It can be a bit intimidating to order a whiskey in a bar, club, or restaurant. Without understanding the different types of whiskey, you might end up with an expensive drink you don’t like.
A little knowledge can help you always find the proper whiskey, even if there are hundreds of bottles behind the bar.
The choice is always yours, so keep reading to understand the different types of whiskey, their taste, when it’s best, what makes it unique, and more.
You’re sure to understand the subtle differences between types of whiskey by the end.
All whiskeys aren’t equal. Some are best on their own, while others are ideal for mixed drinks. Whist whiskeys are unique from their background to their flavors, strengths, and famous makers.
Scotch whisky must be distilled, aged in oak casks for at least three years, and bottled in Scotland. It usually comes from one of five distinct regions of the country, including the Lowlands, Highlands, Islay, Speyside, and Campbeltown.
Each region has its calling cards, but Scotch is known for its smokey flavor. The intense aroma comes from the peat burned to dry malted barley.
Each region uses a slightly different process, and there are variances between single, double, and blended malts. Enthusiasts enjoy cataloging differences like oenophiles enjoy the subtle differences in varieties of wines.
Scotch is ideal for a sipping drink, neat, and perhaps with a cigar. Some of the most notable manufacturers are Lagavulin, Glenmorangie, and Laphroaig.
Irish Whiskey was originally the work of Irish monks, who were among the first to distill alcohol from grain. However, their first productions were likely sourced from grapes.
The distilling process usually involves three separate runs, making for an exceptionally silky final product that ages for at least three years in a wooden cask.
Typically, Irish Whiskey is a sipping drink, sometimes neat and sometimes on the rocks. Its smoothness lends itself to drinking on its own, without other flavors on the palette.
The top varieties are best for special occasions, but the most prominent names are Bushmills and Jameson.
Bourbon whiskey requires that its mash has at least 51% corn. Then, to qualify as a bourbon, the liquor must age in brand-new oak containers with charring on the inside. When they’re bottled, bourbon whiskeys must be at least 80 proof.
In addition, the run of liquor can never exceed 160 proof (or 80 ABV), and it can’t exceed 125 proof when it first enters the charred aging barrels.
Straight bourbons must age for at least two years, and those that age less than four years must carry a label stating so. However, there is no absolute requirement for minimum aging.
Much of the world’s bourbon supply comes from the state of Kentucky. But if it has more than 51% corn mash, it’s bourbon. Pappy Van Winkle is one of the world’s most sought-after and expensive liquors.
Other popular bourbon names include Bulleit, Jim Beam, Four Roses, and Makers Mark. Bourbon pairings include cigars and steaks. Some say the sweet flavors from the charred aging go well with good smoke and fiery meat.
If it’s not made in the ‘Volunteer State,’ it’s not Tennessee whiskey. That’s because this particular style of bourbon can only come from Tennessee. While the blend of the mash isn’t subject to any special requirements, this variety of whiskey must undergo charcoal filtering before bottling.
The resulting bourbon is very sugary, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and an oaken flavor. While it’s very smooth compared to other bourbons, it is also much sweeter.
This results in Tennessee whiskey having a very distinct flavor and mouth feel that is easy to discern from other varieties. Popular brands include George Dickel, Jack Daniel’s, and others.
The sweet flavor and syrupy smoothness are ideal for sipping drinks, especially for drinkers who don’t like the more forward notes of Scotches and other more aggressive whiskeys.
Tennessee whiskeys are also ideal for mixing in relatively sweet drinks, like the world-famous, ‘Jack and Coke.’
Everything about Canadian Whisky is Canadian. The entire mashing, distilling, and aging process take place in Canada. Like some other whiskeys, it ages in wooden barrels for three years, but the barrels can only be a maximum of 700 liters, no larger. The resulting whiskey must also be at least 40% ABV.
Most Canadian Whisky variations are blends, with a relatively high amount of corn, some rye in the mash, and a mixture of high-proof grains and lower-proof-rye whiskeys.
The most famous names include Crown Royal, Canadian Club, and Seagrams. Since Canadian whiskeys tend to be quite light and smooth and don’t usually have a distinctive individual flavor, they are ideal for mixed drinks.
Single Malt Whisky
Single malt whiskey is always 100% malted barley, typically made in small pot stills, especially in Scotland. Two distillation runs are the minimum in Scotland.
In Irish whiskeys, three runs are minimum, and some other whiskeys may undergo even more distillation to create a smoother product.
Single malt whiskey is always the product of a single distillery. Scotland’s small pot stills create a traditional flavor known for its complexity and richness.
Since it remains unblended, the whiskey’s region of origin remains very distinct. For example, a single malt from the lowlands tends to be more floral than the brinier varieties made on the coast.
Whether Irish, Scotch, or another variety, single malt whiskeys are the most exclusive. These whiskeys are the sort that stands on their own without mixers or pairings.
They have strong individual characteristics and are often in serious whiskey drinkers’ glasses.
Rye whiskey contains at least 51% rye grain. Some varieties have the minimum rye content, while others have more or even 100%.
Each distillery has a unique percentage. There are no additives to the liquor, only water. The aging process lasts at least two years and takes place in brand-new oak barrels that have charring.
As a result of their unique distilling, ingredients, and aging process, rye whiskeys are among the sharpest. Your palette will still taste a bit of sugary oak, but it is spicier, crisper, and perhaps more defined than that of bourbon.
Rye whiskeys are common in the areas where rye grows, mostly coming from the North American continent. Rye was once among the most popular cocktail whiskeys because of its unique sharpness and predictable flavor.
This made it an excellent pairing for traditional drinks like old-fashioneds and rye and sodas. It is still a reliable option, but bourbons are now probably the more popular choice.
Indian whiskey dates to the time of the British colonial empire and has a nearly 200-year history. Despite its massive popularity in India and the huge quantities made there, the vast majority of Indian whisky never reaches other countries.
However, visitors to India often rave about its unique flavor. That’s likely due to the fact that much of this spirit is distilled from molasses, giving it a very sweet flavor that is easier on the palette than many other whiskeys.
The cost of importing grain materials and other whiskeys to India is prohibitive due to import tariffs. However, some distillers import quantities of malt or another whiskey to create a custom product unique from their competition.
Since India has a hot climate, barrel aging is usually relatively short in duration as the whiskey matures quickly. There are also some unique Indian ways of drinking whiskey.
While most Indian whiskey products are not on the international market, you may see the brand Amrut available at your local store.
Japanese whisky has a global market, like some of the bigger, traditional, American, and European varieties. The makers of Japanese whiskey didn’t reinvent the wheel.
Rather, they import many of their ingredients from Scotland, and their manufacturing process usually looks pretty similar to that of Scotch.
Most Japanese whiskey distilleries make exclusively single malt varieties, usually with a more subtle peat flavor than that of the Scottish makers.
In recent years, as demand for the product surged, some distilleries added other whiskeys to their distilling process, creating blends that met the demand.
But, the subtle smoothness that is the Japanese hallmark wasn’t as reliable. Now, Japanese makers have decided that by 2024 all Japanese whisky must meet specific requirements, including
- Aged, fermented, distilled, and bottled in Japan
- Made with Japanese water
- Aged at least three years
- Contain malted grain
Since it’s a bit less smoky, and the peat flavor is more understated, this variety of whiskey is softer on the palette than its cousin, Scotch.
Accordingly, it’s a favorite for those who prefer a more mellow flavor profile. It’s still an excellent pairing with a cigar, and it’s usually enjoyed neat.
Mexican whiskey is one of the newest on the market. Due to a strong corn industry that makes production easy and an uptick in interest, Mexican distillers have responded with fledgling whiskeys.
The distilling process typically uses native corn species, and much of the corn flavor remains in the finished product. With a vastly different flavor profile than that of other whiskeys, some consider Mexican whiskey an acquired taste.
There may be some unexpected notes of paperiness, but that comes along with a toffee or butterscotch aftertaste.
This is a sipping whiskey that is also a bit lighter in color than most. It also finds its way into cocktails like mint juleps and old-fashioned. Popular brands include Abasolo, Sierra Norte, and Pierde Almas.
Welsh whiskey comes from Wales, where it has a long and tumultuous history. Evidence of Welsh whiskey dates many hundreds of years, but the industry largely went away in the late 1800s as the temperance movement grew in fervor.
Eventually, all of the old-time Welsh whiskey distilleries shut down. Now, there is a revitalized Welsh whiskey industry specializing in locally distilled single-malt whisky.
With small batches, unique flavors, and a reliance on organic grains, Welsh whisky is once again thriving. These single malts are ideal for sipping, so look for top brands like Penderyn, Da Mhile, and Anglesey Mon.
Blended Malt Whiskey
Blended malt whiskey is more diverse than a single malt product. Instead of a single malt, perhaps from a single distillery, it comes from a mix. The resulting whiskey usually has a portion of 100% malted barley whiskey from two or more distilleries.
The result is a whiskey that is less distinct in its flavor profile. Some might call the mouth feel smoother because the blend removes some of the highs and lows of each individual whiskey.
The sum of all the parts is usually less expensive than a single malt and more likely to find its way into a mixed drink rather than a specialist’s sipping glass.
Wheat whiskey is another variety that ages in charred oak barrels. The mash must contain at least 51% wheat, and it is usually at least 80 proof.
The distilling process for wheat whiskey is similar, though It is far less popular than rye whiskeys and bourbon. However, it does have a bit of a following in certain places where wheat is a cash crop.
Wheat tends to impart a lighter, flowery flavor, and its sweet side tends to take a backseat. In contrast to other whiskeys, it is less spicy, sharp, and forward.
It can find its way into a sipping glass or some flowery cocktails (think juleps), and some of the most popular brands of wheat whiskey come from Woodford Reserve, Heaven Hill, and Bernheim.
Corn whiskey is rare, though it does have a small, enthusiastic following. It tends to be inexpensive. It must be made from a mash with at least 80% corn, and it is not aged. If it is, that process occurs in un-charred barrels. The resulting liquor is often nearly clear.
Corn whiskey tends to be very strong, with a proof often exceeding 100 and sometimes as high as 160. Sometimes, corn whiskey goes by the name ‘Moonshine.’ That’s due to its popularity with small backwoods and often illicit distillers.
The strength of the alcohol content is corn whiskey’s most notable flavor note. It is something to drink around a campfire on a cold night and not for the faint of heart.
Buckwheat whiskey is most similar to that made from barley. Buckwheat malt comes from the soaked grains of its seeds. Once the soaking grains begin to germinate, the process stops, and the grains are dried.
This queues the beginning of fermentation and yields a malt that is eventually distilled. The resulting alcohol is aged in oak casks to mature.
Buckwheat whiskey is made in some areas of the United States and in Brittany, France. It should not be confused with alcohol made from buckwheat honey, which is actually a variety of mead.
Buckwheat whisky tends to have a floral-forward flavor, with notes of honey, marmalade, and spice. Corsair, Pinchgut, Catskill, and Distellerie des Menhirs are top producers.
White whiskey and corn whiskey are essentially the same things. White whiskey is also clear, high proof, unaged, and enjoys a modest following. Some may also call white whiskey a moonshine. However, others might call it a craft whiskey.
The bottom line is that white whiskey is also made with mostly corn mash, but innovative makers add in other ingredients to create more aromas and flavors than the simpler corn varieties. These whiskeys are also usually quite strong.
Some white whiskeys have flavors suitable for sipping, while others merit mixing with other beverages. For example, a floral variety with vanilla may go well in a thermos with your coffee while out in the tree stand on a deer hunt.
Flavored whiskeys tend to follow standard manufacturing and distilling processes. Some whiskey makers then take their standard flavors and throw in a wild card by supplementing their whiskey with flavors.
There are flavored bourbons with honey, varieties of rye with pickle flavors, and others with flavors like
While flavored whiskeys are trendy with younger drinkers and those who eschew the more complex flavors of standard whiskeys, Drambuie has been a famous flavored whiskey since the mid-1800s. It features notes of honey, herbs, and spices.
While not the top choice of whiskey fans, don’t be surprised to see a party full of drinkers enjoying shots of flavored whiskey at a trendy club. Look for brands like Skrewball, Sazerac, Crown Royal, and Jack Daniel’s. Don’t forget the famous/infamous Fireball Whisky as well.
17 Types of Whiskey
- Scotch Whisky
- Irish Whiskey
- Bourbon Whiskey
- Tennessee Whiskey
- Canadian Whisky
- Single Malt Whisky
- Rye Whiskey
- Indian Whiskey
- Japanese Whisky
- Mexican Whiskey
- Welsh Whiskey
- Blended Malt Whiskey
- Wheat Whiskey
- Corn Whiskey
- Buckwheat Whiskey
- White Whiskey
- Flavored Whiskey
A Toast to Whiskey
There are many types of whiskey, and each variety has its own flavor. Perhaps just as unique as the way it smells and tastes are the various histories of each variety.
Whether you’re an experienced whiskey taster or a relative novice, you now know that there are a lot of different whiskeys to enjoy. With all you now know, don’t be shy. Order your next whiskey confidently!