Types of Whiskies
There are many types of Whiskies and Whiskeys. How do the different Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskeys taste? Where do they come from and what are the differences in the production?
1. From Scotch, Irish, Single Malt and Blend to Bourbon and Rye
In this article we give you an overview over the types of whisky that can be found today. We start with a description of the individual types of whisky. In the second part we describe the distinguishing features regarding origin, ingredients and production in general, in order to understand why there are so many different types of whisky.
2. Distinction of the Types of Whisky
Malt Whisky ranks among the best whiskies and is predominantly produced in Scotland. It may only be made from malted barley and has to be distilled in pot stills. The process of malting is elaborate and used to be very time-consuming and physically demanding without the modern technology. Today the process is industrially optimised.
The whisky is distilled twice (rarely three times) on pot stills. The continuous production in column stills was prohibited in 2009. Then the whisky is matured in oak casks (most often used ones) for at least three years. Due to the high demand, more and more Single Malt Whiskies are released without an age statement. The customer usually doesn't know whether the whisky has matured only for the minimum amount of time or longer.
However, the experienced connoisseur usually demands a much longer maturation. The word 'single' may be added to a whisky if all the casks used for bottling come from a single distillery and haven't been blended with whiskies from other distilleries.
Grain whisky is whisky that is not made from malted barley, mainly from Scotland and Ireland. It can contain any type of grain, also a mixture. Today grain whiskies mostly contain wheat, since it offers a higher utilisation level than corn, which was used in earlier times for cost reasons. Grain whisky can be distilled higher than malt whisky in column stills, but it contains less flavours.
It is produced primarily for the blended whisky industry and is almost always distilled in the cheaper column stills. It's also only matured for a rather short period of time. Since 2014 there have been increased efforts to place mild grain whisky on the market, also as single grain bottlings.
Blended Whisky can contain any mixture of different whiskies (malt, grain). These whiskies differ in type, but especially in their origin, i.e. the distillery they come from.
The character of a blended whisky is determined by the ratio of whiskies from different distilleries, since each distillery produces different flavours. For the well-known brands the ratio is always the same, so the taste doesn't change. In order to be able to produce these large amounts of blended whisky, there are malt whisky distilleries that produce exclusively for the blended whisky industry and don't bottle any single malts.
Most blends contain more grain whisky than malt whisky. The higher the malt whisky ratio, the better the blend. Blended Whisky usually comes from Scotland or Ireland.
Single Pot Still Whiskey
This special type of whisky is from Ireland. It may contain grain, also unmalted barley, but it is exclusively distilled in pot stills.
Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey
Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States, but most bourbons are produced in Kentucky. An exception is the state of Tennessee, which could establish the category "Tennessee Whiskey". There are different types of bourbon with regard to the production process.
Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn. The rest is a mixture of some barley for the fermentation process, as well as rye and/or wheat. Today many bourbons are produced using the sour mash process. American whiskey is mainly distilled in column stills.
According to U.S. law, a no age statement bourbon must be aged for at least two years in fresh, toasted casks made from American white oak. A finish or extra maturation similar to Scotch whisky is not allowed. If the whiskey is not blended, it may be called 'straight bourbon'.
Tennessee Whiskey differs from bourbon in that it is additionally charcoal-filtered before it is filled into casks.
Read more about the production of American whiskey.
This type of whisky used to be produced mainly in the United States, and still today in Canada. It contains at least 51% rye and must also be matured in oak casks for at least 2 years. Today there are only few rye whiskeys in the US, since its very spicy taste is not so popular anymore. Canadian rye whisky is an important ingredient of Canadian blended whiskies.
Corn whiskey is also from the US, since corn was the predominant type of grain grown there. To be called corn whiskey, it must be produced from 100% corn. Since these whiskies taste relatively neutral they are mostly used for blends.
Other Types of Whisky: Oat Whisky, Millet Whisky and Wheat Whisky
There is a small number of other Whisky types, but these are not very widespread. A well-known kind is probably Wheat Whisky. The mash for this type of Whisky consists of at least 51% wheat. An example is Woodford Reserve Wheat, whose mash consists of 52% wheat. This gives the Whiskey its round and complex, fruity-spicy and slightly bitter taste.
Oat Whisky's mash is made from oat instead of the common barley. An example is 'Koval Oat' from the Chicago-based distillery, which is rich and creamy with notes of banana and honey. Oats are particularly prominent in the history of Irish Whiskey, as it was the only affordable grain in the second half of the 19th century. Nowadays, oats are not so prominent in the production of Whisky, but from time to time there are special bottlings containing oats, such as those from Koval or the German distilleries Fitzke (Black Forest) or Weidenauer (Austria).
Another grain that is occasionally used to make Whisky is millet. Millet is especially widespread in Asia and Africa and a popular base for spirits in Nepal. Millet Whisky is also produced in the American distillery Koval. The grain for Koval Millet is even sourced from a local organic farmers' association in the Midwest of the USA. Millet has very small kernels and can be malted just like barley. The resulting Whisky is very fresh and aromatic and typically brings complex notes of Asian fruits such as dates, ripe bananas and sweet lychees. You may have to dig a little deeper into your pockets for a rarity like this, as is often the case with real specialities.
3. The Diversity of Taste
If you now believe, that all whiskies of one type taste the same, you are wrong. Though origin, ingredients and the production process may be the same, there are – contrary to vodka – huge differences in the taste between the distilleries. Especially the maturation in casks is significant for the later aroma of the whisky. It offers uncounted possibilities for variation. Read more about the production process and the maturation in casks.
It is up to you, which type of whisky or whiskey suits your taste. Each type is beloved by its fans. Blended whiskies and common Bourbons are sold most often, because they are easy to enjoy. Experts favor Single Malt Scotch Whisky or Small Batch Bourbons. For such bottlings the whiskies are matured longer and the casks are selected more carefully for their aroma. In any case we suggest you try the different types of whisky and whiskey to make your own judgement.
The Traditional Countries
Whisky is produced in many countries today. Originally invented in Scotland (or Ireland, the debate is ongoing...), Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey are still produced there today and rank among the best whiskies in the world.
Whiskey from the New World
During the great migration wave from Europe to America, also the beloved whisky was brought along. Since transport was very expensive, the spirit was produced locally. The conditions in the new world were different, so the production had to be adapted to local peculiarities. One of the best-known examples is today's bourbon whiskey, which has its very own character.
The recipe for whisky wasn’t only brought to America. India, a former British colony, developed its own local version, too. Today India is the world's biggest producer of whisky.
Besides India also Japan developed an enthusiasm for the brown spirit and copied the production process meticulously. By now Japanese whisky can compete with the best Scotches of the world.
Due to the steady spread of whisky over the whole world, whisky is produced in a lot of countries today, among them also Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The production volumes are low, but the whisky is still very popular locally.
Depending on the country of its origin, whisky is spelled with or without an e. In Ireland and the USA it is usually spelled whiskey, while Scotland and the rest of the world use the spelling whisky. There's a little mnemonic on the spelling of whisky in the different anglophone countries. All the countries that have an e in the native spelling of their country use the word whiskey with an e. United States and Ireland, as opposed to Scotland and Canada.
The primary type of grain used for whisky production traditionally differs depending on the geographical location of the country. The grain that could best be grown locally was also used to produce whisky. Good Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are therefore mainly made from barley, while American bourbon has a high corn content. However, often a mixture of various types of grain is used.
Due to industrialisation and falling transport costs, today producers aren't as dependent on local grain anymore. The most affordable whiskies are therefore made from the cheapest types of grain available on the market. Moreover, the production of barley in Scotland and Ireland has long been insufficient to meet the local demand, so a lot of barley is imported additionally.
It is important that the grain contains starch that can be converted into the maximum amount of sugar for the alcoholic fermentation to run properly. Here you can learn more about distillation. Nowadays the grain types used most often are barley, corn, wheat and rye, as well as rice in Asia.
Pot Still Distillation
The invention of distillation made high-proof spirits such as whisky possible in the first place. During distillation, an alcohol-water solution (beer or wort) is heated in a pot, and the alcoholic vapour is collected via a bent pipe. For the production of whisky this technique is applied with copper pot stills.
The fermented liquid is filled into a big distillation pot and heated from below or from inside. The vapour is led up through the neck and subsequently cooled down so it becomes liquid again. After some hours the distillation is finished. This process is repeated one or two times in whisky production. However, the pot must be cleaned before the next batch.
In the original whisky-producing countries Scotland and Ireland, some whisky is still produced in a way that the taste is characteristically connected to the production process.
Read more about pot still distillation here.
Column Still Distillation
During the industrialisation the principle of column still distillation was developed in Britain. This method allowed a continuous distillation process without having to clean the stills laboriously after each batch. This laid the foundation for affordable whisky. Especially the cheapest whiskies are produced this way today. In the big distilleries in the United States, all whiskey was distilled in column stills right from the start. You only rarely find a pot still there.
Type and Duration of Maturation
After distillation the new make spirit is not yet whisky as we know it. It only becomes whisky by being matured in oak casks. Other types of wood are used only rarely in countries such as Sweden or Germany, but they are not allowed in Scotland and the US.
The choice of casks differs widely
The type of cask determines the duration of the maturation, since fresh casks - contrary to used casks - release many aromas in a short period of time. Depending on the country and the type of whisky, by law the spirit must mature for at least 2 years (USA) or 3 years (Scotland, Ireland and Europe). Letting the whisky mature longer than the minimum amount of time affects the quality and thus the price of the whisky. Single Malt whisky is often only appreciated if it is 10 years old or older.
Read more about the cask maturation of whisky here.