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Whisk[e]y Basics

The Local Palate Bourbon Picnic Photo by Jonathan Boncek
By South Carolina Whiskey Ambassador Joe Ziegler of Ben Arnold Beverage Company | Photos by Jonathan Boncek


“A distillate made from fermented cereal extracts and aged in oak”


The world of whiskey is a fascinating and dynamic one, and once entered can truly kickstart a lifelong search for more information, aromas, tasting notes, and great whiskeys. Sifting through terms such as straight, blended, single, and barrel-proof can be overwhelming—so lets get a little clarity.

The term “whiskey” encompasses an entire category. Scotch, American, Irish, and so forth are all whiskeys, and some regional styles are even protected by law; Scotch is only from Scotland, Irish from Ireland, bourbon from America.


Made from malted barley and matured in oak not less than three years, it’s made in Scotland and not bottled at less than 40 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). Malt whisky is produced in a copper pot still. The five regions of Scotland are Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Speyside (a whopping 90 percent of single malts come from the Speyside region). An age statement on the bottle will indicate the youngest barrels added to the bottling. (For example, the bottle might say 12 years, but there could include older—but not younger—barrels in the finished product.)

Blended scotch is produced by “blending” two or more single malt whiskies (some use forty or more different single malts from different distilleries) with a Scotch grain whiskey. This grain whiskey is produced in a continuous still, is generally made from corn, and adds depth and sweetness to the finished blend.

The Local Palate Bourbon Picnic Photo by Jonathan Boncek

Typically, Irish whiskey is made along the same guidelines as Scotch, but generally without the use of peat during malting, resulting in a lack of smoke. Irish whiskies are for the most part blends and are made up varying combinations of malt whiskey (made in a copper pot still), grain whiskey (made from corn in a continuous still), and pot still whiskey (a combination of malted and un-malted barley in the grain bill).

Lets talk about straight whiskey. Bourbon must be made in the United States and must be 51 percent corn—although most have a much higher percentage of corn in the grain bill. The rest of the grain bill must be made up of other cereal grains such as wheat, barley, or rye. It must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and anything less than four years requires an age statement be printed on label. The use of artificial coloring or flavoring is prohibited. These regulations also apply to straight rye and wheat whiskies. “Barrel proof” means the product was bottled at its proof in the casks when it finished aging, with no water added.

Canadian whiskey is generally produced in a continuous still for a lighter spirit from corn, rye, wheat, or barley and blended with neutral grain spirit. The use of new or used barrels is allowed and some common additives are sherry, molasses, and caramel. This style of whiskey became very popular during Prohibition.

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