Whiskey 101

All bourbon and Scotch is whiskey. But not all whiskey is a bourbon or Scotch.

Wait, what?! We never really cared to look up the actual definitions of bourbon, Scotch, whiskey or rye. And do we even care that whiskey is sometimes spelled “whisky”? (Did you even catch the difference?) We just want to drink some deliciousness! But now that we have this site, we’d like to at least sound fancy when our friends are around. OverRye.com breaks it all down for you right here.

  • What is the difference between bourbon, Scotch and rye?
  • Which are sweet, smoky or spicy?
  • Should I order mine neat or on the rocks?

Whiskey comes in many forms. But let’s start with the basics: bourbon, Scotch and rye.

What it’s called depends more on where it came from than what’s in it.  

Whiskey (the overall category) is a distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash. This could be barley, corn, rye and/or wheat. It is typically aged in new or used wooden casks, which, over time, turns the clear new-make spirit brown.

Bourbon is most likely named for Kentucky’s Bourbon County, an area known to have been a producer of this style of whiskey. To be considered bourbon, the whiskey’s grain mash must contain 51 percent or more of corn. This gives it a sweetness. By law, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak containers and it cannot contain any additives; “straight” bourbon will have been aged two years or more.

Scotch whisky (spelled without the “e”) must be produced in Scotland. Scotch whiskies will be made mostly from malted barley, aged in oak barrels for three years or more. The signature taste for some Scotches is a smokiness, and that is why some people (such as Jarrad) avoid it.

Rye is distilled from at least 51 percent rye and aged in oak; a “straight” rye will have been aged 2 years or more in charred new oak. It could also be Canadian whisky (again, note the spelling). Rye is spicy and full-bodied.

“Neat or on the rocks?” This is usually the follow-up question from the bartender right after you order. There is no “right” way; it is purely preference. Neat is without ice. If you order whiskey neat, you may want to add a drop or two of water. That’s why we typically just order ours on the rocks, with ice. All the better if the bar has ice spheres, large cubes, or big chunks of ice.