What does whiskey taste like, and what is the history of whiskey?
We can trace whiskey back nearly 7,000 years ago to the Middle East. Nomads discovered that by fermenting grains into alcohol, they could use it as both a preservative for foods and part of their diet.
More recently, whiskey and brandy eased the pain of injuries while sterilizing equipment during the Civil War.
With such a rich history, whiskey is undoubtedly a popular alcoholic beverage that most people have a particular preference for, depending on the taste. Whether you like your whiskey straight or on the rocks, there’s a reason to keep this classic drink stocked in your home bar.
What Is Whiskey?
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage crafted from barley, wheat, and rye grains. The liquor is then aged in wooden barrels, mostly made of oak.
Most whiskeys have an abv, alcohol by volume, of at least 40%, making them at least 80 proof.
When comparing whiskey to other alcohols, it is important to note their differences. For example, rum is made from sugarcane and can be clear or dark. Whiskey is made from grains and is almost always amber or brown. Whiskey is aged in wooden barrels, while tequila, for example, is not aged long at all.
What Does Whiskey Taste Like?
Some people describe whiskey as having a strong, bitter flavor.
However, whiskey has more than one warming flavor that can be sweet or toasty, depending on which type of whiskey you enjoy.
Some whiskeys have a flavor better suited to be part of a delicious cocktail, while others are perfect for sipping slowly over ice.
Types of Whiskey
There are several types of whiskey. This article will give you a brief overview with notes about flavors and examples of each type.
To be considered a Scotch whiskey, this whiskey must be made, aged, and bottled in Scotland. Scottish law states that Scotch must be aged in oak for at least three years to earn the name Scotch whiskey.
Scotch has a smokey hint to its flavor, which it earns from the moss set on fire to dry the barley used in the production process.
There are single-malt scotches and blended scotches. Single-malt is best for drinking straight, while blended is preferred for cocktails.
Like Scotch, there are specific qualifications that a whiskey must meet to be considered an Irish whiskey.
It must be made from barley, malt, and grain and aged and bottled in Ireland. It must also age in a wooden barrel for at least three years.
Bourbon whiskey is also known as American whiskey. It is primarily made in Kentucky and must contain at least 51% corn in its grain makeup.
Bourbon needs to age in newly charred oak barrels to be a bourbon, as this adds to its more nutty flavor and mellow sweetness.
For a whiskey to be a malt whiskey, it must have mostly fermented malted barley.
It is a single-malt whiskey if it is made exclusively at one distilling plant. Even as a single-malt whiskey, it may still include whiskey from different barrels unless it’s a single-cask whiskey.
Malt whiskey is usually a little sweeter, almost like caramel. Glendronach, Talisker, and Woodford reserve all offer a malt whiskey; some are single malt.
For wheat whiskey, we need to remember our bourbon. Bourbon uses 51% corn, with rye and barley making up the difference. Wheat whiskey replaces the rye with wheat.
These are higher-quality whiskeys and are often bolder in flavor, and you can often find one in a snifter glass to sip after a meal.
Woodford Reserve and Old Elk are popular brands of wheat whiskey.
Corn whiskey is another way to describe bourbon (see above). Corn whiskey becomes bourbon after aging for two years.
Before aging, corn whiskey is also known as moonshine. Its flavor is sweet because of the corn.
Rye whiskey is mostly of rye grain which gives it, what some consider, an aggressively peppery taste.
Some examples of rye whiskey are Woodford Reserve Rye and Wild Turkey Rye.
Japanese whiskey is known for its high quality and taste.
Some Japanese distilleries use wood barrels, and you can only find this specific wood in Japan. Between the wood and the water, many believe this is what makes the difference in Japanese whiskey flavor.
Two of the more well-known brands of Japanese whiskey are Suntory and Nikka, both available as blended and single-malt whiskies.
To be considered American whiskey, the whiskey must be a fermented mash of at least 51% cereal grains and produced in America. Bourbon is just one type of American whiskey.
Depending on the makeup, distilling time, and barrel type, the flavors can range from spicy to sweet or smooth to aggressive.
When most people think of whiskey, Jack Daniels is usually the first brand that jumps to mind.
Tennessee whiskey is made in Tennesee, and Jack Daniels is the most famous brand of its kind.
As we saw with Scotch, Irish, and American whiskey, there are specific requirements to be considered Canadian whiskey.
The whiskey must be mashed and distilled in Canada before aging for three years in a wooden barrel with no more than 700 liters.
The two most notable Canadian whiskeys are Canadian LTD and Crown Royal.
Other Factors That Affect Whiskey Taste
As we have seen, the type of whiskey affects the flavor profile. However, several other factors affect the taste of whiskey.
Barrels can make a significant difference in the flavor of the whiskey.
The oak that makes up the barrel will let off some of its characteristics to the whiskey, which gives it a deep, woodsy flavor.
Also, the whiskey will take on a smokey flavor if the barrel is charred. The longer the barrel has been in use will also add to the flavor as the flavors from past batches will be absorbed by the new batch.
We’ve seen many examples of how grain impacts flavor.
A grain mash made of more corn will give a sweeter flavor, while a blend with more rye tends to give off a spicier flavor. With the grain being the most important ingredient, it is easy to see how it affects the flavor profile.
The fermentation and distilling process is extremely important to whiskey and its flavor.
We noted earlier that burning moss during fermentation changes the whiskey flavor profile. Distilling and aging do the same. Whiskey tends to get better with age.
Like your morning coffee, adding flavors to whiskey will change the flavor profile.
Depending on which flavor you add, the profile can change from nutty to fruity to sweet or maybe smokey. Added flavors can also determine what, if any, mixer you may add to your whiskey.
For example, a sweet flavor addition, such as maple syrup or caramel flavor, may call for a milder mixer, while a spicier flavor may want something sweet to counteract.
Here are some flavor additions with examples of the whiskey with them.
- Peanut: Skrewball peanut butter whiskey, Ole Smokey peanut butter whiskey
- Apple: Bird Dog Apple Whiskey, Crown Royal Apple, Jack Daniels Tennessee Apple
- Maple: Bird Dog Maple, Crown Royal Maple, Cabin Fever Maple
- Cinnamon: Fireball whiskey, Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire
- Peach: Crown Royal Peach, Jim Beam Peach
- Honey: Jim Beam Honey, Jack Daniels Honey
The Way It’s Served
If you’re wondering “what does whiskey taste like,” remember that how you serve a whiskey can also affect the flavor.
Whiskey served straight and neat has no ice and therefore has a purer flavor because there is nothing to take away from the whiskey. Conversely, a cocktail made with whiskey will add other flavorings.
The following list includes factors that affect whiskey taste.
- Type of Glass: If you were to attend a tasting of whiskey at a distillery, you might receive a tulip-shaped glass. A tulip-shaped glass has a narrow rim allowing your nose to smell the whiskey intensely.
- With Water: Adding water or ice dilutes the whiskey flavors.
- On the Rocks: When the ice melts to water, the flavor of the whiskey will dilute. However, with the invention of whiskey stones, that can be remedied. By freezing the stones before adding them to your whiskey, your drink stays chilled with no dilution.
- Cocktail: The flavor will change with every addition to a drink of whiskey. Depending on what you add for the cocktail it could be a fruity flavor from juice, a sweet flavor from soda, or just a diluted flavor from water.
From the initial ingredients to the way that your whiskey is presented you, whiskey’s taste can be extremely diverse. The ingredients set the base for the whiskey flavor, and production processes like aging further develop the flavor.
The types of whiskey vary depending on how the are produced and what they are made of. Whiskey brands are known to add flavor additives like honey and cinnamon are used to further diversify the flavor profile of whiskeys.
Comment below and let us know what your favorite whiskey tastes like!