Hey Siri, define whiskey. Whiskey is a broad term to describe spirits distilled from gains and malted grains. The definition is wide and has room for a lot of different variations, regions, and expressions. So what is whiskey? Let’s start by looking at the big picture of how whiskey is made, and then we’ll take a look at the most important types of whiskey you may find in a liquor store.
What is Whiskey Made From?
Whiskey, or Whisky, is a spirit made from distilling fermented grains and aged in wood barrels. Essentially, whiskey is a kind of spirit made by distilling a strong beer and keeping the result in barrel for any given amount of time.
What is whiskey? Whisky is a spirit that meets the following qualifications:
- Distilled from fermented grains (wheat, rye, barley, corn, etc.)
- Aged in wood barrels
- No added sugars or flavors
Whiskey or whisky can be made from any type of grain, but those grains often help determine the type of whiskey that is being made. The whiskey genre is purposefully broad, to compare notes across different regions and processes. Many whiskies don’t use just one type of grain. A whiskey mash refers to the mix of grains used to extract sugar for fermentation.
Likewise, the aging process can also affect the type of whiskey. With aging there are three main variables: the type of wood used, the level of char on the inside of the barrel, and the time the whiskey spends in the barrel.
What’s the difference between whiskey and whisky?
Whiskey and whisky are, of course, both in the aforementioned category of distilled grain spirits. The difference is entirely semantics, and outside the broader definitions of the what makes regional varieties unique, there aren’t real rules about whiskey vs. whisky. Whether or not something is referred to as a whiskey or whisky ultimately seems to boil down to the region from which it comes.
One rule of thumb which I have heard is that the inclusion of the “e” can be predicted by the name of the country where the spirit is made. For instance Scotland has no “e” in its name, so Scotch is a whisky. Ireland does have an “e”, so it’s known as Irish Whiskey. Other examples include Japan (Japanese Whisky) and the United States (American Whiskey). This is, of course, a derivative mnemonic and not a prescriptive rule, and thus will not necessarily always hold true.
What different types of whiskey are there?
There are dozens of types of whiskey from around the world, and often these types have variations. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the most prominent types of whisky:
American Whiskey is, simply put, any whiskey distilled in the United States. This is yet another broad category, because there are several different types of American Whiskey on the market. A few of the most important categories of American whiskey are:
- Bourbon – Minimum 51% Corn, aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Rye Whiskey – Minimum 51% Rye
- Wheat Whiskey – Minimum 51% Wheat
- Corn Whiskey
- Malt Whiskey
- Malt Rye Whiskey
- Light Whiskey
Even within these are some subcategories, like Straight Bourbon, or American Single Malt. I may dive in deeper to some of these in later posts.
Scotch Whisky is also a regional whisky. Obviously, Scotch is any type of whisky that hails from the country from Scotland. Scotch whisky also must be aged for at least three in oak casks (often, Scotch distillers age their whiskey in used bourbon barrel casks). These whiskies are mostly twice-distilled, but some Scotches are distilled even more than that!
Like American Whiskey, Scotch can be made from malt or various grains, but the real distinction is the region of Scotland in which it is distilled. There are five main Scotch regions, and a sixth region that some choose to separate out. They are:
- Other islands, not including Islay
Many Scotch distilleries use Peat in their process, which gives the spirit its distinctive smokey character. If you’re looking to try Scotch for the first time, or explore the different regions, you can shop some great Scotches here.
Another type of whiskey you’ll see often is Irish Whiskey. Like Scotch, Irish Whiskey is distilled multiple times. In fact, Irish Whiskey is typically distilled three times. Made in Ireland, these spirits must be aged for at least three years (though usually its at least 10 years), in wooden casks.
There aren’t a ton of subcategories within the Irish Whiskey genre, but that doesn’t mean the style comes without nuance. Check out many of the different options on Mash and Grape.
Another type of whisky that’s rising in popularity in recent years is Japanese Whisky. Some of the most well-known brands include Hibiki, Nikka, and Suntory. Japanese Whisky is often compared to Scotch, as distillers tend to use malted barley and a bit of peat, though most Japanese Whiskies are still very distinct. Also like Scotch, this type of spirit comes in both Single Malt and Blended varieties. A great, affordable entry point to Japanese Whisky is Suntory’s Toki Whisky. If you can find Nikka Straight From The Barrel, that’s another great option.
Other Types Of World Whiskey
I could go on for pages on all the different types of whiskey, but the four listed above will be the most prevalent you’ll come across in U.S. liquor stores. Keep an eye out for other great types of whisky when you’re out hunting. Countries all around the world are producing great products. From Germany, to India, to Mexico, and Australia, there is no shortage of great whiskeys to taste. If you’re interested in exploring the world through whisky, I seriously recommend checking out Flaviar’s World Whisk(e)y offerings.
Whiskey, Whisky, Whatever
So, there’s a lot of information here, but I hope it helps answer the core question of “what is whiskey?” Keep an eye out here for more explanations on things like the difference between bourbon and whiskey, or whether or not Jack Daniels and other Tennessee whiskeys can be considered bourbons.