Many would argue that there is no alcoholic beverage in the world that is as universally loved and invested in by drinkers as whiskey. Whiskey is easily one of the most popular and iconic alcoholic drinks in the world, yet many still confuse its definition.
The widespread confusion over its definition stems from the many different types of whiskey available today. These can include types of whiskey like Tennessee whiskey, Irish whiskey, bourbon, and the ever-popular in movies and television, Scotch, to name a few.
This definitive guide aims to end all confusion surrounding the various types of whiskey. It will also cover all the basics about whiskey, from its rich history to how it is made.
What is whiskey?
Whisky, which is usually spelled as “whiskey,” refers to an alcoholic beverage that is distilled and made from fermented grain mash. The word “whiskey” originates from the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha, which loosely translates to “water of life.”
Whiskey is typically aged in wooden casks and requires distillation to at least 40% alcohol by volume, or ABV. As mentioned, whiskey is an incredibly broad term and can mean a variety of things to many different people.
Almost every country worldwide has its own variation or version of whiskey, which has even resulted in violent uprisings in the past. Alcohol was used as a viable currency during the American Revolution. Alcohol was so valuable at the time that even the founding father, George Washington, had a distillery of significant size at his home.
What is in it?
Whiskey can be produced from various grains, including rye, barley, wheat, corn, and sorghum. These grains go through a heating process with water and are then fermented, producing what whiskey producers call “mash.”
The process enables the starches within the grain to be broken down into sugars, creating a dark liquid called “wort.”
What defines the flavor of whiskey?
As mentioned, whiskey comes in many different types, and those types have variations in characteristics and tastes. Differentiation of one whiskey type from another ultimately breaks down to specific variables that include:
- The amounts and types of grains utilized
- The distillation process
- The duration of aging
- The kind of barrel utilized
These various aspects of producing whiskey offer infinite possibilities for creating many different whiskey types. That is how liquor stores today can stock many different whiskey types from different corners of the world on their shelves.
What makes whiskey taste different?
Whiskey comes in many varying flavors that differ wildly between types. For example, bourbon has a distinct taste completely different from Canadian whiskey. What makes malted alcohol so popular and interesting is that no two types of whiskey taste the same.
As mentioned, the differences in taste are largely due to the significant variations in whiskey production processes. Here are some of the aspects that influence the taste of whiskey.
- The length of maturity in the cask
- If the whiskey is a blend or comes from a single cask or pot
- The type of cask utilized
- The grain type used for the production process
The Production Process of Whiskey
To understand how the whiskey production process works, remember how humans figured out distillation. Around 2,000 BC, the Babylonians had a demand for better perfumes, and to produce them, they came up with a rudimentary process people know today as distillation.
Distillation refers to heating liquid until it evaporates and collecting the cooled and condensed liquid byproduct that remains. After the Babylonians figured out the distillation process, it eventually reached Asia and Europe. By the 13th century, the Italians had discovered how to use the method of wine distillation.
It was not until the 15th century in Ireland and Scotland that people started to get more creative with distilling alcohol for medicinal applications. However, this distilled alcohol was still far from what people today call modern whiskey. That is because the distilled alcohol was too potent to be ingested.
Today, whiskey producers have distilleries that use modern equipment to standardize the distilling process and remove bacteria. These stills are typically made of copper since copper has properties that eliminate sulfur from alcohol, which removes any unwanted taste.
When distilling American grain whiskeys such as bourbon, the most commonly utilized type of still is a column still. The first column enables the steam and washes to descend, while the second column transports alcohol from the wash.
Types of Whiskey
Now that you understand the basics of whiskey, it is time to delve into the different whiskey types. As mentioned, there are many different types of whiskey, each with its own taste, production methods, and characteristics.
Whether you are a connoisseur or are new to exploring the drink, it is crucial to know every variation to enjoy it. It is also particularly critical to understand all the different types if you plan to invest in whiskey.
Single-malt whiskey describes the type of whiskey produced from one distillery that utilizes only a single type of grain. Single-malt whiskey is often associated with single-malt Scotch despite being made in various other countries.
Blended-malt whiskey describes a mixture or combination of single-malt whiskeys produced from separate distilleries. Blended-malt whiskeys have a different taste since they are not as uniform and rigid as single-malt whiskeys from a single origin.
Commonly known as barrel proof, this type of whiskey goes through the bottling process straight from the cask with little or no dilution. Since the flavors are concentrated, the drinker can adjust the ABV to their preference by diluting it with water.
Some whiskey connoisseurs prefer cask strength because they believe it provides a better bargain.
Also known as a single barrel, a single cask refers to the type of whiskey that goes through bottling from a single cask. The bottles for single casks will typically have a label that indicates their specific barrel of origin.
Different Whiskey Types Based on Country
Due to the massive popularity of whiskey, many countries have their own types, blends, and distillations. Here is a list of the leading countries that produce whiskey today.
Scotch whiskeys have an earthy and smoky flavor with a unique quality from the peat included in the malting process. Scotch whiskey has more strict requirements compared to other whiskey types.
For a whiskey to fall under the Scotch whiskey category, it must follow the 2009 Scotch Whiskey Regulations. Production must come entirely from a single distillery based in Scotland.
The minimum ABV must be 40% or 80 proof, but it must never exceed 94.8% ABV or 190 proof. The grain used to produce it must come from malted barley and have no additional substances other than water and caramel coloring.
The aging duration must be at least three years in a Scotland-based warehouse and stored in an oak cask no larger than 185 gallons or 700 liters. The most notable Scotch whiskey brands include Johnnie Walker, Balvenie, Dewars, Macallan, and Laphroaig.
Similar to the Scottish, the Irish are well-known for their whiskeys. Ireland is one of Europe’s pioneers in distilled drinks and has distilled beverages since the 12th century.
What separates Irish whiskey from that of Scotland is its triple distillation process. Scotch whiskey, on the other hand, is often only distilled twice. The triple distillation process is said to make the whiskey significantly smoother.
Like Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey has its own requirements and standards for its production process. The distillation and aging processes must be done in Ireland. The ABV must not exceed 94.8% ABV.
It must be produced using yeast-fermented cereal grains, and the aging duration must be at least three years. It must be stored in wooden casks not larger than 185 gallons or 700 liters.
The most notable Irish whiskey brands include Bushmills and Jameson.
Americans take whiskey to a whole new level with many different grain variations. Americans take whiskey production so seriously that they have a few federally recognized types, collectively known as the United States federal whiskey categories.
The U.S. federal whiskey categories are a collection of generic categories for whiskey in the country that is recognized by the U.S. federal regulations. These categories include:
- Blended whiskey – Blended whiskeys are natural grain spirits or NGS and straight whiskeys that include colorings or flavorings. The natural grain spirits must be included on the label and must not exceed 80 proofs.
- Light whiskey – Light whiskeys are stored in used oak containers with more than 80% ABV.
- Spirit whiskey – These whiskeys combine at least 5% of one of the stricter whiskey categories with neutral spirits.
In addition to the U.S. federal whiskey categories, you can find different styles of whiskey in the States. These include bourbon, corn whiskey, malt whiskey, rye whiskey, and wheat whiskey.
- Bourbon – Bourbon is produced from a mash that has been aged in new charred oak containers and consists of at least 51% corn. Unlike Scotch and Irish whiskeys, bourbon does not have strict aging duration requirements.
The only exception to this rule is straight bourbon, which requires a minimum aging duration of at least two years. Additionally, if the bourbon has been aged for less than four years, it is a requirement to indicate that on the label.
The most notable bourbon brands include Evan Williams, Makers Mark, Bulleit, Pappy Van Winkle, Four Roses, and Jim Beam.
- Corn whiskey – Also called moonshine or white lightning, corn whiskey is produced from 80% corn at a minimum. The maximum distillation is 80% ABV, or 160 proof, barreled at less than 62.5% ABV, or 125 proof.
Unlike bourbon, corn whiskey does not require wood aging. However, it requires an uncharred oak barrel for aging.
- Malt whiskey – This type is produced from at least 51% malted barley and must never exceed an ABV of 80% or 160 proof. It must also be aged in new charred oak barrels at less than 62.5% ABV, or 125 proof.
- Rye whiskey – American rye whiskey is almost identical to malt whiskey, except it is produced using 51% rye instead of malted barley. The most notable rye whiskey brands include Knob Creek Rye, Sazerac, Old Overholt, Wild Turkey Rye, and George Washington’s Rye Whiskey.
- Wheat whiskey – Wheat whiskey adheres to the same U.S. regulations as malt and rye whiskeys, except it is produced from 51% wheat instead of rye or malted barley.
Wheat whiskey is not particularly common, but most bourbon is wheated, which refers to swapping the more common rye for wheat in the mash.
- Tennessee whiskey – the U.S. government does not technically recognize Tennessee whiskey as an official category. However, Tennessee whiskeys are some of the top-selling American whiskeys worldwide. The most notable Tennessee whiskey brands are Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Heaven’s Door, and Collier and McKeel.
The Parliament of Canada defines Canadian whiskey under certain regulations or requirements. The whiskey must be produced entirely in Canada, which includes the mashing, distilling, and aging processes. The minimum aging duration must also be three years in wood barrels no larger than 700 liters with a 40% ABV.
The most famous Canadian whiskeys are typically smoother and lighter than other whiskeys like Scotch and are blended with a high ratio of corn. Canadian whiskeys also feature rye within the mash, so people often interchange rye whiskey with Canadian whiskey. Most Canadian blends consist of low-proof rye and high-proof grain whiskeys, and the most popular brands are Seagrams, Canadian Club, Rich & Rare, and Crown Royal.
The Correct Way To Drink Whiskey
If you are interested in getting into whiskey for the first time, you probably wonder if there is a correct way to drink it. It is understandable, especially if you consider that wine drinking has its own rules and etiquette.
There is no official way to drink whiskey “the right way.” Whether you want it on the rocks, mixed, or neat, it ultimately boils down to your preference.
However, for people new to whiskey, starting with a proof of 80 or lower is always a good idea. These drinks are typically under blended whiskeys, allowing your palate to develop a taste for it more gently.