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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!

Categories &

Recommended Brands

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:


  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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.  

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

Malted barely

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.

Blended Whiskey

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.  

Includes primarily Scotch, Irish whiskey, and Japanese Whisky. This type is made primarily or entirely from malted barley and is usually distilled in pot stills. When it is 100% malted barley, it is known as a single malt, with single malt scotch being the most famous example. A notable variation is Irish whiskey's unique Pot Still style, which includes both malted and unmalted barley. Outside of North America, malt whiskey is the most common style produced in every whiskey-making region worldwide.

Grain Whiskey: American Whiskey (bourbon, rye, etc.), Canadian Whisky, whiskey for blending 

Encompasses American Whiskey (bourbon, rye, etc.), Canadian Whisky, and whiskey for blending. Grain whiskey is made from grains other than barley, with corn, rye, and wheat being the most common. Typically distilled in column stills, these whiskeys form the backbone of North American whiskey production and are also used in blended whiskeys (see below). Grain whiskeys distilled to higher proofs tend to be more neutral, while those distilled to lower proofs and well-aged can rival the finest malt whiskeys. In the United States, following specific protocols regarding distillation, proof, and aging allows grain whiskey to be labeled as bourbon, rye, among others. Canadian whisky also produces some full-flavored grain whiskies, often reserved for blends.



Blended Whiskey: Made by all Categories. 

  • Made by combining all categories. This type mixes a fuller-flavored whiskey, like a single malt or bourbon, with a lighter grain whiskey or neutral grain spirit to create a less intense, easier-to-drink, and more affordable whiskey. They're priced more economically because grain whiskey/neutral spirit, which typically constitutes 60-80% of the blend, is cheaper to produce due to the column still and more affordable grains. Blended whiskey accounts for the vast majority of global whiskey sales.


Blended whiskey is sometimes perceived as inferior to its fuller-flavored counterparts, but this is a misconception. It is simply a different style. Many blended whiskeys, like blended scotches and Irish whiskies, are excellent. However, some are indeed focused primarily on profit, such as some lower-end blended American whiskeys and Canadian whiskies. 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.  

Spelling with an "e"
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