The question I am probably asked more than any other is, "what's the difference between scotch and bourbon?"
Sometimes I start by explaining the difference between blended and single-malt scotch and then draw a parallel to American whiskey. Scotland has blended whiskey and so does the United States. Scottish blends are like American blends and single malt scotch is like bourbon, right?
You might think everybody at least knows what whiskey is, but there are points of contention there too. Europeans declare that grain spirit aged for less than three years is not whiskey. Indians declare that any spirit that resembles whiskey in appearance and taste is whiskey, even if it’s not made from grain.
What is the real difference between scotch and bourbon? They taste nothing alike, that’s the real difference. Why do they taste nothing alike? The legal regimes under which they operate have a little bit to do with it. But the traditions and aspirations of producers, and the preferences of consumers, are most of it.
Take the difference between Scottish and American blends, for example.
Everybody knows what vodka is and nobody considers it whiskey, even though most vodka is made from grain. It isn’t whiskey because it is distilled to neutrality (generally considered to be 95% alcohol) and not aged.
But, in effect, the United States says vodka is whiskey if you replace at least 1/5 of it with straight whiskey. Then it is blended whiskey (20% straight whiskey, 80% vodka).
Canadians and Europeans get to just about the same place by a different and slightly less magical route. Instead of 95% alcohol they distill their beer to 94.5% alcohol and put it in wood for three years. They call that whiskey and it is found in virtually all of their blends.
So on paper, at least, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, and American blends are almost the same, yet anyone who has tasted both would vehemently disagree. The difference isn’t the 1/2 of 1% neutrality difference, or even those precious three years in wood. It’s that the Scots (and the Irish and Canadians) produce cheap blends but also very fine and expensive blends, and everything in between, while the U.S. produces cheap blends only.
That has nothing to do with rules and regs.