From bourbon to scotch, this crash course of Whiskey 101 tells you everything you need to know about whiskey. There are many types from around the world and so many ways to enjoy this delicious and complicated spirit.
Let’s take a deep dive into a barrel of whiskey!
This post is part of my series of Cocktail Resources. We’ve done deep dives into tequila, vodka, rum, champagne and more.
What is whiskey?
Whiskey, also sometimes spelled “whisky”,” is an amber-colored spirit distilled from fermented cereal grains called “mash” and aged in wooden containers, usually made of white oak. Common grains are barley, corn, rye and wheat.
The difference in the spelling comes down to where it’s made. In America and Ireland, it’s spelled with an “e” — whiskey. In Canada, Japan and Scotland, it’s spelled without the “e” — whisky. (You can remember it because the countries that spell it with an “e” have an “e” in their names, and the ones that spell it without, don’t.)
According to Brittanica, the earliest direct account of whiskey-making was found in Scottish records dating from 1494.
Types of whiskey
American whiskey consists of three subtypes: bourbon, rye and Tennessee. According to Ibis World, there are 740 whiskey and bourbon distilleries in the United States as of 2022, an increase of 15.4% from 2021.
- Bourbon whiskey was first produced in the state of Kentucky. According to U.S. regulations, its mash must be produced from at least 51% corn and are aged in new, charred oak barrels. The regulations also state that, to be called bourbon, it must be made in the United States. Bourbon’s flavor is sweet and caramel-like. Some famous brands are Old Forester, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses — but the list can go on and on.
- Rye whiskey uses a rye mash or a mash combination of rye and malt. The U.S. regulations stipulate that the mash must contain at least 51% rye grains in order to call it rye whiskey. However, Canadian regulations do not specify a minimum percentage of rye. Rye has a more astringent flavor than bourbon. Many bourbon distillers also produce rye whiskeys.
- Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon. It is also distilled from at least 51% corn and goes into a new, charred oak barrel to age. However, just before the clear spirit goes into the barrels, Tennessee whiskey gets charcoal filtered in what’s known as the Lincoln County Process. Jack Daniels is perhaps the most famous producer of Tennessee whiskey.
Scotch whisky has a smoky flavor derived from its production. The grains, primarily barley, is malted and heated over a peat fire and distilled only twice. Scottish regulations state a whisky cannot be called scotch unless it is entirely produced and bottled in Scotland. Famous scotch brands are Johnnie Walker and Macallan.
Irish whiskey is made in Ireland from unmalted barley and cereal grains. It is often triple-distilled in copper pot stills and aged in new or previously new barrels. Its flavor is smoother, cleaner and less smoky than its Scotch counterpart. Common Irish whiskey brands are Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore D.E.W.
Canadian whisky is most often made from multi-grain mash, though it contains a large percentage of corn and rye, the latter of which could survive the bitter Canadian winters. In fact, Canadian whisky is often referred to as rye whisky. Its flavor is typically lighter and smoother than other styles of whiskey. Common brands of Canadian whisky are Canadian Club and Crown Royal.
Japanese whisky is similar to Scotch and often uses malted or peated barley that’s imported from Scotland. Like scotch, it is also double-distilled. Some distillers use imported barrels while others use locally made barrels made of Japanese Mizunara oak. However, Japanese distillers prefer to refine their flavors to yield more delicate whiskies. The most popular Japanese whisky distillers are Nikka and Suntory.
Non-alcoholic whiskey isn’t technically a whiskey at all, because it doesn’t contain any alcohol. However, it deserves a mention in this list because the zero-proof alcohol scene is very much on the rise and there are some decent alternatives, and hopefully more on the way. Ritual Zero Proof’s whiskey alternative is a smokey, amber-colored liquor alternative that adds a flavor similar to whiskey to low- and no-alcohol drinks.
How whiskey is made
Whiskey production varies depending on the style, the country of origin and other factors, but for the most part, the process is very similar across the board.
According to Whisky Advocate, this is the main process that is followed to make most whiskeys:
- Malting: Even though all whiskey starts as raw grain, malt whiskey like Scotch requires its barley go through a special treatment process to access its sugars. The barley is moistened and allowed to sprout, which converts the barley’s starches to sugars. The barley is then dried through a heating process, and the sprouted grains can continue to the next step.
- Mashing: Mashing is the process of extracting sugars from the grain. Any grains being used, like corn, wheat or rye, are ground then added to a large tank called a “mash tun” where they are agitated with hot water. The mash, which resembles porridge, then moves onto the fermentation stage.
- Fermentation: Yeast is added to the mash in giant vats, where it converts the sugars in the liquid and converts them to alcohol. It can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours, resulting in a bevy of different flavors. The resulting liquid is called distiller’s beer or wash.
- Distillation: Next the mixture goes through copper stills, either pot stills or column stills, which help to strip the spirit of unwanted flavors and aromas. Malt whiskies usually go through the pot still processes. The wash gets heated up, then as it boils, the vapors rise off the liquid into the neck and a condenser, which returns them to liquid. This is repeated at least two or three times. Then the liquid can be added to barrels for aging. This liquid is also known as “white lightning” or “white whiskey,” and is clear in color.
- Maturation: Most whiskies are matured in wooden containers, usually oak. Bourbon and rye whiskeys in America must me aged in new, charred oak barrels, but other styles leave this up to the producer. The barrels are stored in warehouses until ready. Some styles of whiskey, like scotch, have a required minimum age.
- Bottling: When the whiskey is ready, it may be filtered, then can be bottled for selling. Large brands will combine many barrels from the warehouses, but when one barrel is bottled at a time, it’s referred to as single cask or single barrel.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit a distillery and take a tour, you can see how this process works. I was lucky to do so on a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, which I highly recommend!
Before or after bottling, some whiskeys are flavored with added artificial flavorings or infusions.
Peanut butter whiskey is a great example, but there are tons of others on the market including, peach, honey, maple, apple and caramel.
I like to infuse my own whiskeys at home. Try making your own Fireball AKA cinnamon whiskey or honey whiskey. These are great for mixing into cocktails.
How much is whiskey?
Whiskey prices vary widely depending on the type, popularity, rarity and country of origin. A single-barrel whiskey typically costs more, where as blended whiskeys are often cheaper. Some distillers don’t produce as much, making their bottles rare and expensive.
You can often find a bottle of whisky for as low as $15 in the United States. According to Lemons for Lulu, the most expensive whiskey in the world is Isabella’s Islay, which costs a whopping $6,200,000 per bottle.
When is World Whiskey Day?
World Whisky Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in May each year. International Whisk(e)y Day takes place March 27 each year.
Whisky can be enjoyed on its own (neat) or on ice (on the rocks). You can also cook with whiskey, making everything from icing to cranberry sauce.
There are many whiskey cocktail recipes to try. Here are some classics:
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