Types of Whiskey: A Breakdown of Flavors in the World of Whiskey
There are many types of whiskey around the world. Scotland is the biggest whisky producer, with about 97 distilleries in several different regions producing 700 million liters of whiskey per year. But whiskey is made in over 25 countries worldwide, each with its own production methods, traditions, ingredients, and flavor characteristics. Let’s look at some of the more well-known types of whiskey, as well as some unique types you might find during your whiskey journey.
What is Whiskey?
Simply put, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain mash, like barley, corn, rye, wheat, or a combination of these. Whiskey is typically aged in charred white oak or old sherry casks. There are specific restrictions that each whiskey must adhere to in order to qualify as a whiskey or one of its specific types. But while there may be a lot of regulations on this famous spirit, there is plenty of room for ingenuity, creativity, and endless flavor possibilities.
Types of Whiskey
There are several types within the very broad whiskey category, depending on where the spirit is distilled and how. And within those types are sub-types, each with different processes and ingredients. But this is the fun part, so let’s look at the different types of whiskey and what you might expect in a bottle.
Types of American Whiskey
American whiskey is any whiskey distilled in the United States of America. Some of these, such as Rye, Wheat, and Corn whiskeys made with at least 51% of said grain. And two are unique only to the US- bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.
- Bourbon – Bourbon is usually made in Kentucky, but technically, it can be distilled anywhere in the US. As you might guess, there are many types of bourbon with their specific characteristics. There are a few restrictions a spirit must adhere to in order to be labeled a bourbon, and we go over those in detail in our guide to bourbon. Bourbon tends to have a sweeter flavor than other styles of whiskey, with notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel. Some have intense flavors of baking spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, while others may taste more grainy. Of course, there’s a wide variety of flavors between bourbon brands, and we can even recommend a few.
- Tennessee whiskey is considered a sub-type of bourbon, lawfully produced in Tennessee. Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before it is aged in a method called the Lincoln County Process. This mellows out some of the harshness and gives it its unique flavor. You’ll taste some of the same toasted oak, caramel, and vanilla notes found in other whiskeys with a hint of charcoal or burnt wood.
- Rye whiskey contains at least 51% rye in its mash bill. Like bourbon, rye must be aged in newly charred oak barrels if it’s produced in the US. As a result, rye is lighter-bodied than many other whiskeys, often characterized by its tingly spiciness. Bitter and peppery like rye bread, rye whiskey packs a flavorful punch and used to be the American whiskey.
- Wheat whiskey is primarily made of wheat grains. Filled with honey, vanilla, dried berries, spice, and toffee flavors, wheat whiskeys are some of the more smooth whiskeys. Wheat whiskeys are also known for their subtle sweetness, which helps them go down soft and easy.
- White or Corn (Moonshine) – Corn whiskey and white whiskey are essentially the same things. They are raw, unaged whiskeys made primarily from corn mash and distilled to a maximum of 160 proof. White whiskey is also classified as moonshine because it is un-aged, clear, and very strong. If you can get past the alcohol strength, you might detect floral and sweet notes of the fermented corn.
To qualify as Irish whiskey, a spirit must be produced from malt, cereal grain, and barley and distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland. It must then be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years. Irish whiskey’s more subtle malt character is heightened most when the spirit is aged in less conventional barrels like sherry casks or rum casks.
Scotch must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland and be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Scotch typically comes from five specific regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Speyside. Scotch receives its smoky character from peat- a dense moss lit on fire to dry the malted barley. As a result, the Scotch flavor profile is more complex than other whiskeys, especially when you start cataloging differences between single and blended malts.
This type of whiskey must be produced and aged in Canada, be aged in wooden barrels for at least three years, and be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. Canadian whiskey can also contain caramel and other flavorings, offering diverse flavor profiles.
Japanese whisky is bottled in Japan, but it isn’t necessarily distilled or aged there. It’s modeled after the Scotch tradition of double distilling malted and/or peated barley before aging it in wood barrels often made of indigenous Japanese oak. They tend to be drier, smokier, and peatier than other whiskeys and come as single malts or blends.
Other Types of Whiskey: Single Malt
A single-malt whiskey comes from a single distillery and only contains one type of malted grain. A single-malt whiskey bottle may include whiskey from several different casks unless it’s a single cask whiskey. The goal with a single malt is to achieve distinctive flavors that exemplify a single distillery’s style, but the flavor profiles range significantly across various regions.
Other Types of Whiskey: Blended
Blended whiskey is a mixture of one or more higher-quality straight or single malt whiskey with other spirits and possibly other ingredients. Blended whiskies can also be made from single malts from more than one distillery.
Which type should you try first?
The fun part of drinking whiskey is discovering what types and flavors you like. We recommend starting with something a little smoother and easier to drink, like a bourbon or a wheated whiskey. If the whiskey you choose is still a bit too strong, you can soften it with a small splash of water or an ice rock. Be sure not to use too much water, though, because it can dilute the flavors too much. Not sure exactly how to drink it? We’ve covered some of the basics in our post How to Drink Whiskey. Cheers!