Updated: Apr 5, 2019
Though the spelling may be different, (whiskey or whisky) depending on your part of the world, a Bourbon, a Tennessee Whiskey and a Rye are distilled from a grain, which makes them all Whiskey’s.
Other spirit categories are distilled from different things, like Tequila from the Blue Agave, Cognac from grapes or Rum from sugarcane. The main differing factors for which KIND of whiskey you’re talking about is location, aging, barrel type and the grain. Some jurisdictions, such as Canada, Scotland, Ireland and the U.S., regulate the production.
Let’s Start With Bourbon
According to Smithsonian Magazine, for a spirit to be considered a Bourbon,
it must adhere to 6 rules:
1. It must be made in the United States (though not a rule, most Bourbon is
made in Kentucky).
2. It must be made in new, charred, white oak barrels.
3. It must be at least 51% corn (other grains being a mash of rye, barley or wheat).
4. It must be distilled at less than 160 proof.
5. It has to enter the barrel at below 125 proof and bottled at no less that 80 proof.
6. Contain no artificial coloring or flavor.
Aging is also a factor, even within Bourbons. If aged 2 or more years in the barrel, then you can label it as ‘Straight Bourbon’. If aged more than 2 but less than 4 years, the actual age time has to be printed somewhere on the label.
All of this may seem superfluous to us, but this is what gives bourbons their
distinct, consistent taste. Not adhering to these rules put the liquor into a different category.
Some examples of Bourbon would be Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark and Blanton’s.
This takes us to Rye Whiskey.
What is Rye Whiskey?
Just as the name implies, 51% or more of Rye, is the primary grain used in the distilling process. Rye is in the wheat family and is similar to barley. Think rye bread.
Just like with bourbons, the regulations are similar. 160 proof, new, oak charred barrels and so on. The same 2 year + designation applies for straight rye as well.
So besides using more rye, what’s the difference?
Taste. Rye grain is known for its more spicy or fruity flavor once distilled, while a bourbon is more noticeably sweeter and full-bodied. Bourbons are used more for mixed drinks because of that. Rye’s also tend to be produced in more areas of the country.
Some of the more popular Rye Whiskey’s would be Rittenhouse, Old Overholt and Templeton.
So, What Gives With The So-Called Tennessee Whiskey?
By Tennessee law, any whiskey produced within the glorious state of Tennessee ( as opposed to Kentucky), and wishing to call itself Tennessee Whiskey, must adhere to, you guessed it, a set of regulations administered by the State.
The regulations begin with the usual bourbon suspects of barrels, grain mash, etc. even taking it one step further, that all of it will be ‘straight’ or aged 2 years or more.
In fact, federal export agreements identifies exported whiskey from Tennessee as “A straight bourbon whiskey authorized to only be produced in the State of Tennessee”.
So how does it differ?
Tennessee requires that the liquor be steeped or filtered through charcoal chips prior to going into the barrels for aging. Something they call The Lincoln Process.
This is suppose to strip much of the harshness, creating a smoother drinking liquor.
A distillery in Tennessee can still produce and sell a whiskey, but the accompanying label can’t say ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ but rather, a corn or rye whiskey. Whichever the majority grain.
While Jack Daniel’s is by far the most common brand, George Dickel and Chattanooga Whiskey Co. are some other brand choices.
There is an additional category of American whiskeys, which allows up to 2.5% of the final product to be flavorings. These additives are typically things like caramel coloring, spices, honey or other sweeteners.
To complicate things further, you can also have blended whiskeys, which would be a blend of various similar or maybe even dissimilar types. They can also blend them with non-whiskey spirits, as well.
There you have it, in a shot glass.
To make sure you’re not getting a bunch of mixes or additives in your hooch, just do what whiskey purists do and only go for those with ‘straight’ on the label.
Want to step it up to truly old school, look for a designation called Bottled-In-Bond, on the label.
That was the result of alcohol purity act legislation, enacted in 1897, which major distillers used to distinguish their quality-controlled product, from the swill that was being sold at the time.
It guaranteed that the drink was at least 100 proof, bottled in one distillation season and by a single, identified distiller. It had to be aged in a Government-bonded warehouse for at least 4 years and only produced in the United States.