Whiskey is a drink very sentimental to many, especially with the people of Scotland, as the origins of whiskey are a large part of their history. The word whiskey even comes from the Scottish Galic term “uisce beatha,” which means “water of life.” This was later shortened to “uisce” (pronounced Ooo-SKI) until eventually becoming “whiskey.”
While you’ve most likely heard of whiskey, few know what it consists of and about the different types of whiskey. Simply put, whiskey is grain-based alcohol. But the difference between the multiple kinds of whiskey comes from four specific things:
- The type of grain used during production
- The area of the world it is produced in
- The kind of fermentation process it undergoes
- The barrel it is aged in
We’ll start by going over these four pieces a little more in-depth, and then we’ll take a look at the different kinds of whiskey.
The main ingredient for whiskey is grain. Whiskeys come from all different types of grains, so selecting the right one comes down to preference. Four grains are the most commonly used:
Bourbons (which we’ll read more about later) utilize corn as their primary grain. As a result, whiskeys made with corn have a more robust “smoky” taste than other whiskeys. In addition, whiskeys with corn (aged over time) have hints of vanilla and caramel flavors.
Barley is another common grain used, and all malted whiskeys use barley. Like corn-based whiskeys, barley whiskeys have a trademark “bite” aftertaste that occurs in the back of the throat. Aged in a certain way, these whiskeys can offer a bit of a “honey” taste.
Rye is known for producing a spicier taste than other grains. Therefore, the more rye used, the spicier it gets. Because of this, rye is one of the most polarizing grains used in whiskey production.
Wheat whiskey produces “sweeter” flavors than other grains. While more subtle in taste than others, whiskeys with mostly wheat grains can also give off a bit of a “bread” flavor.
The regions in the world where the whiskey is produced play a very significant role in developing flavor. The region’s natural grains and the soil they are grown in contribute to the specific tastes of that region’s whiskey.
Scotland, the birthplace of whiskey, is traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands, The Lowlands, The Isle of Islay, and Campbeltown. These regions have different soil types and, therefore, different whiskey flavors. The Scots, of course, debate over which lands produce the best-tasting whiskey.
The Irish also love their whiskey. They, too, have different tastes based on their regions and sometimes flavor their whiskeys with locally-grown herbs such as mint or thyme.
It is rumored that Scottish settlers in America first produced Bourbon. Grains grown in Bourbon County, Kentucky, lead to great-tasting whiskey, and the name seemed to have stuck. Today, Kentucky is the largest producer of Bourbon, distilling 95% of the world’s supply.
Fermenting & Distilling
The fermentation process of whiskey can be very intricate.
To start, grain is collected and then broken down. Upon moistening, these grains partially sprout (or “germinate”). Malting is the process of getting these grains to germinate. By dampening the grains, the starches within the grains turn into sugar. From this point, the grains are then heated and dried. Mashing is the next step, where the newly-formed sugars are extracted from the grain. This extracted sugar becomes “mash.”
The fermentation process begins once the mash is mixed with yeast. Combining yeast with the mash creates a chemical reaction, turning the sugars into ethanol. Ethanol alcohol is the type of alcohol we use every day in our beverages. After about 48-72 hours, the liquid gets transported to start the distillation process. Distilling whiskey increases the alcohol content of the liquid by increasing its temperature. This process of distilling the whiskey occurs in a giant unit called a still.
After distillation, the whiskey is stored in wooden barrels to age. This barrel, also called a cask, can be made from different types of wood. Oak is the wood most commonly used in aging whiskey, but there are even differences amongst various oak trees. For example, American Oak offers the whiskey a mellow, vanilla/caramel flavor. European Oak instead provides more of a bitter taste. Mongolian Oak (used in Japanese Whisky) increases the spiciness of whiskey and can even offer a coconut taste.
Before adding the distilled whiskey, these barrels are often charred beforehand with fire. Over time, this charring of the inside of barrels creates a desired “smoky” taste to the whiskey.
The length of aging the whiskey depends on the distillery. Generally, whiskey is stored in wood barrels for several years to several decades. This aging process affects taste, so many distilleries experiment with aging to discover the best flavor.
Types of Whiskey
Scottish Whisky (Scotch)
(Fun Fact: While most of the world spells whiskey with an “e,” the people of Scotland do not. This difference in spelling derives from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic translations of the word.)
Scottish Whisky often has smokey, earthier overtones than Whisky from other regions. They are often divided into five types of categories:
Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Refers to a whisky made at a single distillery using only barley.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky: Also made from a single distillery but integrates other grains besides barley.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky: Combines two single malt whiskies.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky: Blended grain whisky combines two single grain whiskies.
Blended Scotch: Made by combining a single malt whisky with a single grain whisky. This scotch is also the cheapest type of scotch sold.
Irish whiskeys were traditionally made in a pot still, and many still are today. The whiskey’s name depends on the type of grain used, as well as the distillation process. Irish whiskey comes in four primary forms: Single malt Irish whiskey, Single pot still whiskey, Grain whiskey, and Blended whiskey.
Single Malt Irish Whiskey: Comes from malted barley distilled in a pot still within a single distillery.
Single Pot Still Whiskey: Derives from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still within a single distillery. Different from Single Malt through the inclusion of unmalted grain in the mash. The most common style of Irish whiskey until the 20th century.
Grain Whiskey: Distilled in a column or Coffey still rather than a pot still. This whiskey can be produced from a variety of grains.
Blended Whiskey: A mixture of the other styles. Currently, the most common type of whiskey among the Irish.
The names of American whiskeys typically come from the type of grains used in production. The main ones are Rye whiskey, Rye malt whiskey, Malt whiskey, and Wheat Whiskey. As explained earlier, they get their names due to having at least 51% of their prominent grain.
Rye Whiskey: Derives from mash consisting of at least 51% rye.
Malted Rye Whiskey: Consists of at least 51% malted rye.
Malt Whiskey: Made from mash that contains at least 51% malted barley.
Wheat Whiskey: Produced from (you guessed it) at least 51% wheat.
Bourbon: Another name that would fit Bourbon is “Corn whiskey.” Made with at least 51% corn.
Moonshine (White Whiskey): Made of corn mash, and came to prominence during the early days of America. Moonshine tastes and looks closer to Vodka than other whiskeys. Only since 2010 has moonshine become legal to produce in America.
The Japanese spell their “whisky” like the Scottish. This makes sense, as the creation of Japanese Whisky came from their efforts to imitate the taste of Scottish Whisky. Some of their early originators produced Whisky in Japanese regions that precisely reflected the terrain of Scotland. While only being produced for a little over a century, Japanese Whisky has gained national prominence. The three main types of Japanese Whisky are blended Whisky, malt whisky, and grain whisky.
Malt Whisky: Made up from at least 51% barley.
Grain Whisky: Consists of at least 51% of any type of grain besides barley.
Blended Whisky: A mix of any of the whiskies listed above.