To paraphrase an old song, “You say whiskey, and I say whiskey.” But not everyone spells it the same. The Irish and American version is spelled “whiskey,” while the Canadian and Scotch version is spelled “whisky.” Now that that’s out of the way, whiskey comes from the Gaelic translation for “water of life,” usqubaugh, and has been made in Ireland and Scotland for at least seven hundred years. Whatever the spelling or pronunciation, all whiskey is created by a fermentation process similar to that of beer, but with an extra step: distillation. Grain is cooked in water to make a “mash,” malt is added to produce sugar, yeast is then added to produce alcohol, and the alcohol is distilled from it. Whiskey is watered down to its appropriate proof, and the liquid is then aged in oak barrels.

American whiskey can be broken down into four types, which can be either straight or blended: bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, rye, and corn whiskey. Straight whiskey must be distilled from a mash of at least 51 percent of its base grain and diluted to no less than 80 proof. Blended whiskey combines at least two 100-proof whiskeys and other spirits. Bourbon, named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, is distilled from a mash of at least 51 percent corn stored in charred oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey is distilled just like bourbon but it filtered through sugar-maple charcoal before it is put into barrels. Rye must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye, often with a mix of corn and barley, but straight rye contains no other grains. Although rye was America’s first whiskey, it is rarely seen anymore. Recipes like the Manhattan call for rye, not bourbon, and it is worth it to experiment with this subtle liquor. Corn whiskey is distilled from 80 percent corn, and, to quote the aptly named American wit Irvin S. Cobb, “it has the power to snap [a man’s] suspenders and crack his glass eye right across.”

Canadian whiskies are distilled from corn, rye, and barley. These blended whiskies are often generically, and mistakenly, called “rye.” Generally, lighter than American whiskey, they are aged for at least four years.

Irish whiskey is a hearty blended spirit made with grain and barley malt whiskeys. Said to have been invented by St. Patrick in the fifth century, Irish whiskey is strong, usually 86 proof, but not as smoky as Scotch whisky. This is because the malt in Irish whiskey is dried in coal-fired kilns, where it does not come in contact with the smoke. Irish whiskey can only be produced in Ireland.

Scotch whisky is blended similarly to Irish whiskey, but the native barley is dried over open peat fires, producing its characteristic smoky flavor. A single-malt whisky is not blended and is entirely produced at a single distillery. There are roughly a hundred of these distinct distilleries in Scotland. Scotch whisky can only be produced in Scotland. This may seem obvious, but several spurious brands distilled elsewhere have included “Scotch” in their names.

from Quirk Books: