Distillers have been producing whisk(e)y for hundreds of years.  During that time, the spirit has evolved and traveled around the world.  As a result, there are many different types of whiskies to choose from, using different raw materials, distillation methods, and aging processes.

Having this cornucopia of spirits to choose from can be confusing for anyone new to the world of whisky.  To help you understand the many types of whiskies available, this article will explain the difference between “whisky” and “whiskey”.

What’s the difference between whisky and whiskey?

The name Whisky comes from the Gaelic word usquebaugh which means ‘water of life’ (Uisge means water. Beatha means life).  The term has been used to describe many types of spirits over time, including Eau de Vie, a colourless brandy.

In modern usage, the term “Whisky” is used often to describe a spirit that is distilled in Scotland from a fermented grain mash. “Whiskey” is used to refer to spirits that are distilled in America and Ireland, including Irish Whiskey, Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Kentucky Whiskey.   

There are also certain rules for whisk(e)y depending on the country but really the spelling is not important and there are exceptions to the generalizations above. Makers mark for example use the spelling whisky on their bottles despite being American.

Essentially you can use either spelling and nobody should be getting all worked up over it (though some do). We use either spelling on Whiskeybon interchangeably.

Scotch Whisky

The Scots take their whisky production seriously.  They have been distilling whisky for at least 500 years and view it as an important part of their culture.

The Scottish government created the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (SWR) to regulate the production, labelling, and packaging of Scotch whisky.  The SWR defines “Scotch whisky” as whisky that is:

  • Made in a distillery within Scotland, using water and malted barley. However, whole grains can also be added.  All malted barley and grains should be:
  • Processed at the distillery into a mash
  • Converted into a fermentable solution at the same distillery
  • Fermented only by adding yeast
  • Distilled at a strength that is less than 190 proof (94.8% alcohol).
  • Matured in a warehouse in Scotland within oak casks no larger than 700 litres for at least 3 years
  • The whisky must retain the natural colour, aroma, and taste of the raw materials and production method it used.
  • The only additional substance that can be added to the final product is water and caramel colouring
  • The end product must have an Alcohol By Volume (ABV) of at least 40% which is 80 US proof.

If a Scotch whisky is made from 100% water and malted barley, it is called a malt Scotch whisky.  Malt whiskies will be distilled twice.  If a whisky uses additional grains in the mash, like wheat or corn, it will be called a grain Scotch whisky.  Grain whiskies are distilled once in a Coffey still.

Whiskies can also be:

  • Single malt (100% malt whisky with malt from one distillery)
  • Blended malt (100% malt whisky which has malt from multiple distilleries)
  • Blended whiskies (a combination of malt and grain whiskies)
  • Cask strength (bottled from the cask undiluted, at a very high strength)
  • Single cask (the bottle was poured from one cask)

Most of the Scotch whiskies sold are blended whiskies.

Whiskey

Whiskey is often used to describe spirits created from a fermented grain mash that are produced in the USA (and Ireland).  More than a dozen countries have established a reputation for producing excellent whiskey, including Ireland, the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Wales, and England.  The main sub-categories of Whiskey include:

Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland.  Most Irish whiskies are tripled distilled, include multiple grains, and use unpeated malt for a cleaner flavour.  Irish whiskies include:

  • Single malt Irish whiskey
    Made by a single distillery from 100% malted barley using a pot still.
  • Grain Irish whiskey
    Usually made using barley and corn or wheat. Typically produced in column stills.
  • Single grain Irish whiskey
    Uses a single type of grain
  • Blended Irish whiskey
    A blend of malt and grain whiskies. Makes up the vast majority of Irish whiskey production.
  • Single Pot Still
    Uses both malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still.

American whiskey

The Americans adopted whiskey in a big way, creating new versions of the spirit that use different grains.  They include:

  • Bourbon whiskey
    Made with a mash that is at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.
  • Corn whiskey
    Made with a mash that is at least 80% corn. Can be aged or not aged.  If it is aged, it is aged in charred or used barrels
  • Malt whiskey
    Made with a mash that is at least 51% malted barley.
  • Rye whiskey
    Made with a mash that is at least 51% rye.
  • Wheat whiskey
    Made with a mash that is at least 51% wheat.

All American whiskey must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, and barrelled at no more than 125 proof.  Distillers are only allowed to add water to the final product — no additional flavours or colours are allowed.

If an American whiskey has been aged for more than two years, it will be designated as a “straight” whiskey.  If the whiskey does not have more than 51% of any single grain, it will simply be called a “straight whiskey”.  If it has more than 51%, it will still feature the name of the grain — so a 51% rye whiskey will be called a “straight rye whiskey”.  American whiskeys that are labeled as Tennessee or Kentucky whiskeys can only be produced by distilleries in those locations.

So there you have it!  The next time you look at a whiskey label, you will immediately know where it has come from, what the main ingredients are and how it was made.  Hopefully this takes some of the mystery out of choosing a whisky or whiskey.