Whiskey Types 101: All Whiskey Types and Their Origins

There is an old saying by Mark Twain that goes, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of whiskey is barely enough”. Whiskey is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages all over the world. And for good reasons.

The history of whiskey goes back centuries and the popular culture has glamorized it in a very unique fashion. It’s always been thought of as the gentlemen’s drink at bars and social gatherings. In this post, we’ll dive deep into the types of whiskeys, their history, and most importantly, the spelling!

Whisky or Whiskey?

The classic yet everlasting debate. Is it whisky? Or Whiskey? The answer, as it has been, is both are correct. The history of the spelling is only based on which region you are from. It doesn’t have anything to do with the type or the taste of the whiskey. 

Historically, countries like Scotland, Japan, and Ireland use the spelling ‘whisky’. Canada also belongs to this team. As for whiskey, it’s widely used in the US and Ireland. Whatever you want to spell, both are correct. For the sake of this post, we’re going to use ‘whiskey’ throughout. 

The History of Whiskey 

The origins of making alcohol by fermenting grains go back to ancient Mesopotamia. It was only a matter of time before the process made its way to Europe. It’s believed that sometime between the 11th century and the 13th century, Ireland and Scotland learned to make alcoholic drinks by fermenting grains such as barley and corn. 

The wine was really not an option for Scotland as grapes are not very well produced due to the climate. So, the natives had to settle for what they had at hand, grains. Centuries went by in perfecting the recipe of whiskey. 

In the 18th century, alcohol production became a taxable income. It led the distillers to opt for sneaky methods of avoiding detection. The most common one was distilling whiskey only at night so that the smoke wouldn’t be as visible. It bred the legendary ‘Moonshine’ tag to whiskeys.

Americans were introduced to whiskey much later than the Europeans. The influx of Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants into the American regions brought the culture of whiskey-making with it. 

When the United States was born, alcohol production was again under scrutiny in the form of taxation. It was so irrational that it led to the Whiskey Rebellion. The tax policy was later dissolved in 1802. 

Some years later, approximately around 1823, the government of Great Britain lifted all the bans associated with alcohol production, leading to a healthy increase in the number of distilleries in the region. 

There was a whopping 150 years of prohibition in Scotland that made whiskey a somewhat illegal substance. The ban was lifted around the mid-20th century. The people of the United States started showing their love in bars around the 1960s. After taking care of the local demand, big distilleries like Jack Daniel’s shifted their focus to the international market. 

How Whiskey is Made?

Barley beer was very popular in Scotland as making wine was not an easy journey to embark on. Scottish people learned how to distill the barley beer into whiskey which led to producing the whiskey that we know today. 

In the early stages, whiskey is very similar to beer. Grains such as corn, rye, barley, or wheat are mashed. Then, the mash is mixed with water and a hint of yeast to make the fermentation happen. Grains like barley are often malted as well. 

Later, the liquid goes into a still where it’s heated and the vapor is condensed to make whiskey. Either a pot still or a column still is used for the distillation process. 

The process is then followed by aging. Wooden casks are most commonly used for the aging process. The signature flavor that we love whiskey for comes from the aging. The more it’s aged, the more expensive the whiskey gets. It also helps in eliminating some of the throat burning effects of alcohol. 

The whiskey that goes into the barrels are often very strong, sometimes containing over 80% of alcohol concentration. Once the aging is the done, the whiskey is mixed with other styles and blended in other barrels to give it a rich texture. 

Most bottles come with around 40% alcohol concentration. The whiskey is diluted before bottling to comply with respective laws. There are some barrel strength whiskeys as well but they are very hard to find. 

There is another measure that goes into whiskey making and it’s known as proof. Jack Daniel’s use 140 proof whiskey for aging. The proof is essentially the double alcohol percentage. So, 140 proof means 70% alcohol concentration. The percentage is often denoted by ABV (Alcohol by Volume) on the label. 

Different regions use different measures of alcohol, some use both. Whatever you might come across, you now know what the numbers mean. 

Whiskey Composition 

There are three distinct types of whiskey composition that influence the final flavor and potency. They are single malt, grain, and blended. 

Single malt whiskey is denoted as exclusively distilled with malted barley, yeast, and water. The liquid goes through the distillation process once. Hence, it’s called the single malt. 

The grain is a type of composition where only corn or wheat or both are used for fermentation. It leads to a smoother and lighter flavor. 

As for blended, it has a mix of both worlds. It’s an astounding combination of single malt and grain. 

Types of Whiskey

The types of whiskeys around the world are a matter of debate. There is no clear line between how many types of whiskeys there are. Some consider the composition as types as well. 

We don’t want a debate on what’s right or what’s wrong. Rather, we’ll just cover every type of whiskey there is. 

Scotch Whiskey 

Of course, we are going to start with the forefathers of modern whiskey. Scotch is a very popular line of whiskey around the world. It’s primarily produced in Scotland. Malted barley is the primary grain in Scotch whiskey while other grains like corn and wheat are used to make up the rest. 

To be labeled as Scotch, a whiskey must go through a minimum of 3 years of aging, have a majority in Barley, and made in Scotland. Different regions of Scotland are known for different flavors of whiskey. 

Whiskey was never a drink meant for intoxication. The same goes for Scotch. This type of whiskey is very much enjoyed for its rich flavors and tradition. We can break down Scotch whiskey into five different categories for a better understanding. 

  • Lowland

The lightest of Scotch whiskeys are produced in the lowlands. Only three distilleries operate in this area. Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, and Bladnoch.

  • Highland

Highland is a distinct type of Scotch Whiskey. It covers a very large area. The tastes vary a lot because the number of distilleries in operation is quite high. Generally, the whiskeys are light, have a spicy and fruity tone. 

  • Speyside

This region is very known for its unique single malt whiskeys. They have a sweeter tone and a rich flavor, distinguishable from other regions. They are named after the Spey River going through the middle of the region. 

  • Islay

Islay Scotch Whiskeys come from the eight distilleries operating in the area. Almost all whiskeys have a peaty and briny taste, thanks to the sea surrounding the area. 

  • Campbeltown

The whiskey in this region tastes very similar to the Islay whiskeys. Glengyle, Springbank, and Glen Scotia are the three distilleries that operate in this area. 

Irish Whiskey 

Irish whiskey is equally popular as Scotch thanks to its up and downs with history. If compared to Scotch, Irish whiskeys boast a very light and fruity flavor. The peaty tone is almost non-existent in Irish Whiskey

The lighter tone has made Irish whiskey a popular choice across the world. There are a few different types of Irish whiskey like the single malt, blended, single pot still, grain, etc. 

The single malt Irish whiskey is made from malted barley, water, and yeast. No other grain is used in the process. The mixture only goes through one distillation and aged in oak barrels for flavor. 

The grain Irish whiskey is a little lighter and distilled in column stills. It has a combination of corn, barley, and rye to give it a dynamic flavor. 

Single grain Irish whiskey is made from one type of grain only, whether be it corn, barley, or wheat. It’s distilled on column stills. 

Blended Irish whiskey is the most popular of all other types. Blended whiskey takes up more than 90% of the Irish whiskey production. 

Finally, the Single pot still Irish whiskey is a unique type only found in Ireland. It’s a mix of malted and unmalted barley to give it a fine texture. 

American Whiskey

America makes some of the most popular whiskeys in the world, including the Bourbons and the Tennessee whiskey. American whiskey is often sweeter than the other parts of the world. It has a less peaty note as well because it’s almost never smoked with peat to give it a proprietary touch. 

The distinguishable feature for American whiskey is the type of aging. They use new charred oak barrels where the alcohol concentration is strictly regulated and kept under the 80% mark. Here are some variations:

  • Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is known all around the world for its unique taste. It’s often confused with Bourbon, which is a separate category of its own. The ever-popular Jack Daniels is a Tennessee whiskey. 

Different regulations go into making authentic Tennessee whisky. Use of the Lincoln County Process (LCP) is one of them. All Tenessee whiskey brands except for Benjamin Prichard’s must use LCP to be labeled as ‘Tennessee Whiskey’.

  • Bourbon

Bourbon is very similar to Tennessee whiskey, except that it doesn’t go through the LCP. Bourbon is much harsher than Tennessee. Bourbon was exclusive to Kentucky until it made its way across the USA. 

  • Rye Whiskey

As the name suggests, rye whiskey is made with at least 51% rye mash. The rest of the proportions might be filled with barley or corn. The ‘Straight Rye Whiskey’ labeled whiskeys are made by aging rye for over two years and consist of 100% rye concentration.

  • Wheat Whiskey

In a similar fashion to rye whiskey, wheat whiskey is made from at least 51% wheat. The rest is filled with barley, corn, or rye.

  • American Single Malt

The rules for conventional single malt doesn’t apply to the American counterpart. It’s smokier and has a stronger aroma. Sometimes, American Single Malts are made with rye instead of malted barley. 

Japanese Whiskey 

Japan follows the same techniques as Scottish Speyside and Lowland whiskeys. Japanese whiskey is often infused with honey to give it a sweeter taste. They tend to be smoother and often contain an artificial aroma. 

In recent years, Japan has come up with its own style of whiskey making. While the process mostly follows the Scottish style, Japan has introduced its formula to the mix. Steadily, the popularity of Japanese style whiskey is rising. 

Canadian Whiskey

Canadian whiskey often consists of a high concentration of corn. It’s smoother than most other whiskeys in the world. Similar to Scotch, Canadian whiskey must be aged for three years before it can be labeled. Another distinguishing feature would be the use of virgin barrels to extract more flavors from the wood. 

The Canadian whiskey became popular thanks to the prohibition in America for so long. In the early years, Canada could only produce rye due to the harsh weather and that’s why rye made the majority of the proportion for the whiskey. 

Fast forward to today, better farmlands have been discovered and the production of corn has gone up. Most Canadian whiskeys use more corn than rye, though the name Canadian ‘rye’ whiskey stuck. 

Final Words

We can go on with every single type of whiskey and the post would have never ended. There are so many subcategories and different blends of whiskey around the world. What we’ve done today is cover all the main branches of the whiskey tree, their history and why they are popular in different ways.