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Whiskey? Neat!

The nice thing about whiskey is you can enjoy it in complete ignorance. So, feel free to skip the next thousand words or so, pop down to the liquor store, buy a bottle at about standing eye level, pour two fingers’ width in a glass with very good ice or on its own, and have a great night. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

George Bernard Shaw called it liquid sunshine. Its effect is simple, heady bliss. But there is confusion as to what qualifies as whiskey and the differences between various styles. People ask the difference between whiskey and bourbon, whether Jack Daniel’s is its own thing, and what Scotch is and why it only comes up with their snooty friends.

To answer these questions, we’ll strip away some of the amber aura and most of the machismo surrounding this venerated beverage. It’s going to get nerdy in here. And while this master class won’t make your whiskey taste better, it will help you understand what you’re drinking and how to order something you actually like. 

Let’s start here: whiskey is to bourbon, rye, Irish whiskey, Scotch whiskey, etc. as wine is to pinot noir, cabernet, sauvignon blanc, etc. So, while it’s fine to order a whiskey, you’re giving your bartender dealer’s choice on what they pour. Knowing some key differences will help you narrow your field of play and probably give you a better shot at getting a better shot. 

At its heart, whiskey starts with grains, soaked in hot water—this is called mash. The hot water extracts sugars from the grain, which can later be fermented to create alcohol. The type of whiskey, and the qualifications that get tacked on, come primarily from the type (or types) of different grains used in this step. So, we’ve got fermenting grain sludge in an oak barrel. A humble beginning, agreed. But from here on, things get interesting, and it’s where we start seeing the different types of whiskey distinguish themselves.


Bourbon, by US law, has to be made in the United States with at least fifty-one percent corn mash, aged in new charred oak barrels. It also has to be at least eighty proof, but not more than 160 proof. To be considered straight bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years—other bourbons are aged for as little as three months. Straight bourbon also can’t contain any added colors, flavors, or other spirits. Blended bourbon, on the other hand, can contain all of that, as long as it’s at least fifty-one percent straight bourbon. Are you writing this down? You should probably be writing this down.

Bourbon was probably either named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, (where some say a Baptist preacher/American hero first made the stuff) or Bourbon Street in New Orleans: the whiskey shipped down the Mississippi boomed in NOLA as an alternative to French cognac.

The main flavor profile here includes sweetness and smoke. Sweet from corn (the most sugary whiskey ingredient), and smokiness from the charred oak barrels.

Tennessee whiskey

This is Jack Daniel’s, and, to be honest, it’s basically bourbon. That sentence alone could convince the South to rise again, but we’ll risk it because it’s true. Corn + oak + America = bourbon. Yes, there’s an extra step for Tennessee whiskey called the Lincoln County Process that filters everything through charcoal, and yes it’s great marketing but for the layman, this is gonna taste a lot like bourbon. Because, *ahem* once again, that’s what it is.

American rye whiskey

Rye is having a moment. Maybe it started with Don Draper’s heart-palpitating affinity for rye Old Fashioneds (recipe below). Maybe it’s because Jack Daniel’s recently started making a rye and wreathed it in a really sharp marketing campaign. Whatever the reason, drinkers are high on rye.

Before Prohibition, the US made millions of gallons of this stuff. George Washington even made his own brand at Mount Vernon. That said, it’s admittedly a harder sell than bourbon, because it replaces the sweetness of corn with the hot spice of rye. Similar rules to bourbon govern American rye: it has to be at least fifty-one percent rye, at least eighty proof but not more than 160 proof, and aged in new charred oak barrels. Straight rye has to be aged for at least two years.

Scotch whisky

We’re leaving America’s fair shores and in turn, also leaving the “e” in whiskey behind. Even more so than bourbon, it’s hard to talk about Scotch as a single entity. I mean, this stuff is old—the first written mention was recorded in 1495—and there are five distinct Scotch-producing regions in Scotland. By law, all true Scotch must be made in Scotland, with Scottish ingredients. It must be aged for at least three years, and the age must be printed on the bottle, with the number reflecting the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. In case you missed it until now, whisky aficionados dig the rules like a middle school hall monitor.

Scotch’s flavor is a bit more challenging than bourbon for the uninitiated, but if you stick with it there’s a ton of rewarding depth to explore. Overall, expect a lot of smokiness as well as something we’ll call “peatiness.” Peat is a plant that grows all over Scotland and is a big part of the distilling process—grains are dried over smoldering peat fires, so the smoke gets in the whisky and contributes a very earthy flavor.

Irish Whiskey

Even though Irish whiskey is made so close to Scotland, the rules governing production are entirely different. If it’s aged for three years in Ireland, it’s Irish whiskey. That’s it.

The story of Irish whiskey, like so many stories in Ireland, is one of endurance through strife. The drink enjoyed an extreme popularity in the United States, until American Prohibition effectively pooped the party and closed many Irish distilleries. The Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War didn’t help, either.

Fortunately, today Irish whiskey is one of the fastest growing spirits in the world, with a projected return to 12 million case production. And it’s no wonder—it’s delicious. There’s a lot of variance, obviously, given the lax production rules, but Irish is generally less sweet than bourbon, less spicy than rye, and smoother than Scotch.

If you didn’t know, now you know. And of course, you should take this newfound knowledge to a local distillery and strut your stuff. Black Button sells nine different types of whiskey, including some really inventive variations on old classics. Iron Smoke has two straight bourbons and a couple of sweeter, liqueur-esque offerings as well, and Finger Lakes Distilling carries four whiskeys made with local grain and an unaged, white whiskey that’s pretty much pure corn flavor. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg floating in our local whiskey waters. Now that you know what you’re drinking, pioneer the currents as you see fit. Esoteric spirit knowledge is a lot of fun but don’t forget to simply enjoy what’s in your glass. After all, that’s the point.  

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