrels from Spain.” That’s why Scottish whisky, or Scotch, is generally lighter and subtler than American hooch.
The scarcity of wood also meant that distillers used peat—a type of decayed vegetation that’s abundant in Scotland—as a fuel source when they were drying barley to make whisky. Peat is the source of that smokiness that’s a hallmark of Scotch.