The history of classifying whisky in America is long and difficult. From those that used to make all sorts of additions to the product, to a government that was interested in its tax revenue, to middlemen and distillers fighting for control of the market, to rebellions and funding of wars- the many and varied interests took years to sort out. Central to this was giving the consumer the confidence in what they were buying. The present day system owes much to President William Taft, he listened to various participants over many months, and settled on a system that is broadly still in use today. There have been additions along the way but the cornerstones of this work remains.
Whiskey- distilled from a selection of cereal grains using the creation of a cereal mash.
Bourbon- reserved name for product made in the USA , 51% corn, if less than 4 yrs old must have an age statement, aged in new charred oak barrels, no more than 160 proof off the still, no more than 125 proof for maturing, bottled at 80 proof minimum. Straight bourbons are not coloured or flavoured.
Rye- 51% Rye, no more than 160 proof off the still, no more than 125 proof for maturing, aged in new charred oak barrels, if aged more than 2 yrs can be called straight Rye.
Malt Whiskey-51% malted barley, no more than 160 proof off the still, no more than 125 proof for maturing, aged in new charred oak barrels, if aged more than 2 yrs with no additions can be called straight Malt whiskey.
Corn Whiskey- made up from at least 80% corn. Can be sold unaged but if going into barrel this must be uncharred or a used barrel- otherwise it would be considered bourbon.
Moonshine- clear unaged whiskey is probably the best attempt at a definition and usually made from corn, can be made from a variety of sources and not currently part of the federal definitions.
Proof- similar to alcohol by volume- 80 proof equates to 40% abv
Bottled in Bond- 4 yrs old minimum, be the product of one distiller, with grain from one distilling season, bottled at 100 proof and aged under US government supervision. Applies to a handful of bourbons but can apply to any spirit- tends to be higher end product.
Single barrel- product from an exceptional single cask or selection of casks, typically filled one at a time so slight variation possible.
Mash bill- the different types of grain that go into making a product. e.g. bourbon must be 51% corn.
Sour mash- the re-use of already fermented mash back in to the new mash. Helps to control acidity levels and bacteria.
Sweet mash- no re use of distilled mash and so the mash is set using grains, water and yeast that is new every time.
Barrel proof- the actual proof or abv of the product in the barrel. This product isn’t cut down with water.