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A Brief Guide to the Six Types of American Whiskey
There are six major types of American whiskey, all of which are made from a different type of fermented cereal grain. The exact type of grain and its required percentage in the mash used to make the whiskey product are both governed by Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. In other words, every time you see a term like “malt whiskey” that appears on the label of a bottle, it is referring to a very specific type of American whiskey that meets very clear guidelines.
The six major types of American whiskey, all of them regulated by law, include the following:
For example, rye whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent rye, while rye malt whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent malted rye. Wheat whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent wheat, while bourbon whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51 percent corn. As you can see, the key metric here is what you might think of as the “51 percent rule” – this guarantees that a majority of the mash (51 percent) consists of a single grain.
Moreover, Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations consists of several other rules that all whiskies must conform to. To be labeled as one of the six major types of whiskey, they must be distilled to not more than 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof). Doing so ensures the proper flavor profile of the whiskey. In addition, it is not allowed for producers to add any colorings, caramel or flavor additives. Finally, all of these whiskeys (with the exception of corn whiskey) must be aged in charred new oak containers. American corn whiskey does not need to be aged at all.
For the other five types, the exact period of minimum aging is not specified, however, which creates opportunities for distilleries to differentiate their product based on the aging process. A straight whiskey, for example, is a whiskey that is not more than 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) that has been aged for at least two years and that has not been blended with any other spirits, colorings or additives. If a whiskey meets these guidelines, it can be referred to as a “straight” whiskey. Thus, a rye whiskey that has been aged for two years would be referred to as a “straight rye whiskey.”
There are several other types of American whiskey, all of which do not specify a dominant grain:
For example, what if a whiskey has been distilled at greater than 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof)? In that case, it would be referred to as a “light whiskey.” Or what if a neutral spirit has been mixed with at least 5 percent of a particular type of whiskey? In that case, it would be referred to as a “spirit whiskey.”
Also, it should be noted that one type of whiskey – “Tennessee whiskey” – refers to a specific geographic region, and not to the distilling or aging process. According to law, a Tennessee whiskey must be a straight bourbon whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee. In other words, a straight whiskey made from at least 51 percent corn maize that is made in a neighboring state cannot call itself a Tennessee whiskey.
Of course, one final point to keep in mind is that U.S. whiskey made for domestic consumption and U.S. whiskey made for export may differ slightly, depending on the rules of the importing nation or region. Moreover, some nations recognize certain types of whiskey – such as Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey – as products of the United States that must be produced within the U.S. (but not necessarily bottled there).