Whiskey is made all over the world and goes by different names: bourbon, rye, scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whiskey. But the important thing to remember is these are all different types of whiskey. Whiskey is the genus and these sub-categories are the species.
For cocktails, the default whiskey style American whiskey, which predominantly means bourbon or rye. This is because cocktails were more or less invented in America, thus classics like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour were all created using America's whiskey. Bourbon is somewhat rounder and mellower, while rye is sharper and spicier. Both are excellent options, I often use rye in classics like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, but I generally leave it up to personal preference.
Below are individual sections focussing on each major whiskey category, including how they are made, their different flavor profiles, and some recommended brands. Go forth, and explore!
American Whiskey refers to all whiskey made in the United States, the most familiar types are bourbon - which is least 51% corn, and rye - which is at least 51% rye. Other types are Tennessee, corn, wheat and malt whiskey. Virtually all American whiskey is aged in new oak barrels, which impart forward flavors of vanilla, coconut, peach and toffee. Read more…
Scotch is Scotland's whiskey. The major grain used is malted barley. It has a distinctly smoky flavor. from burning peat moss to dry the barley. The two major styles are Single malt scotch made from 100% malted barely, which can be too intense (and expensive) for cocktails, and blended scotch, which is a mixture of single malt and a lighter grain whiskey. Blended scotch is much more applicable to mixing. Read more…
Made in Ireland (naturally) primarily with barley, but not always malted. Doesn’t have scotch’s smokiness because they don't use peat fires. Generally milder and easier to drink. Major Types: Blended - Mixed with grain whiskey, lighter and most common (Jameson) Pure pot-still - 100% barely, malted or unmalted. Richer in flavor (Red Breast 12). Read more…
Made in Canada from the same materials as American whiskey - corn, wheat and rye. Sometimes referred to as rye, which is misleading. It does generally have a higher rye content, but often only around 15%, far below the 51% minimum in U.S. rye. Best known for their blended whiskies, (Canadian Club, Crown Royal) which are lighter and less assertive in cocktails, when compared to American Whiskey. Read More…
Follows a model similar to scotch so smokiness is prominent. Their single malts (Yamazaki 12, 18) are among the best in the world and like single malt scotch, the flavors can be overbearing in cocktails. But if a cocktail calls for scotch, Japanese is an excellent option. Other international whiskies, include growing industries in India, Germany and Australia. Read more…
How Whiskey is Made,
In Broad Strokes
Each whiskey category is made in its own particular way, but they are all variations on a similar theme. This is the general sequence of events:
Base Ingredients - All whiskey is made from fermented grain, aka beer. Barley, corn, rye, and wheat are the most common grains used. Grains to be made into whiskey are (almost) always dried first.
Malting - Malting is what makes whiskey, and grain spirits in general, possible. It converts a grain's complex starches into simple, fermentable sugars. This is done by steeping the grain in water which causes it to start the germination process. This releases enzymes that break down the starches. More about this process and fermentation, in general, can be found on the fermentation page.
Milling - The grains milled, aka ground, into a consistency that ranges from coarse sand to powder. This increases their surface area for better sugar extraction. In the case of malted barely, milling also separates the husks from the inner grain, which maximizes the conversion of starches to sugar.
Mashing - The milled grains are then combined with hot water and mashed together to which extracts the sugars and create a sugary liquid called wort. This is done separately with each type of grain since ideal water temperature will differ. Depending on the style of whiskey, the grains are either filtered out of the wort (scotch, Irish whiskey) or not (American whiskey).
Fermentation - Yeast is added to the wort so stimulate fermentation. Up until now, this process virtually mirrors making beer. Once the desired level of alcohol is achieved, usually after a few days, it’s off to the still to make some whiskey.
Distillation - The fermented "wash" is run through the still according to that particular style's preconditions. Pot-stills, columns stills and hybrid stills are all used. More about distillation can be found on the Distillation page.
Barrel Maturation - Once distillation is completed the “white” whiskey is placed in oak barrels to mature. How long depends on many factors: climate, style, economics and other variables. More about this on the Barrel Maturation page.
Blending, Filtering, Coloring - After the whiskey is removed from the barrel it may be blended with another whiskey, filtered or chill-filtered, or colored. Or not.
Diluting & Bottling - The whiskey is diluted with water to be brought down to the desired proof, sometimes this is done gradually throughout the aging process as well. Finally, it is bottled and ready to hit the shelves.
The Importance of Malted Barley
While all grains can be malted, barely is by far the most common because it contains the highest levels of necessary enzymes. For this reason, just about all whiskey contains some malted barley. It is the primary grain in scotch and Irish whiskey, but even whiskeys made with corn, wheat or rye like bourbon, rye and Canadian whiskey will still almost always contain at least little malted barley stimulate the conversion of starches in the other non-malted grains. It essentially kickstarts fermentation.
Two-Row vs Six-Row Barely
There are two main types of barely. Scotch and other malt whiskeys predominately use two-row barley, which has a row of grains on either side of the stalk, because it has a higher sugar content and gets a better alcoholic yield. American whiskey and other grain whiskeys often use six-row barley, which has six rows arranged around the stalk like a hexagon. Six-row contains more of the enzymes that execute starch to sugar breakdown which is helpful in jumpstarting the conversion in the non-barely grains.
Dried, malted barley.
The Three Basic Types of Whiskey
When you remove the legal boundaries, whiskey falls broadly into three camps (with a few overlaps and exceptions here and there, of course). No category is better than the other. Each can be excellent or sub-par.
Malt Whiskey: Primarily Scotch, Irish whiskey, Japanese Whisky.
This is a whiskey made primarily or entirely from malted barely and (usually) distilled in pot stills. If it is 100% malted barley it is called a single malt, the most famous example being single malt scotch. A notable variation on this style is Irish whiskey's unique Pot Still style, which is made with both malted and unmalted barley. Outside of North American, Malt whiskey is the most common style of whiskey made in every whiskey-making region in the world.
Grain Whiskey: American Whiskey (bourbon, rye, etc.), Canadian Whisky, whiskey for blending
Grain whiskey refers to whiskey made with any grain other than barely. Corn, rye and wheat are the most common. These are typically distilled in column stills. These are the backbone of North American whiskey and are also made by malt whiskey producing countries for blended whiskey (see below). The latter are generally made from wheat and/or corn and distilled to higher proofs to be a bit more neutral. Whereas grain whiskey that is distilled to a lower proof and well aged can alone stand toe to toe with finest malt whiskies. In the United States, if they follow certain protocols on distillation, proof and aging, a grain whiskey can be called a bourbon, rye and a few other things. Canadian whisky makes some full flavored grain whisky too, though they often reserve it for blends.
Blended Whiskey: Made by all Categories.
This is a mixture of a fuller flavored whiskey, like a single malt or bourbon, with a lighter grain whiskey or neutral grain spirit to create a whiskey that's less intense, easier to drink and most importantly, more affordable. They're priced more economically because grain whiskey/ neutral spirit, which typically makes up 60-80% of the blend, is much cheaper to make thanks to the column still and more affordable grains. The vast majority of global whiskey sales are blended whiskey.
Blended whiskey is sometimes perceived as less than compared to it's fuller flavored counterparts. But that is a misconception. It is merely a different style. Many are excellent, like blended scotches and Irish whiskies. Though there are indeed some that are purely concerned with the bottom line, blended American whiskey and of the some lower end Canadian whiskies for example. Drink discerningly!
Spelling Whiskey vs Whisky: the Deal with the “E”
As you've probably noticed, sometimes whiskey is spelled with and “e” and sometimes without one: Irisish whiskey/Canadian whisky. Simply put, there isn't a much of a reason. Some categories basically just decided to spell it differently.
The best explantation I've heard is spellings in the English language used to be much less standardized than they are now. Whiskey would sometimes be spelled with or without an “e.” As coutries developed their whiskey, competitive natures crept in. The spelling then became a way to differentiate one country's whiskey over another. As in: “you make whiskey, but we make whisky.”
The best way to keep it straight where it's spelling with on "e" is if the country contains an "e", they spell whiskey with an "e" too. Ireland: Whiskey, Canada: Whisky. But of course it can't be that simple, there are a few exceptions. Maker’s Mark, for example, the American bourbon whiskey, doesn’t use and “e” on their label.
When I refer to whiskey as a catergory in general, I spell it with an "e," in lieu of writing whisk(e)y all the time. Chalk it up to me being American. Of course, if I'm directly addressing a style that spells it whisky, of course, I'll use their spelling.