7 Burning Questions About Whiskey, Answered

iStock
iStock

Fire water, water of life, juice—whatever you call it, whiskey (also spelled “whisky”) is having a moment. But with so many different whiskeys available, learning the particulars of even one type can be challenging. To help out, we’ve put together a list of answers to your most frequently asked questions about the brown spirit. Consider this your Whiskey 101 cheat sheet.

1. WHAT IS WHISKEY?

The answer is trickier than you might expect: What can be labeled "whiskey" varies from country to country. Many of the moonshines and white whiskeys available in the U.S. can’t legally be labeled as whiskey elsewhere, for example, because they haven't been aged. Exactly how long the spirit must age to be called whiskey varies by country, but all whiskeys do have one thing in common: They're made from grain.

2. WHY IS WHISKEY SOMETIMES SPELLED WITHOUT AN E?

You’ve probably noticed that some whiskey labels read “whiskey” while others are spelled “whisky.” The current convention is that Irish and American whiskeys are spelled with the e, and that Scottish, Canadian, and Japanese whiskys are spelled without. But some bourbons and Tennessee whiskies—including Maker’s Mark and George Dickel—are spelled without the e. Go figure.

3. WHAT IS BOURBON?

To be considered whiskey in the U.S., the spirit must be distilled from grain and be between 40 and 95 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) [PDF]. Usually it is distilled twice. Unlike other countries, there is no minimum aging requirement for most types of American whiskeys.

In the States, bourbon is king. To be called bourbon, the product must not only meet the baseline definition of whiskey, but must also be distilled from at least 51 percent corn. It must be under 62.5 percent ABV once it goes into a barrel, and it must be aged in charred new oak containers. To be called “straight bourbon" (or "straight" whiskey of any kind), it has to aged for at least two years. As far as taste goes, bourbon is typically thought to be sweeter than other whiskeys (such as rye or Scotch), and has a slight smoky flavor.

And last but not least, bourbon has to be made in the United States. It is so ingrained (no pun intended) in our culture, even NAFTA restricts the word "bourbon" to whiskey made in the States.

4. IS BOURBON THE SAME AS TENNESSEE WHISKEY?

Tennessee whiskey is not to be confused with bourbon, although legally, there are only a couple variances between the two. In addition to meeting all the federal requirements for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey must also be produced within the state’s limits. Since 2013, it has been required that all Tennessee whiskey is “filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging,” which is known as the Lincoln County Process [PDF] (although one distiller received an exemption from the law).

Aside from these two huge categories, the U.S. also produces rye whiskey (which must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye), wheat whiskey (which must be distilled from 51 percent wheat), unaged white whiskeys, and grain whiskeys made from everything ranging from corn to quinoa, which isn't a grain at all.

5. SO, WHAT IS SCOTCH?

Like American whiskey, Scotch varies greatly in terms of its taste—although it's generally thought to be smokier and peatier than its cousins. By law, it must be made in Scotland and aged for no fewer than three years in oak containers.  Perhaps surprisingly, many of these containers are former bourbon barrels. As American law requires bourbon to be aged in “new oak,” used bourbon barrels are frequently shipped to Scotland for use in making Scotch. Traditionally, all Scotch whisky was made using malted barley.

6. WHAT IS MALT WHISKY?

Malt whisky must be made from a mash of malted grain (usually barley), which means the grain has been soaked, allowed to start sprouting, and then roasted to halt the process. The whisky's level of smoky, savory peat flavor comes from how long the barley is dried over a peat-fueled fire: The longer it's over the fire, the smokier the whisky is.

A single malt means the whisky was made at only one distillery. So, a single malt Scotch is whisky made in Scotland using malted barley in a single distillery.

7. WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES PRODUCE WHISKEY—AND WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT THEIR PRODUCTS?

The other biggies in terms of whisk(e)y production are Canada, Ireland, and Japan. Here are the basics:

Canada: Of all the whiskey-producing countries in the world, Canada (arguably) is the most misunderstood, and it’s not hard to see how it got a bad rap: 75 percent of all Canadian whisky that’s produced is shipped to the U.S., but only about 10 percent of the premium products leave Canada (which means Americans are usually tasting the less-than-stellar stuff). One of the most common misconceptions about Canadian whisky is that it was popularized within the U.S. during Prohibition. Not so, says Canadian whisky historian Davin de Kergommeaux in Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. According to his research, whisky's generally anesthetic properties made it useful during the Civil War, and since many American distilleries were burned down during the fighting, we needed to turn to our neighbors to the north for our supply.

Legally, the regulations surrounding Canadian whisky provide distillers and blenders a lot of leeway in creating new products. Here, whisky must be distilled from grain to no less than 40 percent ABV, and be aged in wood for at least three years. Canada was the first country in the world to require a minimum age for whisky, which it did in 1887; Britain would follow suit about 25 years later.

Ireland: Ten years ago, there were only three whiskey-producing distilleries in all of Ireland. Thanks to the craft spirits movement, 13 others have opened up since 2006. Irish whiskey must be aged for three years, most is distilled three times, and it must be distilled to at least 40 percent ABV (as in the U.S.).

Japan: Although it’s been produced since the early 1920s, Japanese whisky has only recently become available in the U.S. And as it’s become more available, its celebrity has also grown: The 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible (Murray has ranked the world's best whiskeys since 2003) named a whisky from Yamazaki Distillery as the best in the world.

All images courtesy of iStock.

10 Must-Have Trivia Games for Any Interest

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’re a TV lover, serial killer aficionado, or a history buff, there’s a trivia game out there to suit your interests (even if those interests are as niche as wild turkey hunting). Check out these 10 trivia games you can enjoy with your friends and family, no matter how specific your tastes may be.

1. Inspirational Women Trivia Game; $10

Inspirational women trivia card game
Uncommon Goods

Accomplished women have often gone overlooked in history books. This game brings attention to the women you may not have known, spotlighting inspirational figures like Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mount Everest; Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the British suffrage movement; and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of one of the first-ever private schools for African-American girls. With three levels of difficulty, you can either play with a younger audience eager to learn or test the knowledge of some of your history buff friends.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

2. Friends Trivia; $33

Friends trivia.
Lacesi/Amazon

Friends is one of the most quotable series from the '90s, but if you think your knowledge of the classic sitcom is on another level, it's time to put it to the test. In The One With All the Questions, Friends fans will have 342 questions to prove who the real Geller expert is. This one should fill the Central Perk-shaped hole in your heart while you wait for the show to return to streaming on HBO Max later this year.

Buy it: Amazon

3. The Logo Game; $45

Logo Game on Amazon.
Spin Master Games/Amazon

With more than 1200 questions about brand logos, slogans, and television commercials, this game is for anyone who knows their Taco Bells from their Del Tacos. Race around the board to beat up to five other players in a challenge to see who knows the most about modern brands.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Cinephile; $20

Illustrated Cinephile game cards
Cory Everett and Steve Isaacs/Amazon

Movie lovers, look out for Cinephile, a card game that challenges players with five different gameplay options. In the easiest version of the game, called Filmography, you simply have to name more of an actor’s past movie roles than your opponent. But take the chance to brush up on your film trivia before you tackle the hardest method of gameplay—Six Degrees. In this mode, you’ll play a version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in order to connect any two random actors from different eras.

Buy it: Amazon

5. ... I Should Have Known That! Trivia Game; $16

I Should Have Known That! trivia game
Hygge Games/Amazon

How do you say Japan in Japanese? What does GPS stand for? What side of the boat is starboard? This game quizzes you on things you feel like you should know—but often don’t. Challenge your friends with 400 questions about everything from Facebook to fairy tales. Want an extra edge when you go to play the game? Prepare yourself by reading these amazing facts that we think everyone should know.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Wine IQ; $19

Wine IQ trivia game
Helvetiq/Amazon

To most of us, a $15 bottle of wine tastes exactly the same as a $100 bottle. But if you’re one of those few people who can actually tell the difference, this might be your game. With tricky multiple-choice questions like “What is a raisined grape?” and “What should be avoided while tasting wine?” (answer: wearing perfume), this trivia game will challenge even the most avid vino buffs. Wine not your thing? Don’t worry—Amazon also sells a trivia game for beer lovers.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Trekking the National Parks: The Family Trivia Game; $30

Trekking the National Parks trivia game
Underdog Games/Amazon

Even if you know absolutely nothing about national parks, you can still enjoy this trivia game that’s kind of like The Price Is Right meets Jeopardy! meets a Patagonia store. All the answers are numerical, so even if you don’t know the exact year that Yellowstone was established as a national park (1872) or the elevation of the tallest mountain in the United States (20,308 feet), you still have a shot at winning if your guess comes closest to the actual answer.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Sussed Lifeology; $13

SUSSED Lifeologies self-exploration trivia game
SUSSED/Amazon

To win this game, you’ll have to prove you know the most about your fellow players. Does Uncle Frank prefer poetry, biographies, or fiction? Would your friend Abby rather be a Formula One racer, a top-seeded tennis player, or a chess grandmaster? Mix things up with the All Sorts and Wonderlands expansion packs, which offer 1000 additional questions suitable for both adults and young children.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Hella '90s; $15

'90s trivia game on Amazon.
Buffalo Games/Amazon

Finally, an excuse to proudly flaunt your knowledge of Nintendo 64 controllers, Bill Clinton’s cat, and Tamagotchis. With 400 questions on the cringey fashion, music, and social trends of the time, this game isn’t for novices—you’ve got to be fully immersed in all things ‘90s to stand a chance. And if you want to set the right mood, you can scan a code on the box to listen to the game’s decade-appropriate soundtrack on Spotify.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Death By Trivia; $24

Death by Trivia game on Amazon.
Headburst/Amazon

What was the American folklore-inspired name for the operation conducted in response to the ax murder of two U.S. soldiers by North Korea in 1976? If you answered Paul Bunyan, you're correct! You're also probably full of more macabre knowledge perfect for Death by Trivia, a game that actually rewards you for knowing all about ax-murderers, mad scientists, serial killers, and other grisly bits of history. So grab a couple like-minded friends and see who comes out on top in this twisted test of trivia.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Trick Your Friends Into Thinking You’re a Sommelier With This Wine Pairing Towel Set

Wine pairing towels on sale at UncommonGoods.
Wine pairing towels on sale at UncommonGoods.
UncommonGoods

One of the most stressful parts of cooking a delicious dinner is figuring out what kind of wine would be the perfect complement to your meal. What goes with steak? Salmon? Pizza? Opinions and palates will always differ.

But don’t throw in the towel just yet. Behold this lifesaving wine pairing towel set, which is available on UncommonGoods for $28. These nifty towels show you which wines—both white and red—go best with certain foods. And they don’t skimp on the options, either. They feature 68 common wines and 56 different foods (that’s 3808 possible combinations).

Each bottle is ranked against each food, and the pairing quality is listed as either excellent, good, or avoid. And as a bonus, they also feature notes about each wine’s acidity, tannins, body, and sweetness. So if you don’t want to ask Alexa about the wine you’re drinking, you can just sneak a peek at these towels while everyone else is praising you for your amazing pairing skills.

Great for wine novices, wine snobs, and everyone in between, these towels are the perfect resource for anyone who needs a little extra help when it comes to choosing the right bottle for dinner. Learn some more fun facts about wine here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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