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What’s the difference between whiskey, whisky and bourbon? And what about Australia?

From the bonnie glens of Scotland to Australia’s distant shores, the world of whisky is both united and divided. After all, the processes and ingredients are all quite similar. But most definitely not the same.

The devil here is most definitely in the detail.

What grain is used, the number of times it’s distilled, how it’s spelt, where the whisky (or whiskey!) is bottled, and of course its flavour, all set the drams apart.

In Australia, we’re as bound by laws and regulations as other whisky cultures are. According to the 1906 Spirits Act, our dark spirits - including whisky - must be aged in wood for a minimum of two years. Our malt whisky also must be made from 100% malted barley.

This is similar to the rules surrounding scotch, which is why most Australian whisky is made in the scotch style.

However, Australian distillers can choose the style of whisky they make.

There are distilleries here that make theirs in the Irish and American whiskey styles. But what’s the difference between these styles and how does it affect the flavour?

Irish, American and Scotch whisky styles in Australia

Scotch style: double distilled (though again there are exceptions) using 100% barley. To be called scotch, it must be made and bottled in Scotland.

This is the style that’s most popular in Australia, though most distilleries don’t use peat to dry their grain, which means you don’t get the intense smoky flavour people often associate with scotch. Having said that, the majority of scotch is not peated either.

One of our favourites - Timboon Railway Shed Distillery - uses the scotch style process to make their whisky. They have peated and unpeated whiskies, all of which are superb.

Irish whiskey style: triple distilled using barley. Irish whiskey doesn’t legally have to be triple distilled, but it’s a more traditional and is what tends to differentiate the style in Australia.

Triple distilling gives a smoother, cleaner result as it removes more impurities and refines the spirit more. It can also remove some of the grain flavour as well making this a lighter whiskey style.

Shene Estate and Tara Distillery have adopted the Irish Whiskey style.

American whiskey style: this essentially means ‘bourbon style’ made from corn or maize, but you can only call it bourbon if it’s distilled and aged in the USA from at least 51% corn.

On top of that, straight Kentucky bourbon has all of that as well as only coming from Kentucky. Similarly, to be a Tennessee whiskey (think Jack Daniels), it must be made in that state. There are other American whiskeys that use other grains, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Because it’s made with corn, American style whiskey is often sweeter than barley-based ones.

Whipper Snapper Distillery makes an American style whiskey using maize.

Which whisky style is best?

This is a question for the ages. The ‘best’ whisky - or whiskey - style is such a subjective issue.

The good news is the only way to find out your favourite is to try more whisky. And thankfully more and more Australian craft distilleries are making whisky in these different styles all the time.

It’s no exaggeration to say there’s never been a better time to be a whisky fan in Australia. So whether your favourite dram is in the Irish, scotch or American style, raise a glass to Australian whisky.

So sláinte, slange var, cheers and up ya bum!


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