The Water of Life: Navigating the World of Whiskey, Whisky, and Scotch


One of the most daunting tasks to any whiskey newcomer is the sheer number of choices. This often leads to over-generalizations when attempting to discover personal preferences: For example, someone who decides they don’t like whiskey at all because they had a bad experience with Fireball – Cinnamon Whisky.

The first step to navigating the overwhelming selection at your local bar or liquor store is understanding the different classifications of whiskey. Knowledge of the different production methods and flavors will prepare you to understand what you love about whiskey, and what to steer clear of.

Whiskey vs. Whisky

Whiskey has been around for centuries. The original Latin name for alcohol was aqua vitea, meaning “the water of life”. Over time this term was translated into different languages. The Scotch and Irish, two of the earliest whiskey producers, used different spellings to distinguish their products from each other. As the production of whiskey spread to other countries the different spellings continued. Now the choice of whiskey vs whisky is typically used to pay homage to the country of origin.

While there are exceptions, particularly in the United States, there is a general rule of thumb to help remember which spelling to use. If the producing country has an “e” in the name (Ireland, United States) then they use the whiskey spelling. If the producing country’s name does not contain an “e” (Scotland, Japan, Canada) they will use the whisky spelling.

Generalizations All Whiskey Follows

As discussed in Why Are There So Many Types of Liquors?, there are 3 main steps to the production of a spirit that creates the different categories: plant source, fermentation, and distillation. All whiskey varietals are made from only cereal grains, distilled at no higher than 190 proof, bottled at no less than 80 proof, and spend a period of time in oak containers. Bourbon, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and all other categories all have their own additional specifications that make them unique.

A Quick Look at the Specific Classifications

Irish Whiskey: Made in Ireland, this is made of only cereal grains before it is aged within the country for 3 years in wooden casks. Most Irish whiskeys are triple distilled as well.
Scotch: Made in Scotland, this spirit is made of malted barley although it may contain additional cereal grains. Generally, the malted barley is smoked with burning peat as a part of the drying process. It must be aged within the country for at least 3 years in oak barrels.
Bourbon: Made in the United States, this spirit is made from at least 51% corn and must be aged in a virgin, charred oak barrel.
Tennessee Whiskey: This varietal technically qualifies as a bourbon, except that production of Tenessee whiskey must include charcoal filtration.
American Rye: Very similar to bourbon, this special whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye and aged in a virgin, charred oak barrel.
Canadian Whisky: Made in Canada, this whisky must be aged within the country for at least 3 years. This is the only whisky style that allows extra flavoring to be added. Flavored examples include Fireball and the flavorful Crown varietals such as Crown Apple.
Canadian Rye: Canada has produced Rye for most of its history. Traditionally this was made with mostly rye grains, similar to American Rye; however, there is no law regarding exactly how much rye must be used. Generally, any Canadian whisky that contains rye may call itself “Canadian Rye Whisky”.

These differences in production create the wide variety of flavors and bodies of whiskeys. Next time you’re drinking try taking note of which classifications of whiskey you enjoy to help you navigate the shelves!

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