Whiskey, scotch, bourbon, rye.
They’re all different, yet related. And just how they’re related can get a little confusing. Kind of like the characters on Game of Thrones.
Consider this article your cheat sheet.
Let’s start with whiskey.
Whiskey is the umbrella category that includes any barrel-aged liquor distilled from barley, wheat or corn.
In the way that pilsner, stout and, lager are types of beer, scotch, bourbon, and rye are all types of whiskey. But, whiskey – unlike beer – can be spelled a couple different ways:
Whiskey or whisky.
So is the “e” really that big of a deal?
Actually, it is.
See, the origin story of “whisky/ey” dates back to the 15th century, which is when the liquor’s distillation spread through Ireland and Scotland. It was dubbed the “water of life,” and referred to as “uisce” which is the Gaelic word for “water.”
As time went on, the Gaelic “uisce” became Anglicized to “whiskey.”
The Irish spelled it “whiskey,” while the Scots spelled in “whisky.” And hundreds of years later, that difference of an “e” still matters.
Scotland, along with Japan, Australia, and Canada, opt for “whisky” spelling. Scotland, though, has an extra special name for whisky made in Scotland. Yep, you guessed it: Scotch.
As for the United States, American brands spell it “whiskey,” opting for Irish spelling.
The history of American whiskey is about as old as America itself. A pivotal event was the Whiskey Rebellion, which broke out in 1791 (when America was just 15 years old and still under the leadership of George Washington). It was a protest again the USA’s taxation of distilled spirits – most of which were whiskey, leading the tax to be dubbed “the whiskey tax.” Some people outright protested the tax, rioting in the streets, while others just avoided it by making their own liquor. And they made it with the most readily available resource: corn.
This American corn liquor was concocted in secret, often at night, by the light of the moon – giving it the name, “moonshine.”
This corn-based legacy of moonshine carried on in American whiskies. Using the crop most plentiful crop – corn – American whiskey had a very different flavor profile than its barley-based predecessor, Irish whiskey.
At the turn of the 19th century, a lot of this newfangled “corn whiskey” was coming out of Bourbon County, Kentucky. The terms “bourbon whiskey” and “corn whiskey” soon became synonymous. In the U.S., in order for a distilled liquor to call itself “bourbon,” the grains it’s made from must be at least 51% corn.
Meanwhile, distillers also experimented with making ye whiskey (as the name implies) has to be made from at least 51% rye. Rye whiskey is more astringent compared to the sweeter flavor of bourbon. Today, they’re both very popular – you can expect to find both behind any bar.
Ultimately, while whiskey, Scotch, bourbon, and rye all have different stories, they all descend from the same forebearer of whiskey: the spirit that started it all.