What Is Whisk(e)y?

Whisk(e)y Law, Part Three: Grains


Two weeks ago we learned why it’s beneficial to learn about whiskey laws. Last week we got an overview of whiskey aging laws. This week we’re going to learn key points about grains and the laws that dictate whiskey labeling. Grains make up the most complex part of whiskey laws. There’s more to learn about grain regulations than we can reasonably talk about in one article. So for today, we’ll cover the most important bits. Ready? Here we go!

Malt means barley. This is the one universal standard. No matter where a whiskey is from, if the label says “malt” then the grain they’re talking about is barley. Malt is not a grain but rather a process and a product of grain. The process of malting grain is a cornerstone of making whiskey. Most grains can be malted. So why is the word malt synonymous with barley? Because barley is king. More whiskey is made from barley than any other grain. Barley is also the easiest grain to malt.

In Scotland and Ireland if it’s not malt then it's grain. The Scots and Irish are heavily biased toward malt. So much so that if it’s not malt, then everything else gets lumped into the generic category of grain. So what does “grain” mean? If you see “grain” on the label of Scotch or Irish whiskey, most of the time it means corn, wheat, rye, or a mixture of those three.

Canadian whisky is a grain free for all. Canada’s whisky laws regarding grain are pretty loose. For a whiskey to be called “Canadian Whisky,” “Canadian Rye Whisky,” or “Rye Whisky from Canada,” it has to be made from cereal grains. That's it. What’s that mean? It means barley, corn, wheat, rye, or any other grain can be used to make Canadian whisky. Oddly enough, Canadian rye whisky doesn’t actually have to have any rye in it.

The United States has the most unique grain categories. American life revolves around the idea that the majority rules. You can see this in government, business, and entertainment. You can also see it in the way the whiskey laws are set up. Most American whiskeys are labeled after the majority grain used to make that whiskey. What’s that mean? It means a wheat whiskey is made from at least fifty-one percent wheat. A rye whiskey is made from at least fifty-one percent rye, and so on. When it comes to using corn, though, it gets tricky. The U.S. is the only country to have two legal classifications of whiskey made from corn. The first is Bourbon, which is at least fifty-one percent corn in the mash bill. The second is corn whiskey, which is at least an eighty percent corn mash bill.

How does knowing all this help you understand your whiskey?

Grains contribute a lot to how your whiskey tastes. In addition, they also affect the texture, or mouthfeel, of your whiskey. So understanding labeling laws will help you know why the whiskey you’re drinking tastes the way it does.

That’s it for this series on whiskey laws. I know this topic can be dry, but it’s worth investigating. The more you pay attention to how your whiskey is made, the grain it’s made from and how it’s aged, the more you’ll put together patterns in your mind about what you like and why. In the end, you’ll be an educated consumer with a trained palate.

You’ll taste with confidence.

You’ll have more fun.

You’ll enjoy your whiskey more.

— Zac Smith