11 Types Of Whiskey Explained

In every corner of the world and state across the country, whiskey producers ferment and distill cereal grains with water, turning them into buttery smooth, caramel-colored liquor, telling a hometown story with every sip. From earthy, smoky, peat-filled scotch from Islay, Scotland, to sweet, honey-filled bourbon from Kentucky, these oaky brown spirits are enjoyable on their own or as a base for the best drinks to mix with a whiskey producing an old-fashioned, Manhattan, Boulevardier, Sazerac.

When deciding if you should drink whiskey or whisky, it comes down to who makes your favorite selection. The location defines how you will spell the liquor. Scotch from Scotland does not use the "e," nor does Canada, Japan, or India. Ireland and America both include the "e" in their whiskey.

Whatever the spelling, we like it all. But why? Let's dig into the story of these delicious brown spirits and what makes each unique.

1. Scotch Whisky

We likely have the Scots to thank for whisky. The Scotch Whisky Experience noted that the name whisky comes from Uisge Beatha, meaning "water of life" in the Scottish Highlands Gaelic language. Though the alcohol was likely been around for centuries, the first reference to the spirit came in 1494 when tax records note Friar John Cor obtained eight bolls of malt to make aquavit.

Initially, barley malt was the base for all scotch, according to The Scotch Advocate. In the 1700s, other grains, like wheat and rye, were added to the distillation. For a spirit to be labeled scotch, it must come from Scotland, age a minimum of three years in barrel, and be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV (alcohol by volume).

The production area further defines these characteristics. The Scottish regions of Speyside, Lowland, Highland, Campbeltown, and Islay deliver distinctive styles. Islay Scotch shows smoky, earthy traits from the peat used to heat the stills (via Hackstons). Scotch from the Highlands is robust, also revealing forest-floor earthiness, like Islay. Both historically did not have access to coal or trees to use as fuel.

Speyside and Lowland scotch benefit from ships and railways bringing coal to heat the stills instead of using peat, allowing the sweetness of the fermented grains to show in the barrel-aged whisky, delivering an elegant style layering honeyed caramel and toasted brown spice (via Whisky Exchange.) Former sherry casks also often age these whiskies, infusing dried orange, fig, and raisin flavors.

2. Single Malt and Blended Whisky

Though purists may believe the single malt whiskey is the best, expertly-blended whiskey delivers a delicious combination of flavors enhanced by varying regional characteristics.

The art of blending has helped propel Japanese whisky to monumental success. Ireland and Canada are also known for their blended whiskey. But, the single-malt whiskies of Scotland are some of the most prized liquors in the world. The most expensive whisky in the world in 2020 was Isabella's Islay, a $6.2 million 30-year-old, single malt scotch from Scotland's Islay island, notes The Whisky Guide. The 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations define the difference between the two is relatively straightforward. Single malt scotch is whisky distilled in one or more batches using pot stills at a single distillery using only water and malted barley. No other grains or ingredients are allowed.

Blended scotch whisky can mix malted barley with other grains, coloring, and ingredients. It can also blend a variety of single malt whiskies distilled in one or more distilleries in Scotland. Though single malt may reign as the most expensive whisky in the world, there are plenty of incredible blended scotch whiskies that won't require you to mortgage your house to enjoy a dram, namely Johnnie Walker, Monkey Shoulder, and The Famous Grouse, awarded a Royal Warrant by Queen Elizabeth II in 1984, noted Forbes.

3. Bourbon

Whiskey is as American as apple pie. It's been a part of our history since before the American Revolution (via Distilled Spirits Council). Scotch-Irish immigrants imported stills, fermenting and distilling anything that could become alcohol, from pumpkin and pomegranate to Indian corn and grain. George Washington set up whiskey stills throughout the colonies, believing in moderation, alcohol was necessary to keep morale high during the war.

Whiskey production became a profitable industry in the New World, particularly as settlers began moving inland. Thanks to a surplus of corn, colonists began distilling the sweet starch into liquor, transporting it to neighboring towns in barrels constructed from locally grown trees. In 1776 Virginia was cut in half, with the western portion becoming Kentucky, an area with excellent farming potential. Homesteaders agreeing to build a house and plant a plot of corn in the new territory received land for free. From this, Kentucky bourbon was born. The American Bourbon Association states to be a bourbon, the mash (or soupy sugary starch that begins fermentation) must contain at least 51% corn. Only water can be added; no colorings or additives are allowed. Bourbon must age two years in new, charred oak containers, usually American oak barrels, and the alcohol must be at least 40% ABV when bottled.

4. Rye Whiskey

As southern colonists became acquainted with corn whiskey, German and Scotch-Irish immigrants in northern territories like Pennsylvania and Maryland turned to rye to make their whiskey (via Distilled Spirits Council.) The grain was common in Europe, so they were familiar with using it to make whiskey. And, unlike barley, rye is a sturdy, full-bodied grain that quickly adapted to the new American environment giving a hearty, plentiful crop.

Requirements for producing American rye whiskey are similar to those for bourbon. Rye whiskey mash must be 51% rye, the alcohol must age for a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels, and distillers can only add water to reduce the overall alcohol level. But, unlike bourbon, rye is bottled at a significantly higher minimum alcohol, around 125 proof (or 62% ABV.) 

The natural beauty of rye comes through in the flavor profile, as the spirit tends to deliver robust, earthy, spicy flavors versus the sweet, honeyed notes of corn-based whiskey. Rye whiskey is full-bodied, complex, and concentrated. Aging rye beyond the two-year minimum helps mellow the robust palate, rounding out the distinct, dry, delicious flavor, a practice many rye producers utilize.

5. Tennessee Whiskey

There is something special about Tennessee whiskey. Chris Stapleton summed it up in his Billboard Hot 100 song singing his love is "as smooth as Tennessee whiskey." Technically a bourbon, it is made from 51% corn mash, aged in charred, new oak barrels, and bottled at no less than 40% alcohol (via Difference.guru). However, few producers note the designation on their label.

Instead, distillers showcase that their product is Tennessee Whiskey, following the state-defined regulations that their 100% made-in Tennessee whiskey filters through sugar maple charcoal before aging, also known as the Lincoln County Process (via Whiskipedia). This process gives a soft, mellow flavor without a harsh alcohol bite. Tennessee distillers also craft their liquor as sour mash whiskey. Where bourbon uses 100% new grains when making the mash, sour mash distillers blend a portion of spent mash (containing grain, water, and yeast) into new grains (via The Whiskey Wash). The process helps fermentation for the new batch begin, similar to adding a sourdough starter when making bread. The process also regulates the pH while bringing consistent flavor to the whiskey. 

In 1866 Jack Daniel's became the first registered distillery in Tennessee and the United States. Its classic sour mash Old No. 7 filters through ten feet of maple sugar charcoal before aging in oak barrels. Aging takes place as long as it needs to, bottled when Jack Daniel's master distillers believe it's ready delivering a smooth, easy-drinking whiskey with vanilla, honey, and allspice.

6. Irish Whiskey

High-end premium Irish whiskey enjoyment is rising amongst American consumers (via Distilled Spirits Council.) Scotland may claim to be the first grain-based liquor producer, but Irish monks were believed to be making whiskey around the same time. The Pot Still has shared that the first recorded date for Irish whiskey production was in 1405, but grapes were likely the base. Shortly after, grain became the base for whiskey, often distilled using small pot stills.

Over the centuries that followed, Ireland faced incredible hardships, including massive taxation from the British government, famine, war, and recession. However, in the past few decades, Irish whiskey has enjoyed a resurgence. The Irish Whiskey Museum noted that in 2013 there were only four working Irish distilleries. Today 24 distilleries are in operation. The requirements for Irish whiskey today ensure a smooth, silky liquor results batch after small batch. Whisky Advocate noted that any cereal grain could often be the base, a mix of malted and un-malted barley. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can make the whiskey, with the minimum alcohol at least 40% ABV when bottled.

Whiskey must age three years in a wooden cask, usually after three times distillation. This "traditional method" of distillation gives the whiskey an overall smoothness. Though not a legal requirement, triple distillation is standard practice throughout the country. The two leading producers of Irish whiskey are Bushmills, the oldest whiskey distillery in the world founded in 1608, and Jameson, which began in 1780.

7. Canadian Whisky

On the surface, 200+-year-old Canadian whisky is cut and dry. It must come from Canada, be made from cereal grains, age in wooden barrels for three years, and have minimum 40% ABV when bottled (via Distiller.) But, there is so much more to Canadian whisky than meets the eye.

Only a handful of distilleries are dotted across the vast country, each adhering to guidelines while following internal best practices. Most don't use a mash bill. Instead, producers ferment, distill, and age individual grains, blending to create the final product after aging is complete. This method allows distillers to select the ideal cask for each grain, using the barrel's character to enhance the alcohol's flavor. Producers often extend the time in barrel beyond three years if they feel the spirit will benefit from further aging.

Canadian distilleries can also add non-Canadian spirits into their blend, per the country's Certificates of Age and Origin for Distilled Spirits Produced or Packaged in Canada Order (via Government of Canada). The order states that Canadian whisky blends can have 9.09% of other alcohol, as long as the flavor remains like Canadian whisky. The law came about to offset American tariffs for booze crossing the border. Canadian whisky sales continue to grow in America, with 18.7 million 9-liter cases purchased in 2020, per the Distilled Spirits Council's 2020 report, a 12% growth over the previous five years (via Departures.) Loyal Canadian whisky drinkers aren't surprised; the liquor is smooth, balanced, and filled with vanilla, fruit, and spice notes.

8. Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky is known for its smoky, earthy, peaty character, similar to scotch, and is often aged in Japanese oak barrels (via Tasters Club.) However, it wasn't until very recently that the country began regulating production, potentially changing the face of one of the world's fastest-growing whisky categories (via Bloomberg).

In recent years, Japanese whisky became one of the fastest-growing export categories, growing almost 1500% between 2010 and 2020 (via Forbes). It is also highly awarded, including Whisky Advocate's 2018 Best Whisky of the Year, Nikka Whisky From the Barrel. Before April 2021, Japanese whisky only had to be bottled in Japan, but the ingredients could originate anywhere. Producers could import scotch or bourbon and label it Japanese whisky. Nikka Whisky From the Barrel production does not comply with the new regulations, meaning the bottle's booze likely came from outside Japan and was only blended and bottled in the country.

New labeling regulations require that the base of Japanese whisky be Japanese malted barley, other grains, and Japanese water. Fermentation and distillation must occur in Japan. The liquor must age three years in wooden casks and be Japanese bottled with an alcohol of at least 40% ABV. Producers have until 2024 to comply. Future buyers may not look at the label designating if the whiskey is technically "Japanese whisky" or just whisky from Japan. Still, it will be interesting to see how consumer acceptance, and award recognition, may change with the new regulations in place.

9. White Whiskey

White whiskey, or moonshine, is unaged whiskey that doesn't benefit from the flavors and spices that oak can bring to liquor, leaving nothing for spirit to hide behind. The history of moonshine is as old as America. Colonists began making whiskey to avoid paying for imported Bristish rum or brandy. Not long after, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton enacted a whiskey tax on alcohol in the early 1790s. Home distillers, or moonshiners, made shine illegally in homemade stills to avoid paying the tax. They worked without regulations or restrictions, usually in secret at night by the moon's light. During Prohibition, moonshiners upped the intensity of the drink with anything from manure to bleach to embalming fluid (via How Stuff Works.) Early batches could result in alcohol levels upwards of 190 proof.

Known as "hooch" and "white lightning," the clear, corn-based spirit didn't taste or smell appealing, but it had a kick. But generations before us still drank it historically out of unmarked mason jars, ingesting hazardous chemicals like methanol.

Thankfully, much has changed when it comes to moonshine. Though still illegal to make at home, in 2010, the clear corn-based liquor became commercially legal in a handful of states. Today's distillers follow defined legalities and guidelines, ensuring drinkers won't fear blindness when imbibing. 'Ole Smoky and Sugarlands deliver a powerful 100-proof unaged clear spirit with a hint of sweetness and a punch of alcohol, packaged classically in mason jars.

10. Flavored Whisk(e)y

The number of flavored whiskies on the market grows each year exponentially, meeting the growing demand. In 2020 over 16 million cases were sold in the U.S., eight times as many as sold a short decade ago (via MarketWatch.) Younger consumers, women, and multi-cultural communities dominate the demographic for the category, enjoying flavors like cinnamon, apple, peach, cherry, and peanut butter.

The oldest flavored whisky in the world is Drambuie. Though technically a whisky liqueur, the blend was the personal recipe of British Prince Charles Edward Stuart, made with scotch, honey, herbs, and spices giving strength and vitality to the Prince in 1745. The Prince gave the formula to the head of a Scottish clan as a thank you for their hospitality. Through the years, the recipe remains unchanged, delivering a sweet, floral, satisfying liqueur used in classic after-dinner cocktails like the Rusty Nail.

In recent years, brands like Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey burst onto the scene, grabbing top recognition as the Market Watch Best New Product in 2020, growing over 1,976% in 2020, shares Forbes. It joined brands like Fireball from Sazerac, and variants from major distilleries, like Crown Royal Peach Tea and Jack Daniel's Apple Jack.

11. Indian Whisky

If you find yourself in India and want to taste a unique whisky, you will be in luck, as the country produces 48% of the world's whiskies, but most Indian whisky stays within the country (via Cuban House of Cigars.) First introduced by British colonialists over 200 years ago, whisky consumption for the 1.35 billion people within India was upwards of 1.5 billion liters in 2014. Though the whisky is undoubtedly delicious, the immense popularity of the spirit within India is also likely because of the country's 150% import duty on foreign products. 

There are few regulations in place defining Indian whisky. In 2005, the Indian Bureau of Standards offered whisky could be made from a neutral spirit, rectified grade 1 spirit, or both, meaning that Indian whisky is commonly made from molasses, making it more like a barrel-aged rum than whiskey. The cost and availability of using grain versus molasses prove to be prohibitive. However, some producers will add malt or pre-made scotch to add complexity to their product. The time in barrel is also significantly shorter than international standards. Because the heat of India is so much higher than in many whisky-producing countries, aging occurs very fast.

With the shorter aging period, and use of ingredients other than grains, yeast, and water, most Indian whiskies don't meet the EU standards to label whisky on the international market. But, as distillers adapt their process to meet international regulations, options are becoming available, including multi-award-winning selections from Amrut.