The number of different types of whiskey is very extensive. The list goes on and on, so it makes sense that one might be a little stumped at the liquor store. What is the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey? Or is all bourbon considered whiskey? What kind of whiskey is best for your favorite mixed drinks? How long can whiskey age?
The questions can go on and on. In this guide, you’ll learn about the different types of whiskey and everything you truly need to know about this interesting type of liquor.
First, let’s discuss the spelling: is it whiskey or whisky?
Well, that kind of depends on where it is made. Types of whiskey can be spelled both with and without an “e,” which can confuse even the most trained whiskey drinkers. The single letter, however, is actually very important to the story of the spirit. The Irish use the “e,” which is a tradition that was carried over to different types of American-made whiskeys.
Scottish whisky, on the other hand, does not use the “e,” and Canadian and Japanese distillers followed their lead. That is why you have both whiskey and whisky. It is easier to decipher what location it comes from just from a single letter.
Whisky, the term, derives from the Gaelic words “uisge beatha,” which translates to “water of life.” If you are wondering what Gaelic is, it is the version of Celtic spoken in the very Highlands of Scotland.
How is whiskey made
What is whiskey made of? To make whiskey, you only need three key whiskey ingredients: barley, yeast, and water. Sounds pretty simple, right? The grain that is used varies with the different types of whiskey there are, but all whiskey needs some kind of barley to help begin the fermentation process and bring out the whiskey flavors.
Water, although the most simple ingredient of the three, is actually considered to be the most important in the whiskey process. The water needs to be clear, clean, and free of any bad-tasting impurities that might alter the whiskey. Since water is so important to whiskey making, a lot of distilleries are located near rivers or lakes. The geographic difference in whiskey plays a big role in the taste because of the water.
The whiskey manufacturing process
Outside of the three ingredients needed for different types of whiskey, the manufacturing process almost always requires five steps.
The first step is malting the grain. Excluding barley, all grains are ground into a meal, and that meal is then mixed with water. It is cooked to break down the starch granules.
Next, the mashing step begins, which is where you mix the cooked grain and the warm water with malted barley. This converts the starch into sugars, and after several hours, you will get a thick, sugary liquid.
Fermenting is next, where the mash liquid is then transferred into large tanks, and the fermentation process begins. This process usually lasts around 48 hours, but some distilleries ferment for longer to create unique tastes in their whiskey.
Next, you have the distilling process. Depending on the type of whiskey, different container types are used for this process. This process has many different elements that we won’t fully delve into, but there are many steps within the distilling process to reach the end goal of smooth whiskeys.
Lastly, you have aging. After the high wine is distilled, water is added to help reduce the alcohol content to around 50-60 percent or 65 percent for Scotch whiskies. Whiskey alcohol percentage varies depending on the type. Depending on the type of whiskey, they are aged in certain climates like warmer and drier for American whiskies.
Whiskey is aged in wooden barrels, and white oak is the preferred wood since it can hold liquid well without leading. For every year of maturation, two percent of the spirit is lost due to evaporation which is an explanation for why older whiskeys are less common and a lot more expensive, making them the high end whiskeys.
Now let’s jump into the different types of whiskey
Scotch whisky, otherwise known as just scotch, is made in Scotland with either a grain or malt. Since the Scots do not mess around when it comes to whisky-making, they have pretty strict laws in place that distillers must follow. The whisky has to age in an oak barrel for at least three years.
Each bottle also has to have an age statement that reflects the youngest aged whisky used to make that blend. Scotch whisky is the type to sip neat, and it makes a great after-dinner drink. There is also a list of different scotch types.
Irish whiskey is unique in that it has a lot smoother flavor than other types of whiskey. It can only be distilled using caramel coloring and water and has to be distilled in a wooden cask for at least three years, which makes it also great to sip on neat but also great for cocktail use.
Japanese whisky came a little later than the traditional scotch or Irish whiskey. This certain type of whiskey, however, still made a very large mark on the world of spirits for its extremely high standards.
Japanese whisky was formed to taste as similar to the scotch style as was made possible, and it uses very similar distilling methods. Japanese whisky is mostly used in mixed drinks or with a simple splash of soda.
Canadian whisky is similar to scotch because it has to also be barrel-aged for at least three years. This specific type of whisky is a lot smoother and lighter than other types of whiskey since it holds a higher percentage of corn. Some Canadian whiskys, however, can be made with wheat or barley instead of rye and corn.
The big question is how is what is the difference between rye and bourbon? Bourbon, an American-style whiskey, is made from corn. For it to even be called bourbon whiskey, it has to be made from at least 51% corn. It also has to age in new oak and has to be produced in America. There are no minimum aging requirements for bourbon.
Rye whiskey is very similar to bourbon. It is made in America with at least 51% rye, but other ingredients can include barley and corn. It follows the same exact distilling process as bourbon whiskey.
Rye that was aged for over two years that isn’t blended is called “straight rye whiskey.” Rye typically has a bit spicier flavor than a smoother, sweeter bourbon.
Tennessee whiskey is technically classified as bourbon, but a lot of United States distillers aren’t super keen on that. They tend to use Tennessee whiskey to define their style of distilling. They are all required to produce their whiskeys in Tennessee, and they have to use a filtering step prior to aging the whiskey, which makes it unique.
Single Malt Whisky
Single malt whisky has to be made from one singular batch of scotch at one distillery. It also has to be aged for at least three years in oak. The rules for single malt whiskey, however, are a lot more lax in the states.
Blended whiskey is precisely what the name suggests. It is a mixture of different kinds of whiskey and can combine grains, coloring, and flavors. These whiskeys are best for cocktails.
Now your whiskey knowledge is supreme! You should have an understanding of the different kinds of whiskey and can now look out for the kinds of whiskey that you prefer. Whiskey distilling is a simple process in theory, but there are so many intricate details that can make or break a whiskey and transform it from one kind to the next. Now get out there and try the best whiskey in the world!