At first, classifying whisky seems an easy task, but if you dig deeper you will find out that this is not as easy as it seems. Each category has its own subtle differences and by summing them up, you will start to understand how difficult it is…
Scotch Whisky || Scotch Single Malt Whisky || Scotch Blended Malt Whisky || Single Grain Scotch Whisky || Blended Scotch Whisky || American Whiskey || Bourbon Whiskey || Rye, Wheat & Malt Whiskey || Corn Whiskey || Straight Whiskey || Kentucky Whiskey || Tennessee Whiskey || Bottled-in-Bond Whiskey || American Blended Whiskey || Irish Whiskey || Canadian Whiskey || Canadian Rye Whiskey
A whisky is allowed to be called scotch when it meets the requirements of the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009: the whisky must be produced in Scotland and should be a product of merely water, cereal and yeast. Mashing, fermenting and distilling must take place in a distillery and the spirit can be distilled to maximum 94.8% ABV. Scotch whiskey must be matured in oak casks with a maximum capacity of 700 liters. After a minimum maturation period of 3 years, the product can be called Scotch whisky. Before that, the product is known as British New-Make Spirit.
SCOTCH SINGLE MALT WHISKY
Single malt whisky must be produced of 100% malted barley and the barley may be harvested and malted anywhere in the world. The spirit must be distilled twice in a copper pot still (even triple distillingis allowed, like Auchentoshan does). Just like Scotch whisky, the spirit may be distilled to a maximum alcoholic strength of 94.8% ABV, but most of the single malts are distilled to 65-75% ABV.
Maturation must take place in Scotland, but not necessarily on the site of the distillery itself. Just like all types of Scotch, the label should be showing an age-statement of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Vintage single malts can be tricky; the label should state either the date of bottling (bottled on…) or date of distilling (distilled on…), followed by an age-statement. As of 2009, all single malts must be bottled in Scotland.
SCOTCH BLENDED MALT WHISKY
This type of whisky is a blend of two or more single malt whiskies. In the past, blended malt was also called vatted malt or pure malt, but according to the legislation of 2009, this isn’t allowed anymore. Blended malts are rare, since most of the consumers only want single malt or blended scotch. According to the legislation, the label states the youngest whisky in the bottle.
SINGLE GRAIN SCOTCH WHISKY
Just like single malt, single grain whisky must be the product of only one distillery, but the whisky can be made of any combination of malted barley and unmalted grains – but no other malted grains. Single grain whisky is distilled in a column still and is rarely being bottled; almost all single grain whisky from Scotland is used for blends.
BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY
Despite the increased demand for single malt during the past 20 years or so, blended scotch forms 90% of the total sale of any type of scotch whisky. Blended scotch must be the product of at least one single malt and one single grain whisky; there are hardly no blended scotch which contains more than one single grain whisky in it, but there are blends with more than 30 single malts!
To be sold as a whiskey in the US, the spirit can be made from any type cereal and may be distilled to a maximum alcoholic strength of 94.8% ABV. Furthermore, the spirit must be matured in oak barrels and the US legislation doesn’t say anything about the maximum maturation time or guidelines regarding the size of the barrel or degree of toasting. The law however describes that no additives may be added to the whiskey, including caramel (E150a). Blended American whisky is however an exception. Also the label on the bottle must state in which State the whiskey produced.
Bourbon whisky can be produced everywhere in the US, but the most common is the Kentucky bourbon (mostly straight). Bourbon has no minimum maturation period, but has to be matured in new, toasted American oak barrels. The maximum alcoholic strength must be 62,5% ABV when put in the barrel for maturation. All bourbon whiskies must contain at least 51% corn in its mash bill and must be distilled at maximum 80% ABV (or 160 proof). Most bourbon mash bill are 80% corn and the rest is rye and/or wheat and malted barley. Bourbon which has matured less than 3 years can’t be called bourbon whiskey in Europa; it is then called just bourbon.
RYE, WHEAT & MALT WHISKEY
Rye whiskey follows the exact same regulations as for bourbon whiskey, except for that the mash bill must be from at least 51% rye. The are currently only 6 straight rye distilleries. One of them is Anchor, which produces a 100% malted rye whiskey. Wheat and malt whiskies must be made of at least 51% wheat or malt.
This type of whiskey must be made of at least 80% corn and is distilled to a maximum of 80% ABV or 160 proof. Maturation is not mandatory, but if the products will be matured, it must be done in non-toasted casks or refill casks. This is done to distinguish corn whiskey from bourbon.
Straight whiskey needs to mature at least 2 years in oak casks. When the name straight is used and the whisky has matured less than 4 years, there must be an age-statement on the bottle. When the whisky has matured more than 4 years, mentioning ‘straight’ on the label is optional. Note: when ‘straight’ is used for corn whisky, non-toasted casks must be used during the usual minimum maturation period of two years.
As the name already states, Kentucky whisky must be produced in the State of Kentucky. Almost all Kentucky whiskies are straight bourbons and even if they are not qualified as a straight bourbon, they either meet the requirements of bourbon or straight whisky.
This type of whisky is in fact a straight bourbon whiskey, but with 2 distinctive characterisitcs. Firstly, this whisky has to be produced in the State of Tennessee and secondly, the whisky must be filtered through a 3-meter high charcoal filter from maple before maturation. This is also known as the Lincoln County Process. This process is necessary to become a Tennessee whiskey, otherwise it’s just a normal straight or bourbon whiskey. Only the whiskies produced by Pritchard’s is the exception: they have a legal exemption for carrying out the Lincoln County Process.
According to US Federal Law, bottled-in-bond whiskey needs to be the product of one distilling season from one distillery. Furthermore, this type of whisky needs to be matured for at least 4 years and bottled at at least 50% ABV. Bottled-in-bond whiskey follows the same regulations for barrels and distillation strength as straight whiskey.
Whiskey with the statement ‘blended in the US‘ must be made of at least 20% straight whiskey (whether or not blended). As a result, neutral spirits or younger whiskeys can be added to the blend. If the product has bourbon, rye, wheat or malt in its name, it must contain at least 51% of the above-mentioned whiskey. This does not mean that the cumulative mash bill is made from 51% rye – in a blended rye, for example, the percentage can only be 26%.
The rules that Irish whiskey has to comply with are much looser than those of American or Scottish whiskey. The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 stipulated three basic requirements for Irish Whiskey. Irish whiskey must be made from any combination of cereals as long as they are turned into sugars by the diastase of malt (malt must therefore be used). Irish whiskey must be distilled to a maximum alcoholic strength of 94.8% ABV and thirdly, it must be aged in wooden barrels for at least 3 years.
According to the Canadian Whisky Food and Drugs Act 1985, Canadian whisky must be made by the diastase of malt and may be distilled to an alcoholic strength of maximum 94% ABV. Adding coloring (caramel E150a) is accepted and the whiskey must be matured in ‘small wooden’ barrels (max. capacity 700 liters) during at least 3 years. It’s also allowed to add maximum 9,09% of ‘flavoring’ in the form of sherry, (port) wine or other spirits. regardless of the form of the flavoring, the product must have ‘the aroma, taste and character that are generally attributed to Canadian whiskey’.
CANADIAN RYE WHISKY
Whisky which is labeled as ‘rye’ in Canada, partially contains rye in its mashbill, but mostly only 5-15%. If this whisky is exported to the USA, the distiller needs to delete the word ‘rye’ from the label, unless the product meets the minimum amount of rye (51%) as imposed by US legislation.