As noted last week in our article, “A Spirit of Another Name“, Saveur has created a glossary of Whisk(e)ys. However, as we all know, a glossary does not a taxonomy make –it can, however, be a good starting point.

One of the problems, of course, is that national styles – and even spellings – are mutable.

In general, “whiskey” comes from Ireland and the United States, while “whisky” (no ‘e’) comes from Canada and Scotland.  However, well-known bourbon Maker’s Mark long ago decided to buck the semantic trend and drop the “e” despite being an all-American brand.

The Japanese usually use the Scottish version (being heavily influenced by Scotch). However, there are now whisk(e)ys being made in France, Wales, Germany, Australia, Finland, India, Sweden, Spain, and the Czech Republic, to name a few. Adoption of one or the other spelling variant is, well, varied.

Besides, once we accept that “whiskey” and “whisky” are synonyms, the spelling has little to do with the semantics.

It’s more important to understand the legal (and in some cases, traditional but perhaps not codified) production requirements that define the various styles; these are often (but not always) defined by name and region.

For example: Canadian whisky is, by law, allowed to have up to 9.09% “flavorings” – a category of adulterants with no definition (but which in practice include artificial colors, many different sweeteners, prune and other fruit juices, etc.). Scotch whisky can have caramel color added, but no flavorings. Bourbon, on the other hand, can be cut to proof with water, but must by law have no additives for either color or flavor. This gives Canadian whisky its characteristic sweet taste.

Straight Bourbon Whiskey is, in fact, the most strictly defined and regulated of the whiskeys – although, contrary to common beliefs, it need not be made in Kentucky. It must, however, be produced in the United States from spring water; the mash (mixture of grains) must comprise at least 51% corn (the rest being barley, wheat, and rye); it must be aged no less than 24 months in new charred American white oak barrels; and of course it must not contain any additives. (For the record, Rye is identical to Bourbon with the very important exception that it must contain no less than 51% rye.)

Other factors are also in play. For example, Irish whiskey is almost always triple-distilled, while Scotch is almost always double-distilled. Scotch is further delineated by region (Highland, Campbeltown, Islay, Highland Islands, Lowland; Speyside is a sub-region of Highland) and drying methods (whether peat, gas, or coal is used to dry the grain to stop the germination process) as well as the various permutations of blends, single malts, and vatted malts (by many names), not to mention other variants such as single-barrel, cask-strength, and various “finishes” in casks which formerly held other kinds of spirits.

Now that is a categorization problem.

In constructing a taxonomy of whisk(e)y, a faceted approach might be best. However, given the limited space here, let’s just take a quick crack.  (The Top Term is of course “Whiskey” UF=Whisky.)

Whiskey Blends
. . Blended Whiskey
. . Grain whiskey
. . . . Corn whiskey
. . Vatted Malts   [UF=Blended Malts   SN=Comprised of various single malts, no “grain”]
. . Single Malts
Whiskey Production
. . Peated Whiskey   [RT=Islay Whisky]
. . Pot still Whiskey
. . Single barrel Whiskey   [UF=Single-barrel Whiskey]
. . Small batch Whiskey
. . Whiskey Distillation
. . . . Double Distillation   [UF=Double-distilled]
. . . . Triple Distillation   [UF=Triple-distilled]
Whiskey Regions
. . American Whiskey
. . . . Bourbon Whiskey
. . . . California Whiskey
. . . . Oregon Whiskey
. . . . [add other states as necessary]
. . . . Rye Whiskey
. . . . Tennessee Whiskey
. . Australian Whiskey
. . Canadian Whisky
. . European Whiskeys
. . . . Czech Whisky
. . . . Finnish Whisky
. . . . French Whisky
. . . . German Whisky
. . . . Irish Whiskey
. . . . Scotch Whisky
. . . . . . Campbeltown Whisky
. . . . . . Highland Whisky
. . . . . . . . Speyside Whisky
. . . . . . . . Highland Island Whisky
. . . . . . Islay Whisky
. . . . . . Lowland Whisky
. . . . Welsh Whisky
. . . . Spanish Whisky
. . . . Swedish Whisky
. . . . [add others as needed]
. . Indian Whisky
. . Japanese Whiskey
Whiskey Strengths
. . Cask Strength
. . Overproof   [SN=95 proof or higher]
. . Standard proof   [SN=80 to 94 proof*]

*this is a little arbitrary but reflects industry norms

UF=Use For

SN=Scope Note

RT=Related term

Clearly I’m missing cask finishes (mostly in Scotch, but now reaching Bourbon territory) and a few other things. (Hey, it’s just a blog post.)  Ages, also, could quickly become a problem: no one wants a list of cardinal numbers in their thesaurus.

The various brands could, then, be narrower terms in the hierarchy I’ve sketched out above.

In order to avoid massive categorization issues and massive duplication (instead of going Netflix-style, as “Single malt overproof cask-finished Campbeltown Scotch whiskey” is a pretty unwieldy taxonomy term) you’d have to apply multiple labels to categorize each individual item. Imagining this would be most useful for e-commerce (as opposed to scholarly document categorization) helps: think about browseable tabs on a website; you’d want to find Laphroig under both “Peated Whiskeys” and “Islay Whiskys” to allow people to find what they were looking for using multiple approaches.

This is why I described it as a “faceted approach.” But let’s not get into that now. For the same reason, though, I’m going to stop while I’m ahead.

Bob Kasenchak, Project Coordinator
Access Innovations