Whiskeys are made all over the world and vary widely in taste, ingredients and distillation processes. Depending on where you are, you may get anything from a strong rye to a smooth blend to a spicy bourbon — not to mention different grains and ingredients that create such diverse spirits.
At its core, though, whiskey — or whisky, as many places outside the United States and Ireland spell it —is made by fermenting or infusing grains into hot water. The grains are allowed to sprout a little beforehand to bring out the natural sugars in the grain, then they’re mixed with warm water where they then become a starchy mash.
This warm, porridge-like mash is what gets fermented for anywhere from 48-96 hours. Once fermented, the liquid is strained out and sent to the still to refine and reduce, where it then goes on to age in wooden barrels.
When the whiskey is matured to the distiller’s liking (as in, when the whiskey reaches a certain alcohol by volume content), it can either go straight into the bottle or be filtered with water to adjust the taste and strength.
The differences, then, between all these different kinds of whiskeys are in the ways the distillers choose to perform this age-old brewing tradition. It all comes down to the types of grain they use, the specific production processes and, of course, where it’s all being made.
Here are a few of the most popular kinds of whiskeys out there and how they are different from each other!
Popular types of whiskeys and how they are different
Let’s start with our very own American whiskeys distilled right here in the U.S., where most distillers use either rye, barley, corn or some combination of the three.
For a whiskey to qualify as a bourbon, it must be made entirely within the United States and be made from a minimum of 51% malted corn grains.
Straight bourbon is a little more specific in its requirements than regular bourbon, but only in how and where it’s made. The grain combination is still up to each individual distiller, but they must not add any colorants or flavorings to the final product. It must also come entirely from one state and must be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. Kentucky, for example, is well known for its straight bourbons.
Blended bourbons are mixtures of other whiskeys and flavors, but they must have a base of at least 51% straight bourbon to qualify as a true blended bourbon.
Tennessee whiskey distilling processes aren’t limited to Tennessee, but to be considered a true Tennessee whiskey it must be made entirely within the state and must adhere to strict requirements. The drink itself has similar qualities to bourbon, but the main difference here is that it is also filtered through charcoal after being distilled to refine the spirit further.
All in all, the qualities that make a true Tennessee whiskey are that it must:
- Be made entirely within the state of Tennessee
- Contain a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- Be filtered through charcoal prior to aging
- Be distilled up to 160 proof (80% A.B.V.)
- Be aged in charred oak barrels at no less than 125 proof (62.5% A.B.V.)
- Be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% A.B.V)
Rye whiskeys are made from, you guessed it, primarily rye grains. Here in the United States, whiskeys must have at least half of their grains be rye grains (51% at a minimum) to qualify as a United States rye, while Canadian ryes are a little more lax with their requirements.
Scotch whiskies have to be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels no bigger than 700 liters (185 gallons) and must be made with any combination of malted grains. And, of course, for it to be qualified as a Scotch whisky it must be made entirely in Scotland!
Single malt Scotch whisky has roots in five Scottish towns that each have their own signature flavors and characteristics. As such, these whiskies tend to be on the higher end of the quality (and price!) range, especially since a single malt Scotch also has to be made entirely within one distillery using a simple combination of water, yeast and malted barley.
These blended Scotch whiskies are known for their consistent levels of quality and flavor. This spirit is a blend of single malt Scotch whiskies and single grain Scotch whiskies, both of which are made entirely within their respective distilleries (which is where the “single” prefix comes from!).
The advantage of using a blend of these whiskies is that the blender can rely on the quality of the ingredients each time they create a new blend. Both the single-malt and single-grain whiskies are made with the same simple ingredients each time, so the final flavor and quality of the blend is generally pretty predictable.
In cases where the blended whiskies have an age statement on the bottle, it will refer to the youngest whiskey used to create the Scotch blend — though it could also contain whiskies that are older.
While nearly all whiskies are made with a grain of some kind, these Scotch grain whiskies are unique in that they must be made with a majority of corn or wheat. Both corn and wheat can be used in the same whisky, but they must still account for over half of the ingredients used in the mixture.
Irish whiskies aren’t quite as strict on their requirements as Scotch whiskies are — there are no limits on barrel size or wood type — but they have a few similar qualifiers and unique differences.
True Irish whisky is typically made exclusively with a blend of malted and un-malted barley, though other grains like corn and wheat are also used in many distilleries. They must also, like Scotch, be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels. The popular single-malt Irish whiskey is made with malted barley and is distilled on special copper pot stills — a technique that goes back to the earliest days of whisky distilling.
And, of course, Irish whisky must be made entirely within Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland!
Canadian whisky is similar in ingredients to an American rye whiskey, though it typically uses less than 51% rye in their grain blend, supplementing it with corn to create a lighter, sweeter flavor than its southern counterpart.
Most Canadian whiskies are made in two separate stages and barrels: the first barrel is for aging the base whisky, while the second is for creating and aging the flavorings. These flavorings often include caramel which, when combined with the base whisky, gives the final product a golden look and a sweeter flavor.
Japanese whisky is made in much the same way as Scotch whisky is in terms of distillation processes, but it varies in the ingredients, size of still and aging processes.
These whiskies are typically smoker in flavor due to the use of peat fires to dry the barley, which is the more traditional taste found in Japanese whisky distilleries. Japanese whisky distilleries are also known for adding innovative new flavors to their whiskies by casking their whiskies in sherry, wine or bourbon casks and aging the casks in varying levels of temperature and humidity.
If you’ve ever wondered what the differences between all the whiskeys are or are looking for the perfect whiskey for your palette, then hopefully this gives you an idea of what you can expect from these most popular kinds of whiskeys!
Also, while you're at it, check out our article on different wines and how they're made.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/kaicho20