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Modern life can feel like a daily exercise in confusion: What’s that mystery charge on my phone bill? What does that text from my ex actually mean? What’s the difference between “scotch” and “whiskey?”

While nobody can interpret your ex’s motives, be assured that when it comes to drinking, common misconceptions are easily resolved. For starters: there isn’t a difference between Scotch and whiskey. All Scotch is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Scotch.

Whiskey, by definition, is anything produced from a fermented mash of grain. Bourbon, made only in the United States with at least 51 percent corn, is a whiskey. Single malt and blended Scotches, made only in Scotland with malted barley, are whiskeys. There are Japanese, Irish, and Canadian varieties, too.

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“The whiskey category is so broad — there are bourbons with crème brulee flavors and drier ryes — and there are so many preferences when it comes to how to drink it, that it’s easy to see why there are a lot of misconceptions out there,” says Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, which carries over 500 whiskies from around the world.

To help you with your holiday gift buying, we debunk a few myths for you. Cheers.

OLDER IS BETTER

This might hold true for cheddar, a grand cru Bordeaux, or James Bond movies, but not so for Scotch, bourbon, or the rest. All whiskies are clear when they come off the still, then they’re aged in oak barrels that impart all of the color and a great deal of flavor to the liquid. Over the years, those wood notes, which range from vanilla to spicy to fruity, depending on the kind of barrel, can start to obscure the grain flavors. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. A bottle of 25-year-old Scotch easily fetches a triple-digit price, but essentially what you’re paying for is the rent on the spirit’s extended stay in the warehouse. That said, aging has a mellowing effect on a spirit, so a younger whiskey tends to offer more brightness and vitality than a full-bodied, oaky older one. Ultimately, of course, it boils down to personal preference.

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DON’T ADD WATER

Contrary to popular belief, adding water to a whiskey does not emasculate it. “Adding water has nothing to do with how tough you are,” “It’s about getting the most flavor and aroma out of the spirit,” explains Joy Richard, beverage director at Citizen Public House. “Adding water pulls out the subtleties.” Indeed, there’s a textbook-worthy explanation about how a whiskey’s flavor and aroma are released with a few drops of water. In Scotland, they call it “releasing the serpent.” But if you’re not poetically inclined, think of adding water like warming up before a workout: It stretches everything out so you can enjoy maximum performance.

ALL SCOTCH IS SMOKY

Is every Shakespeare play a tragedy? Does every Matthew McConaughey movie feature the actor shirtless? Likewise, only some Scotches are smoky, particularly the ones made on Islay (pronounced EYE-la), a wind-swept island southwest of the mainland. To produce a single malt, barley must be soaked and dried in order to germinate, a necessary step before distillation. On Islay, distillers traditionally use barley that’s been dried over a peat fire, a process that imbues the grain with a thick, mossy smokiness. If a distillery doesn’t use peated malts, the booze won’t have that campfire quality.

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ALL BOURBON IS MADE IN KENTUCKY

According to federal law, for a spirit to be called bourbon, it has to be made with at least 51 percent corn, aged in brand new charred American oak casks, and satisfy a few stipulations regarding barreling and bottling proof. And it must be made in the USA. Of course, many say the best bourbons come from Kentucky because the water there is filtered through a limestone shelf in the earth. It doesn’t hurt that iconic distilleries in the Bluegrass State have been turning out bourbon for generations. They’ve got the hang of it better than the many of the newer craft distilleries around the country.


Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @livingtheproof.