From Scotch, Irish, Single Malt and Blend to Bourbon and Rye
In this article, we will give you an overview of the types of whisky found today. First, we describe the distinguishing features of origin, ingredients and production methods in general to understand how so many varieties come about. In the second half of the article you will find the exact subdivision into the individual whisky varieties.
The traditional countries
Whisky is produced in many countries today. Originally invented in Scotland - or Ireland, here the countries argue to this day - Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey are still produced there today and are among the best whiskies in the world.
Whiskey from the New World
In the great wave of emigration from Europe to America, the beloved whisky was also taken along. Since transport was quite expensive, the spirit was produced locally. Conditions in the New World were different, so production was adapted to local conditions. One of the best-known results is today's bourbon whiskey, which has its very own character.
The recipe for whisky was not only taken to America. India, a former British colony, also developed its own local version. Today, India is the world's largest producer of whisky. Besides India, Japan also developed its enthusiasm for the brown spirit and copied the production process as closely as possible. In the meantime, Japanese whisky can compare with the best Scotches in the world. Due to the steady spread of whisky all over the world, whisky is now distilled in many countries of the world. This is also the case in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Although the production quantities are only small, they are very popular locally.
Depending on the country of origin, whisky is spelled with or without an e . In Ireland and the USA, the spelling whiskey is common, while in Scotland and the rest of the world, whisky is used. There is a little mnemonic for how whisky is spelled in each country. In all countries that have an e in their country name in their native spelling, whiskey is spelled with an e.UnitedStatesandIrelandas opposed to Scotland and Canada.
The primary type of grain used for each type of whisky traditionally differed depending on the geographical location of the country. The grain that could best be grown locally was also used for the whisky. Good Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey is therefore mainly made from barley, while American bourbon has a high corn content. However, a mixture of different types of grain is often used.
Industrialisation and falling transport costs mean that people are no longer dependent on local grain. The cheapest whiskies are therefore made from the cheapest grains on the market. Also, the production of barley in Scotland and Ireland is no longer sufficient to satisfy the local production demand. Therefore, additional imports are made.
It is important that the cereal contains starch, which can be converted into the maximum amount of sugar so that alcoholic fermentation takes place optimally. Learn more about fermentation here. The most commonly used grains today are barley, maize, wheat and rye, as well as rice in the Asian region.
Pot Still Distillation
The invention of distillation made high-proof spirits such as whisky possible in the first place. Distillation involves heating an alcohol-water mixture (beer or wort) in a flask and collecting the alcoholic vapour through a bent pipe. This principle is used with copper pot stills for the production of whisky.
The fermented liquid is poured into a large still and heated from below or inside. The steam is led upwards via the neck and then cooled in various coolers so that it liquefies again. After a few hours, distillation is complete. This process is repeated 1-2 more times in whisky production. Before the next batch is distilled, however, the pot still must be cleaned.
In the original whisky-producing countries of Scotland and Ireland, some whisky continues to be made this way because the taste is typically associated with the process.
Read more about still distillation here.
Column Still Distillation
During industrialisation, the principle of column still distillation was developed in Great Britain. This enabled a continuous distillation process without having to laboriously clean the stills each time. This laid the foundation for inexpensive whisky. Especially the cheap whiskies are produced this way today. In the large distilleries of the USA, all whisky was distilled on column stills right from the start. It is very rare to find a pot still there.
Maturation type and maturation time
After distilling, the fresh distillate is not yet whisky as we know it. It only becomes a whisky when it is matured in oak barrels. Other types of wood are only very rarely used in countries like Sweden or Germany. They are not permitted in Scotland and the USA. There are major differences in the choice of cask. In the USA, only fresh, burnt-out oak barrels may be used by law. In Scotland and Ireland it is not so strict. Here, used barrels may also be used. These are mainly ex-bourbon barrels. But former sherry and other wine casks are also used.
The type of cask then determines the maturing time, as a fresh cask, unlike a used one, releases a lot of aromas very quickly. Depending on the country and variety, a minimum of 2 (USA) or 3 years (Scotland, Ireland and Europe) maturing time is required by law. The maturing time beyond this has an influence on the quality and thus the price of the whisky. Single malt whisky is usually only recognised by connoisseurs after 10 years.
Distinguishing the types of whisky
This video explains the difference between Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey and Bourbon. It is about the ingredients, the production method as well as the maturing method and maturing time.
Malt whisky is one of the best whiskies and is mainly produced in Scotland. It may only be produced from malted barley in pot stills. The process of malting is complex and used to be very time-consuming and physically demanding without modern technology. Today, the process is industrially optimised.
The whisky is distilled twice and very rarely three times on pot stills. Since 2009, continuous production on column stills is no longer permitted. The whisky is then matured for at least 3 years in mostly previously used oak casks. More and more single malt whiskies are coming onto the market without an age statement because of the high demand. Whether the whisky is bottled after the minimum maturation period or only later remains mostly hidden from the connoisseur. For the experienced connoisseur, however, single malt must be matured considerably longer. A whisky is called single if all the casks used for bottling come from a single distillery and have not been mixed with whiskies from other distilleries. The definition of single malt Scotch whisky has become more complex over the years. What you are allowed to drink and what you are no longer allowed to drink is strictly regulated. In the video, after a short introduction, the 78-page details of the Scotch Whisky Association's regulations are broken down - briefly and concisely.
Here you can learn exactly how malt whisky is made.
This term groups together whiskies mainly from Scotland and Ireland that are not made from malted barley. They can contain any type of grain, even a mixture. For the most part, grain whiskies nowadays contain wheat, as it offers a higher yield than maize, which used to be used for cost reasons. On column stills, grain whisky can be distilled higher than malt whisky. Grain whisky is mainly produced for the blended whisky industry. These whiskies are almost exclusively distilled using the less expensive column still method. The maturation period is also rather short. Since 2014, there has been an increased attempt to place mild grain whisky with connoisseurs, also as a single grain bottling.
Blended whisky can contain any mixture of different whiskies (malt, grain). They differ in variety, but above all in their origin, i.e. the distilleries.
Blended whisky gets its character from the ratio of whiskies from different distilleries, as each distillery produces a different taste through its production method. In the case of the well-known varieties, the ratio is always the same so that the taste does not change. To produce the mass of blends, there are malt whisky distilleries that distil exclusively for the blended whisky industry and do not bottle single malts. Most of the whisky contained is usually grain whisky. The better the blend, the higher the proportion of malt whisky. Blended whisky usually comes from Scotland or Ireland.
Pot Still Whiskey
This special variety is marketed by Ireland. It stands for whiskey that, like grain, may also contain unmalted barley, but was distilled exclusively in stills.
Bourbon and Tennessee
Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the USA. Nevertheless, the largest quantity comes from the state of Kentucky. An exception is the state of Tennessee, which was able to establish the category Tennessee for its whiskeys. There are several gradations for bourbon, which go back to the production process. A bourbon must contain at least 51% corn. The rest is a mixture of some barley for the fermentation process and rye and or wheat. Today, a large proportion is produced using the sour mash process. American whiskey is mainly distilled on column stills. According to American law, bourbon must be matured for at least 2 years in fresh, burnt-out wooden barrels made of American white oak. Post-aging, as with Scotch whisky, is not permitted. If the whiskey is not blended, it may be called Straight Bourbon.
Tennessee whiskey differs from bourbon in that it is additionally filtered with activated charcoal prior to barrel ageing.Learn more about American whiskeyhere.
This type of whiskey was mainly produced in the USA and today still in Canada. It contains a rye content of at least 51% and must also be matured for 2 years in oak barrels. Today, US rye whiskeys are only rare, as its extremely spicy taste is no longer so popular. Canadian rye whisky is an important component of Canadian blended whiskies.
Corn whiskey also comes from the USA, where corn was predominantly cultivated. To bear the name Corn, it must be made from 100% corn. Since these whiskeys taste relatively neutral, they are mostly used for blends.
Other types of whisky: Oat Whisky, Millet Whisky and Wheat Whisky.
There are a small number of other types of whisky, but they are not very widespread. One well-known type is wheat whisky, or wheat whisky in English. The mash for this type of whisky consists of at least 51% wheat. An example of this is Woodford Reserve Wheat, whose mash consists of 52% wheat. This creates its round and complex, fruity-spicy and slightly bitter taste.
Oat Whisky is English for oat whisky, so the mash for this type of whisky is made from oats instead of the usual barley. An example of this is 'Koval Oat' from the Chicago distillery, which is very rich and creamy with notes of banana and honey due to the oats. Oats are particularly prominent in the history of Irish whisky as they were the only affordable grain in the second half of the 19th century. Nowadays, oats are not so prominent in whisky production, although there are special bottlings containing oats from time to time, such as from Koval or also the German distillery Fitzke (Black Forest) or the distillery Weidenauer (Lower Austria).
Another grain that is occasionally used for whisky production is millet. Millet is especially widespread in Asia and Africa and is a popular base for spirits in Nepal. Millet whisky is called 'Millet Whisky' in English and is also produced in the American Koval distillery, for example. The grain for this is even sourced from a local organic farmers' association in the Midwest of the USA. Millet has very small grains and can be malted just like barley. The resulting whisky is very fresh and aromatic, typically bringing complex notes of Asian fruits such as dates, ripe bananas and sweet lychees. You may have to dig a little deeper into your pocket for a rarity like this, as is so often the case with true specialities.
The diversity of taste
If you think that all whiskies of one type taste the same, you are mistaken. Despite the same country of origin, ingredients and production process, there are great differences in taste between distilleries - in contrast to vodka. Above all, cask maturation has a great influence on the later aroma and offers countless possibilities for variation. Read more about the production of malt whisky and its cask ageing here. Which variety is most suited to your taste is up to you. Each variety has its own aficionados. Most sold worldwide are blended whiskies and common bourbons, as they are uncomplicated and easy to drink. Experts, on the other hand, prefer single malt Scotch whiskies or small batch bourbons. For these bottlings, the whiskies are matured for longer and the casks are carefully selected for their aroma. In any case, we recommend that you try the different types of whisky and whiskey for yourself.