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Brown Liquor 101

What's the difference between bourbon, scotch, and rye? We've got answers.


For many otherwise adventurous drinkers, whiskey is an unapproachable black box. Those who love it seem to have a Ph.D. in advanced liquor studies, and it can feel like you have to learn a whole new language just to drink it! But whether you like elaborate cocktails or simple sippers, there's a whiskey for you - no degree required. All you need is a little basic information to start drinking.
First things first: whiskey and whisky are the same thing! This umbrella term for an aged, malted grain spirit means the same whether it's got an extra E or not - that's purely a regional preference (the U.S. adds an E, Scotland omits it). Whiskey originated in Scotland and Ireland nearly 1,000 years ago, but today is made all over the world, from Tennessee to Taiwan.
There are three primary types of whiskey: bourbon, scotch, and rye. Other bottles that are just labeled as "whiskey" may be made in one of those three styles but in a nontraditional location, or may be a more creative concoction - read the label for clues about ingredients and aging to get a sense of its flavor profile.
Here are the Cliffs Notes on each of the three types to help you decide which whiskey may be right for you, plus a little vocabulary to help decipher those labels.
 
Bourbon
What it is: Made according to strict regulations set by the U.S. Congress, bourbon must be distilled from at least 51% corn and aged in new oak barrels that are charred on the inside to give the spirit its toasty color. While bourbon has a strong Southern heritage and much of it comes from Kentucky, there are great bourbons being made all across the country, from Upstate New York to Portland, Oregon.
What it tastes like: caramel, honey, vanilla
Use it in: Hot ToddyBasil Julep, my take on the Kentucky Derby classic
 
Scotch 
What it is: Scottish whiskey aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years, and often a lot longer! Its main ingredient is malted barley, which is sometimes dried over a peat fire to add an intense smoky flavor. While it's notorious for being an acquired taste, don't be scared of scotch. To get started, try one from the Speyside region (Glenlivet and Macallan are two famous Speysides), which is unpeated and sweet.
What it tastes like: Campfire smoke, tropical fruit
Use it in: The Penicillin, a modern classic cocktail made with honey, ginger, and lemon juice. It's so named because it's guaranteed to cure what ails you!
 
Rye
What it is: Just like rye bread, whiskey made primarily with rye grain is savory and complex. Extremely popular before Prohibition (George Washington made rye!), rye fell out of favor in the 20th century and has only recently been rediscovered by whiskey connoisseurs. "Canadian whiskey" is often rye by another name.
What it tastes like: Spice, black pepper, vanilla, cocoa
Use it in: Rye is the traditional spirit in Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds, where its savory character contrasts nicely with sweetness. Try it in my Spicy Chai Latte - it adds an amazing depth of flavor!
 
Whiskey Vocabulary
Single Malt: A malt whiskey that is made entirely at one distillery, not a blend of spirits from multiple locations (a common practice in Scotland). It's usually higher-priced, but don't be fooled! There are plenty of just-as-delicious "blended" whiskeys out there.
Single Barrel: A single-barrel spirit is a snapshot in time, bottled from - you guessed it! - one barrel, generally hand-numbered to indicate its rarity. Connoisseurs love to collect single-barrel bottles because they can compare how a distillery's product changes over time.
Small Batch: A unique spirit that's made in smaller quantities than usual, a small-batch run can be anything from 5 bottles to 5,000, depending on the size of the distillery. Generally, this term is used for a special concoction that takes more labor, time, or expensive ingredients than the brand's regular product.

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