None of us like looking like fools. It’s no fun. So, for your convenience, here are 10 things you need to know about bourbon and rye to help you walk forward in confidence. Let’s talk whiskey.
1. Bourbon and rye are whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon and rye
This one confuses a lot of people. I’m constantly asked questions like, “Do you prefer bourbon or whiskey?” As you can see in the chart above, whiskey is the umbrella; everything falls under it. Bourbon, rye, Canadian, Scotch—it’s all whiskey.
2. There’s a difference between “whiskey” and “whisky”
Basically, Ireland and the majority of U.S. distilleries (unless they are intentionally trying to be different) spell whiskey with an “e.” Scotland, Canada, and Japan all drop the “e.” On this site, since we deal mostly with American whiskey, we’ll be spelling it “whiskey.”
3. Bourbon does not need to be made in Kentucky
A couple years ago when I was first getting into whiskey, I was in a Seattle distillery and asked why they made rye whiskey but not bourbon. The girl behind the counter told me it was because bourbon has to be made in Kentucky. Even as a whiskey beginner, I sensed this was wrong.
Whiskey in general can be made anywhere in the world. But bourbon (and rye) have certain rules. According to the United States Government Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations 5.22, they are as follows:
- Made in the United States.
- Made of mash bill of at least 51% corn (for bourbon). The remaining grain can be wheat, malted barley, and rye.
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels.
- Distilled at less than 160 proof (80% ABV).
- Entered into the barrel for aging at less than 125 proof (62.5% ABV).
- Bottled greater than 80 proof.
- No additives are allowed (only water to reduce proof where desired).
- No minimum age statement. If aged at least 2 years, it can be called “straight bourbon.” If aged less than 4 years, it must carry an age statement on the bottle.
- Rye has the exact same requirements, except instead of 51% corn, it must be rye.
4. Whiskey is beer (well, at least in the beginning)
You read that correctly. Whiskey, gin, and vodka all begin as beer. The difference is, after the first few steps creating mash, beer has hops added, while spirits go through the distilling process.
5. Whiskey means “the water of life”
The word whisky comes from the gaelic word, “uisgebeatha” (many different spellings) which means “water of life.” The Master of Malt says, “With this in mind, whisky is etymologically linked with a great number of spirits, all of which refer to the origins of the spirit—the quest for the elixir of life.” I like that.
6. Whiskey gets its color from the barrel
Whiskey comes off the still clear and is entered into barrels. The char inside the barrel, climate, and aging time are a few of the variables that add color and taste to the finished product. A portion of the whiskey evaporates, which became known as the “angel’s share.”
7. Canada, you can call your whiskey rye, but you’re lying
As I mentioned in #3, rye whiskey must be made in the United States. Canadians make whisky with rye but technically they shouldn’t call it rye whiskey. Unlike American whiskey, Canadians may legally include additives and flavoring. Historically, Canadians produced whisky that had a majority of rye grain. Nowadays, to be called “rye whisky” in Canada, all that’s needed is to "possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky" (Canadian Food and Drug Regulations). Sorry Canucks, but that’s just messed up.
8. It’s ok to put water and ice in your whiskey
Tasting whiskey is supposed to be fun. If you want to add ice to your whiskey, go for it. If you want to add water (which actually can help open up new smells and flavors with just a couple drops) that’s fine too. Just try to start by drinking it neat so you can taste the way the distiller intended it to be.
9. The oldest and most expensive whiskeys are not necessarily the best
In a day when whiskey collecting/hoarding is at an all-time high, some have come to believe the most expensive and oldest (some over 20 years) whiskeys will taste the best. This is not true. Many bourbon experts say whiskey hits its “peak” at 6 to 10 years (depending on who you ask). The Seattle Whiskey Collective did a blind taste test where many preferred a $19 whiskey to a $110 bottle. That said, my favorite whiskey of all time is Eagle Rare 17, hard to find in Washington and about $80 (ouch!).
10. Whiskey is awesome!
This one is pretty obvious. Drink up my friend!