From Scotland to the States: A Guide to American Whiskey

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone

From Scotland to the States

While this blog focuses on Scotch whisky, as does Whisky 1901, the popularity and interest in whisky across the globe is gaining huge traction. As well as being one of the biggest importers of Scotch whisky by value, the US is also one of the world’s largest producers of whiskey.

However, American whiskey is often misunderstood and thought of as a poor relation to Scotch. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is just different. This was brought sharply into focus for me on a recent trip to America and my first ever visit to the famous whiskey producing state of Kentucky.

As we approach Independence Day on July 4th, I will be taking a deep dive into American whiskey and what makes it unique and different from Scotch. We will begin with this basic guide.

Whiskey credentials

America is one of the world’s largest producers of whiskey. It is one of the Big Five sitting alongside Canada, Ireland, Japan and Scotland. There are numerous styles with different recipes, ingredients and production methods. Bourbon is the most well-known and most consumed of these. Several other categories exist including Tennessee whiskey, rye, corn, blends and single malt.

In the beginning

Whiskey was introduced to America by immigrants and pioneers that colonised the continent from Scotland, Ireland and Europe in the 1700s. These settlers made whiskey as they had back home, but very quickly encountered problems. Barley struggled to grow in the challenging climates of the American Midwest, eastern and southern states.

This forced them to use alternative raw materials to produce whiskey, due to different climate and soil conditions. This included maize, which is indigenous to parts of the United States and Mexico. They learned to mix different grains together depending on what was available.

Over time these different recipes and combinations of grains have evolved. The result is that now American whiskey bears very little similarity to its Scottish or Irish counterparts. Some even challenge if they are whiskey at all. However, the definition of what makes something a whisky is simple – it must me made from cereal, distilled and then aged in wood. And American whiskeys follow this method.

Whisky or whiskey?

You may be wondering why there are two spellings of whisk(e)y. Americans and Irish tend to use whiskey with an ‘e’ compared to the Scots version without it. Whether it is one or the other has caused many arguments through history.

This difference comes from the Anglicised translations for ‘whisky’, or uisge beatha, from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic languages. Because the early American whiskey industry was heavily influenced by Irish immigrants, their version has stuck. Similarly, Japanese whisky does not use the ‘e’ as early pioneers were influenced by Scotch.

Production evolution

Early American whiskeys were produced using Alembic stills – these have a distinctive copper pot shape and originated in the Arab world, where they were predominantly used to produce medicinal alcohol and essences. This was the type of still used by the early European immigrants and settlers. They are small, easily transportable and quick to move if discovered by the authorities.

This changed in the 1830s with the development of the column still. An Irishman named Aeneus Coffey patented a design that allowed continuous production and therefore much greater volume. He had evolved designs of fractional distillation stills from the early 1800s. This type of still is how many of the large brands produce their whiskey today and is also known as a Coffey Still.

Copper pot stills, as used to make Scotch single malt, are also used but are not as commonly seen with the bigger brands. These stills are more often used in the expansive craft and artisan American whiskey distilling scene. This phenomenon has swept around the globe but started in the USA. This has also given birth to experimentation and innovation outside of the traditional laws and rules.



Back in the day, bourbon could only be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Later this expanded to the entirety of Kentucky and much more recently to anywhere in the United States. Ironically, there is now just one distillery operating in Bourbon County – Hartfield & Co. – with most of the big names operating in the northern and eastern parts of Kentucky. Now, the term ‘bourbon’ refers to the recipe and other rules rather than location.

There are several strict laws by which bourbon producers MUST abide. Fail on one or more and you cannot call your whiskey a bourbon. The main ones are:

  • The mash bill (the name given to the mix of different cereals) must contain at least 51% maize. The remainder can be made up of rye, wheat and/or malted barley. There can be a higher percentage of corn but NEVER less than 51%.
  • The new make spirit must be distilled below 80% ABV.
  • The spirit must then be matured in new American white oak barrels for a minimum period of two years.
  • Therefore, no secondary casks are allowed – e.g.: ex-sherry, ex-wine etc.
  • The whiskey cannot be altered in any way, other than diluting with water for bottling. No colouring, flavourings or additives can be used.


Rye whiskeys are having a renaissance and there are more on the market now than there has been for over 100 years. The heyday of rye whiskey was in the pre-Prohibition period of the early 20th century, but it fell from popularity and never recovered. Until now. Prohibition was a period in American history where the Government of the day were influenced by the temperance movement and banned the production, consumption and sale of alcohol. Prohibition lasted for thirteen and a half years between 1920 and 1933.

Rye whiskeys follow similar rules to bourbon, but with one crucial difference – to be named as a rye whiskey the mash bill MUST contain at least 51% rye. This can be up to 100% rye, but never less than 51%, with the remainder often made up of malted barley or wheat.


The state of Tennessee is Kentucky’s southern neighbour, and its whiskeys follow many of the same rules as bourbon. However, there are two key differences – to be labelled a Tennessee whiskey it must have been distilled in Tennessee, rather than anywhere in the US, and the whiskey must have undergone the Lincoln County Process. This sees the new make spirit dripped slowly through charcoal made from sugar maple over several days, prior to maturation. This is not allowed for bourbon as it is considered an ‘alteration’.

Other whiskeys

Corn whiskey is arguably the most authentic of American styles as it uses maize, which is indigenous to parts of the country. This does not follow the same rules as other categories and does not need to be aged. However, the mash bill must be at least 80% maize to carry the label of corn whiskey.

Wheat whiskey is rarely released as most is used in blending. There must be at least 51% wheat in the mash bill. These spirits are not to be confused with wheated bourbons – these must contain at least 51% maize as per bourbon law but have a significant percentage of wheat as the secondary grain. There are also many blended whiskey brands – these are not like blended Scotch but consist of bourbon, rye and unaged whiskeys married together. They are often cheaper than straight bourbon or ryes.

American single malt is an ever-expanding category. A decade ago, very few existed on the market, but it has been championed by the craft and artisan distilling movement. Now the landscape is very different with most large brands also having a single malt within their core range. However, the category does not have the strict rules and laws that bourbon follows. Several of the craft producers are currently lobbying the US Government to draw up such laws to increase quality and consistency.

With the popularity of whisky continuing to grow across the globe, get in touch with the experts at Whisky 1901 to find out more about investing in your own cask of Scotch whisky.


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