Science

Ask Paul: What Is the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon? And Rye, and Scotch...

Just enough information to settle—or start—a bar fight.
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Published July 1, 2021.

Jean asked: Is whiskey a type of bourbon? Is Jack Daniel’s a type of bourbon?

Whiskey is the blanket term. If a spirit is distilled from grain (and not purified so much that it becomes vodka), then it’s whiskey.

The type of grain used is essential both to the flavor of the whiskey and to how it’s legally labeled.

Setting aside blended whiskey, if a whiskey is made from primarily (more than 50 percent) rye grain, for instance, it is rye whiskey (in the U.S.; other jurisdictions vary).

If the predominant grain is wheat, it’s wheat whiskey; if corn, it’s bourbon.

Possibly.

In order to earn the name “bourbon” under Federal law, a whiskey needs to meet a few more specifics, particularly that it be made in the U.S. and be aged in never-before-used charred oak containers. That charred oak gives the previously clear spirit plenty of amber color and oaky, vanilla-y flavor in just a few years.

Although bourbon has to be “aged,” the law doesn’t specify any minimum time. A minute? That should be fine. That said, if the duration is less than 4 years, the label has to say so.

“Straight bourbon whiskey” must be aged for a minimum of two years. And despite what the gregarious gent next to you at the dive bar may loudly insist, bourbon doesn’t have to come from Kentucky, but “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” does.

Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are “Tennessee whiskeys,” which is defined to mean that they are made from at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak containers (so technically they are bourbons, too!), made in Tennessee, and filtered with charcoal before aging. (Prichard’s is also legally defined as a Tennessee whiskey, but, as the sole beneficiary of a particular grandfather clause in Tennessee law, it is not charcoal filtered.)

Scotch, on the other hand, is aged in barrels that have already been used at least once (often bourbon hand-me-downs, in fact). Those barrels have had much of their initial oaky flavor leached out already, so the second resident of the barrel can comfortably age there for a decade or two without becoming too intensely woody.

The last several years have seen many new distilleries popping up and offering new whiskeys. When you start up a new whiskey distillery, you have a built-in problem: You’re making whiskey and you want to sell your product right away, but it has to be aged before it’s any good. One sneaky but common (and perfectly tasty) approach is to buy already-made whiskey in bulk from a third party and bottle it under your name while you wait a few years for your own distillation to mellow in its barrels. Or you can sell your fresh-made whiskey without aging, clear and colorless and perhaps with some backwoodsy “moonshine” branding. 

Or you can try to make your whiskey taste aged in a hurry. That’s done by increasing the amount of contact between the spirit and the wood, using smaller barrels (with more surface area to volume), chunks of oak, and even agitation. That creates a whiskey that has the right color in months rather than years, and it checks all the legal boxes for you to sell it as bourbon or rye whiskey, but it tastes like moonshine infused with oak, not the complex mellow chemistry that years of aging impart to good whiskey. 

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com

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