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Buying Guide for Whiskey

Irish whiskey bottle label

Whiskey is a spirit that is distilled from fermented grain mash, just as brandy is distilled from fermented fruit mash or fruit juice, and tequila from fermented agave juice. Although grain distillation dates back millennia, whiskey production rose to prominence in Renaissance Europe, especially the British Isles, where grains and beer were more accessible than grapes and wine, and then to colonial America. Accordingly, Ireland and Scotland—as well as Canada, Kentucky and Tennessee—are known for distinctive varieties of whiskey. Premium, aged whiskies are often consumed neat, over ice if desired.

Know the Label

These terms commonly appear on whiskey labels. For more information, please ask that staff at your Virginia ABC store.

 
Aged
 
Most whiskies must be aged or stored for some length of time. Aging mellows the taste of the spirit and imparts desirable flavor characteristics as the distillate interacts with the wood of the barrels.
 
 
Barrel
Cask
 
Barrels are a crucial aspect of creating most whiskey, since they have a great influence on taste. Also see "oak" and "finish."
 
 
Blended
 
Blended whiskies combine whiskies of different grains, qualities and ages in order to achieve desirable taste and/or affordability. Canadian whisky is most often blended.
 
 
Bottled-in-bond
 
Bottled-in-bond is not a separate type of whiskey, but rather a straight whiskey that has been produced and bottled in accordance with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 (see 27 CFR 5). Among other requirements, these whiskies must be at least four years old; bottled at 100 proof; produced in a single distillery, by the same distiller; be the product of a single season and year; and stored and aged in a bonded warehouse.
 
 
Bourbon whiskey
 
"Bourbon" whiskey must meet specific legal requirements (see 27 CFR 5.22). For more information, see the buying guide for bourbon.
 
 
Canadian whisky
 
Canadian whisky is a geographically protected spirit, made in Canada in accordance with legal standards (B.02.020[3]). This includes aging in wooden barrels for at least three years. Canadian whisky is generally blended, with corn and rye being the predominant grains. Canadian whiskies tend to be smooth and light.
 
 
Corn whiskey
 
Corn whiskey must include at least 80 percent corn in its mash and need not be aged. If aged, it is for a relatively brief period, and storage does not need not be in wooden barrels; in fact, to fully differentiate corn whiskey from bourbon, aging cannot include any manner of "treatment with charred wood" (27 CFR 5.22). Because of this, corn whiskey is typically clear or "white" and has a raw taste and aroma, redolent of corn. Also see "moonshine."
 
 
Moonshine
 
"Moonshine" is not a legally defined term and represents a variety of unaged, distilled spirits—from grain neutral spirits similar to vodka to corn whiskies. (The precise type of spirit must be identified on moonshine labels.) Corn is often used in the mash. Like vodka, moonshines are often flavored, making them adaptable to cocktails.
 
 
Finish
 
Beyond initial barreling and aging, some premium whiskies are "finished," or undergo additional aging, in secondary oak containers, such as port wine barrels or sherry casks, imparting flavor complexity. The term "finish" is also used to describe how a bourbon's taste lingers in the mouth, its aftertaste.
 
 
Handcrafted
Hand-selected
 
There is no legal definition for these terms, but they may be used to indicate higher quality products. Whiskies can be crafted or selected by hand in a number of ways, whether in identifying barrels for additional aging or in the blending and bottling process.
 
 
Irish whiskey
 
Irish whiskey is a geographically protected spirit and must be made in the Republic of Ireland in accordance with legal standards (1980: 33), including aging for at least three years in wooden casks. Typically, Irish whiskies are pot stilled and triple distilled. Unless specifically termed "peated," Irish whiskies do not use peat in the malt-drying process, and consequently have a less smoky taste than scotch.
 
 
Oak
 
Most whiskies must be aged in wooden containers; generally, oak is the wood of choice. Scotch and bourbon, in fact, are required to be aged in oak, which contains flavoring compounds, especially when charred, that interact with the spirit to enhance body, aroma and taste.
 
 
Rye whiskey
 
In the United States, rye whiskey must meet specific legal requirements (27 CFR 5.22). These include at least 51 percent rye in its mash, be distilled not exceeding 160 degrees proof and be stored in charred new oak containers. Although similar to bourbon in many respects, rye is spicier and drier, while bourbon is sweeter, due to the differences in grain. In cocktails, rye and bourbon are interchangeable, depending on your taste.
 
 
Scotch whisky
 
Scotch is a distinctive, geographically protected distilled spirit, produced in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom (see 2009: 2890). For more information, see the buying guide for scotch.
 
 
Sour mash
 
"Sour mash" does not mean that the taste of the whiskey is sour, but rather refers to taking a portion of the spent mash from one batch and using it to jump-start fermentation in the next batch. This assures consistency of flavor between batches and, more importantly, increases the acidity of the new mash to create perfect conditions for yeast fermentation and to limit the growth of undesirable bacteria.
 
 
Straight
 
In addition to meeting other legal requirements, "straight" whiskies are aged at least two years. "Straight whisky” includes blends of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same state (27 CFR 5.22).
 
 
Tennessee whiskey
 
Tennessee whiskey is not legally defined as such in U.S. law, although it is governed by regulations issued by the state of Tennessee (57-2-106). Its production is almost identical to bourbon, except for being made in Tennessee and the additional step of filtering it through maple charcoal prior to aging.
 
 
Whiskey
whisky
 
Different types of whiskey are associated with a different spelling of the term: Scotch and Canadian whiskies use the "whisky" spelling. Other types, including Irish and American whiskies, use the "whiskey" spelling.
 
Product list rankings on this page are based on 2016 Virginia ABC sales.

Cocktail Conversation

The term "whiskey" is derived in English from the Gaelic or Scottish term "uisge beatha," which means water of life.

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