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What is whiskey main image

The origins

Invented by the Irish, refined by the Scots, and adapted by the Americans and Canadians, no other spirit boasts the romanticized importance of whiskey. But what exactly is that mysterious brown liquor? In its simplest form, whiskey is a distillate made from the fermented mash of cereal grains (corn, barley, wheat, rye, millet, etc.).

How it’s made

Malted barley

The basic whiskey production process is relatively simple- grains are heated in water and then fermented by adding yeast (much like beer). Distilling the fermented “mash” removes water and impurities, and the resulting alcohol is called “whiskey.”

Many factors define the type of whiskey produced: grain selection and ratio, geographic origin, length of maturation, distillation process, and even the material, size, and preparation of the casks used for maturation. In most cases, national laws govern whiskey production and labeling, honored internationally by trade agreements and treaties.

Regulations

Unfortunately for consumers, there are several so-called whiskeys not defined in law. Japan has no whiskey labeling rules, allowing imports and other products to sell as “Japanese Whiskey.” American single malt whiskey faces a similar issue, as there is currently no legal definition. To their credit, most American distilleries have agreed to voluntarily comply with proposed industry standards.

So, what are the rules? The overview below outlines some of the key production and labeling rules for the major whiskey styles. Irish and Scottish whiskey laws are relatively simple, while US whiskey laws are extensive and complex and encompass many different blends and variations.

Types of whisky

Our focus is on the most common whiskeys, and we’ve omitted some of the more technical rules (maximum cask size, distilling ABV limits, etc.) for expediency. For those of you fascinated by the detailed technical mumbo-jumbo, visit the TTB (https://www.ttb.gov/distilled-spirits), the Scotch Whisky Law of 2009 (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/2890/regulation/3/made), and download Ireland’s FSAI guide (https://www.fsai.ie/publications/Labelling_of_Irish_Whiskey/).

Copper still

Scotch Whisky

  • Distilled, matured, and bottled in Scotland
  • Made from malted barley, cereal grains, or a blend thereof
  • Matured for three or more years in oak casks
  • Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV
  • Greater prevalence of peat used when compared to Irish whiskey

Irish Whiskey

  • Produced, matured, and bottled in Ireland
  • Made from malted barley, cereal grains, or a blend thereof
  • Matured for three or more years in oak casks
  • Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV

American Whiskey

  • Produced, matured, and bottled in the USA
  • Matured in new charred oak casks
  • Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV
  • Types of whiskeys:
    • Bourbon- made from at least 51% corn
    • Rye- made from at least 51% rye
    • Wheat- made from at least 51% wheat
    • Malt- made from at least 51% malted barley
    • Malted Rye- made from at least 51% malted rye

American Straight Whiskey

Same production values as standard American whiskeys, plus:

  • May contain a blend of two or more straight whiskeys if made in the same state.
  • Matured a minimum of 2 years in new charred oak casks

American Single Malt Whiskey

Produced, matured, and bottled in the USA at a single distillery.

  • Made from 100% malted barley
  • Matured in oak casks
  • Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV

As you can see, there are many similarities, but each country determines the standards for their whiskeys. While Scotch and Irish whiskey rules are relatively straightforward, American whiskey laws are detailed, extensive, and a bit confusing, especially given the variety of whiskeys made in the USA. Despite the complexity of American whiskey rules, the real “wild-west” of whiskey is happening in Japan. Their industry has an identity crisis caused by a lack of national standards. And while the strict rules in Ireland, Scotland, and the USA may create high barriers for distilleries, consumers are protected from potential misunderstandings, assuring that the whiskey they buy truly is “whiskey.”

Glasses of whiskey

About the author

Our guest author for this article is Steve Kirwan, and he is a widely published whiskey critic and writer, and the Editor-in-Chief of the renowned blog, www.WhiskeyTrends.com

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