We love whiskey: Know your rye from your bourbon

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From the March 15, 2012 edition

A number of liquors fall into the whiskey category, but the differences between a peaty Scotch and a toffee-rich bourbon are legion. Improve your whiskey literacy with our easy-to-follow guide to the different varieties of whiskey you’ll encounter at the liquor store and at the bar. All whiskey (whisky with no ‘e’ if you’re outside the U.S. and Ireland) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. From there, varieties diverge in terms of geography, the type of grain used and the aging process.

Tennessee whiskey

Where it’s made: Tennessee

What defines it: It closely parallels bourbon, but a final filter through sugar-maple charcoal is what some producers say differentiates Tennessee whiskey from its Kentucky cousin. The finish is said to be smoother and cleaner than bourbon.

Fun fact: The charcoal filtering process is called the Lincoln County Process, but the only distillery in Lincoln County, Tennessee, doesn’t employ the method.

Brands: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Collier and McKeel, Benjamin Prichard’s

Cocktails: Jack and Coke, Lynchburg Lemonade, Jack and Ginger

Bourbon

Where it’s made: Anywhere in the U.S., though bourbon identifies strongly with Kentucky

What defines it: Bourbon gets its sweetness from the minimum 51-percent corn mash used to make it. It’s aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels; used barrels are frequently sent to Scotland for aging Scotch. Bourbon can be spicy (less corn) and distinctly sweet (more corn); it typically has flavors of toffee, vanilla and oak.

Fun fact: No distilleries operate in the current boundaries of Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Brands: Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, Bulleit

Cocktails: Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Mint Julep

Scotch

Where it’s made: Scotland

What defines it: Scotch is a liquor made from water and malted barley (and sometimes other whole cereals). There are five categories of Scotch: single malt, single grain, blended, blended malt and blended grain. Scotch must age at least three years in oak casks, though most Scotch is aged for at least eight years.

Fun fact: People are Scottish or Scots. The drink is Scotch.

Brands: The Glenlivet, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, Lagavulin, Talisker

Cocktails: Rob Roy, Rusty Nail, Blood and Sand

Canadian whisky

Where it’s made: Canada

What defines it: Canadian whisky is made from a blend of corn or wheat, often with some rye, barley or barley malt added to the mash bill. Canadian whisky is aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels. It’s typically light in color and flavor. Canadian whisky got a big boost during Prohibition, when it flowed generously southward.

Fun fact: Don Draper loves Canadian Club.

Brands: Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Seagram’s V.O., Canadian Mist

Cocktails: Canadian whisky plays well with many mixers (cola and ginger ale are good choices). Or substitute for bourbon or rye in any whiskey cocktail.

Rye

Where it’s made: Rye was historically made in the Northeast, but today, it’s most frequently made by distilleries that also produce (and are usually better known for) bourbon.

What defines it: Rye whiskey is made from mash that is at least 51 percent rye. The grain gives rye whiskey its spicy, sometimes peppery, flavor. Rye was a big seller before Prohibition. After decades in obscurity, it’s fashionable again.

Fun fact: George Washington distilled rye whiskey at Mount Vernon.

Brands: Wild Turkey, Old Overholt, Bulleit, Jim Beam, (ri)1

Cocktails: Sazerac, Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, Old Fashioned

Sources: The Scotch Whisky Association, The Beverage Testing Institute, whisky.com