The Complete Guide To Whiskey Styles

Jul 9, 2021

Category: Vices

Depending on where you are in the world, asking for a whiskey (or a whisky) at the bar will yield wildly different results. After all, the spirit makes for one of the most diverse distillations in the beverage industry, with everything from single malt Scotches to bonded American bourbons to blended Canadian ryes falling under the same grandiose umbrella. Sure, such dark liquors do share a lot in common; they’re all made from a combination of malted grains like barley, corn, rye, and wheat, and they’re almost always aged in some sort of barrel. However, the whiskey space is one that’s chock-full of diversity, and each of the various styles comes with its own unique history, production processes, and overall drinking experience.

As such, the culture can prove pretty difficult to break into if you’re only a novice in your whiskey enthusiasm; it’s a lot of information for anyone to digest. To make matters worse, most seasoned drinkers have a tendency to be pretentious, eagerly displaying their armchair expertise at even the slightest invitation. You might have only asked someone for a simple explanation of Scotch, but before you know it, they’ll have launched into a lengthy discourse on the merits of continuous distillation and why the Irish can’t rightfully be credited with whiskey’s creation. All that is to say: if you find yourself feeling lost without a plan of action, don’t fret — we’re here to help. Having familiarized ourselves with the ins and outs of whiskey styles from across the globe, we’ve put together this handy crash course to get you on your way. So buckle up and get ready for a wild ride; what follows is our complete guide to whiskey styles.

Photo: Shutterstock

Whisky vs. Whiskey

The Age-Old Debate

Although the words ‘whisky’ and ‘whiskey’ are almost identical in spelling, the inclusion of the letter ‘e’ makes for an important distinction when it comes to their meaning. Of course, the spirits are fundamentally similar in style — you won’t be confusing either one with a lighter option like vodka — but it would be incredibly reductionist to assume that their differences are only semantic. Between the geographical location, the production method, and the ingredients used, there’s actually a lot that makes a whisky a ‘whisky’ and a whiskey, well, a ‘whiskey.’ So, while it might seem like an insignificant subtlety to an outsider, it’s one that’s critical to get right around passionate whiskey nerds. To use the words interchangeably is asking for a lecture; below, we explain each word’s origins to save you from making such an error for yourself.

Whisky: This spelling comes from the Scottish translation of the classical Gaelic words ‘uisge breatha’ or ‘usquebaugh,’ meaning “water of life.” When the British began colonizing America around the turn of the 17th century, the Scots brought with them their distillation process and accompanying terminology. Today, countries like Canada and Japan have adopted the -y spelling because of their relationships to Scottish tradition, with the former being one of heritage and the latter being one of inspiration.

Whiskey: This spelling, however, originates with the Irish translation, adding an -ey as per the local dialect. While it’s unclear when the word first entered the written language, the country is home to the oldest licensed whiskey operation in the world, The Old Bushmills Distillery, which has always abided by the spelling since its establishment in 1608. Whisky and whiskey were used pretty much interchangeably during colonial America, but between the government’s 1791 Excise Whiskey Tax and the growing Irish immigrant population, the -ey spelling was eventually cemented for good.

Photo: Knappogue Castle

Irish

The Father Of All Whiskey

There’s long been a debate as to who can claim parental rights: Ireland or Scotland. Up until a few years ago, the Scots could point to tax records as indisputable proof that they were making whisky in 1494. However, it was then discovered that the Irish actually have an even earlier reference, with an entry in the Annals of Clonmacnoise appearing as far back as 1405. Regardless of where you stand, know that the true origins of the spirit are far older. In fact, it’s thought that distillation was originally brought to the British Isles by Irish Christian missionaries sometime around 500-600AD. Without the vineyards of Europe, they began fermenting grain mash instead, giving rise to some of the first whiskey ever created.

Industry Decline: Around the turn of the 18th century, Ireland was the single largest spirit producer in all of the United Kingdom. With demand being greater than ever, the market was booming, and Dublin was well on its way to becoming a bonafide whiskey capital (at one point, it even boasted the highest combined output in the world). It’s a success that likely would have continued were it not for the invention of the Coffey Still by a certain Aeneas Coffey. Steadfast in their adherence to ‘pure pot still’ production, many Irish distilleries rejected the innovation in favor of what they believed to be a superior methodology. But between the changing tastes of drinkers, the Irish War of Independence, the subsequent trade embargoes with Britain, and Prohibition in the United States, the country simply couldn’t keep its exports up enough to support the industry. So, while it may have had some 28 distilleries at its peak, by the 1970s, Ireland was down to just two. In other words, Irish whiskey made a remarkable comeback since that time.

Production Characteristics: For a spirit to be considered an Irish whiskey, it needs to satisfy a couple of criteria as defined by the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950. Obviously, it must — above all else — be distilled in Ireland. But it should also feature a mashbill consisting of domestic malt and cereal grains, and it should have spent at least three years’ time aging in barrels. Malted or unmalted barley will depend on which type of whiskey is being made, and any number of different casks can be used for the finish. It’s worth noting that if an Irish whiskey is to be classified as a traditional pot still spirit, it can only be triple-distilled in copper pots.

Knappogue Castle 12 Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey

If you’re looking for a solid introduction into the world of Irish whiskey, you can’t go wrong with this 12-year from Knappogue Castle. An incredibly fruit-forward expression, it features notes of green apple and honeysuckle on the nose, red berries and grapes through the palate, and a lingering peachy-banana finish.

Purchase: $50

Photo: Forty Creek

Canadian

The Great White North

John Molson is widely regarded as the father of Canadian whisky, credited with the earliest commercial production of the spirit around the turn of the 19th century. Granted, the first distillery in Canada had been in operation since 1769, but drinkers had mostly been enjoying an ad hoc rum because of Britain’s strong imperial sugar trade. However, once Molson purchased a copper pot still and demonstrated the capabilities of Canadian grain, it was no time at all before Scottish immigrants began to respond in kind. As the pioneers continued to settle the land and farming became a more viable prospect, whisky distillation also grew in scale. Thus, by the 1840s, Canada had well over 200 distilleries in operation.

Rye Whisky: So the story goes, that as Canadian whisky increased in its popularity, over time, distillers began adding small amounts of rye grain in order to impart some extra earthy flavor. It started off as an experiment — an occasional handful here and there — but with drinkers routinely demanding this new special spicy spirit, it became a decidedly more regular feature. These days, rye is almost always used in Canadian whisky to some degree. So, while there may be some exceptions every now and then, there’s really no distinction made between rye whisky and Canadian whisky (unlike its much more strictly defined American counterpart).

Production Characteristics: In contrast to the other spirits that we’ve included as a part of this guide, Canadian whisky is actually pretty lax in production requirements. In fact, it only needs to be made from a mash of cereal grain, aged for three years in barrels smaller than 700L, bottled at less than 40% ABV, and, of course, produced entirely within Canada. Apart from those few qualifiers, though, it’s largely left up to the distillery. As such, you’ll find any number of different mashbills, barrel types, and age statements appearing throughout the industry. In general, most Canadian whiskies are technically a blend of corn, barley, and rye, with each grain distilled separately before being combined in a single bottle.

Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve Canadian Whisky

As a 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition Gold Medal Winner, Forty Creek’s Confederation Oak Reserve is a whisky boasting some serious critical acclaim. Up front, it greets you with citrus fruit and mild vanilla, after which it transitions into a sweet-yet-nutty palate and a medium smoky finish.

Purchase: $60

Photo: Suntory

Japanese

The Island Nation

Japan got its first taste of whisky back in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry forced an end to the Island Nation’s trade isolation and left a 110-gallon barrel of brown liquor as a parting gift. In the coming years, the Japanese tried their best to recreate the spirit for themselves, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that they had any kind of success. At that time, two men by the names of Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru came together in order to found Japan’s first official whisky distillery: Yamazaki. As an established port wine wholesaler, Torii brought the business acumen, while Taketsuru, having studied at the University of Glasgow, provided the distillation expertise. On paper, the pair seemed like a perfect match, but their initial efforts weren’t particularly well-received. Ultimately, it would take the thirst of the army during WWII for whisky to really gain favor amongst Japanese drinkers.

Shortage: Up until a few years ago,  only the most diehard of whiskey nerds appreciated Japanese whisky for what it was.  However, once the world caught wind of Bill Murray promoting Suntory in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation,” the spirit was catapulted into mainstream popularity. Over the next decade, more and more drinkers began taking to the stuff, buying up Japan’s existing stock and sending prices skyward. Thus, by the time Jim Murray had crowned a Taketsuru 17-Year “Best of the Year” in 2014, Japanese whisky had already become something of a hot commodity. Unfortunately, Japan wasn’t exactly prepared for such an influx of new fans, meaning that this increased demand has since put quite the squeeze on the country’s production output. As such, many distilleries have had to limit or discontinue the sale of their older-aged expressions altogether — they simply didn’t create the necessary supply 10, 15, or even 20 years ago. Until they can catch back up, we’ll have to make do with blends and younger or NAS varieties.

Production Characteristics: Prior to 2021, Japanese whisky didn’t have any formal definitions for its production process, meaning that distillers could combine their product with spirits from overseas and it would still be considered authentic expression. But with the pressures of shortage, Japan has since enacted a new set of regulations which will take effect come 2024. In practice, this means that a spirit will have to be made from malted barley, use local water, and be fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Japan. What’s more, it’ll need to be aged in wooden casks for three years and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. As is the case with Scotch, Japanese whisky is available in single malt, blended, and grain varieties. Rather than going into each one here, we’ll take a closer look at them later in the following section.

Suntory Hibiki Harmony Japanese Whisky

While the older expressions in Suntory’s Hibiki line have become all but impossible to find, Harmony is a blend that’s still readily available. Made using malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, it also incorporates a grain whisky from Chita, giving it a well-balanced flavor heaped with honey, rose, and sweet lychee.

Purchase: $90

Photo: Chivas Regal

Scotch

The Father Of All Whisky

As we’ve touched on above, the oldest written record of Scotch whisky occurred in the 15th century, with a reference made to the spirit appearing on the Exchequer Rolls around 1494. Again, in all likelihood, the Scots would have been actively distilling long before such a transaction took place, as monks are believed to have learned the process whilst traveling around Europe. In any case, as whisky continued to grow in popularity, it eventually caught the attention of those in power. Thus, seeing an opportunity for revenue potential, the Scottish Parliament passed the first tax on the spirit in 1644. Unsurprisingly, distillers didn’t take too kindly to the penalty, and smuggling illicit whisky served as the SOP until a fairer arrangement was agreed upon some 150-odd years later. It was at that time that Aeneas Coffey patented his revolutionary continuous still, giving birth to a more approachable alternative to the strong single malts that had long reigned supreme: grain whisky.

Production Characteristics: Until the late 18th century, Scotch was almost exclusively distilled using malted barley. However, upon the introduction of the Coffey Still, many distilleries began experimenting with a variety of other grains too, incorporating wheat, rye, as well as color and flavor additives in their mash so that they could create more diverse expressions. Today, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) mandates that Scotch must be distilled and matured in Scotland, aged in oak casks for at least three years, and bottled at a minimum strength of 40% ABV. Below, we break down each of the five distinct types of Scotch in more detail.

Single Malt: Single malts are those that have been produced by a single distillery using malted barley and a copper pot still. They tend to offer fuller flavor profiles than their blended counterparts and are notorious for their high price tags.

Single Grain: Though single grain whiskies must also be fermented at a single distillery, they can include unmalted cereals, whole grains, corn, as well as water. More often than not, you’ll find this type of Scotch whisky in blends, but when bottled on its own, it makes for a lighter, leaner body than the above.

Blended: Blended Scotches are made from one or more single malts or single grains, and they can be produced entirely in-house or in collaboration with several different distilleries. In general, blends are both cheaper and easier to mix than single malts.

Blended Malt: This type of Scotch comprises two or more single malts (no grain) from at least two separate distilleries. Despite the added complexity, blended malts have always been a bit of a niche offering, and they would have disappeared from the market entirely were it not for a recent revivalist movement.

Blended Grain: Last but not least are blended grains. As you’d expect, these are Scotches that are made from a mixture of two or more single grain whiskies produced by at least two or more separate distilleries. While they’re largely written off as “fillers,” blended grains make for an affordable spirit with a unique flavor unto their own.

Chivas Regal 12-Year Blended Scotch

As one of the most ubiquitous Scotch brands on the planet, Chivas Regal is a name that needs no introduction. This 12-Year bled often gets overlooked in favor of more expensive expressions, but give it a taste and it’s sure to impress with its refined herby palate, surprisingly full body, and excellent value for money.

Purchase: $30

Aberlour 18-Year Double Cask Single Malt

However, if you’re more in the mood for sipping on a single malt, this 18-year from Aberlour makes for an excellent alternative. The oldest expression in the distillery’s Double Cask range, it combines notes of dried fruit and leather with a lengthy polished oak finish.

Purchase: $175

Photo: Knob Creek

American

Prohibition Proven

Being the product of an immigrant nation, American whiskey has a history that technically begins with its Irish and Scottish ancestors. However, the most modern incarnation of the spirit can be traced back to the 18th century, when states like Virginia and Maryland switched their distillation methods to brew a more rye-based product. Moreover, as Irish immigrants flooded the hills of territories like Tennessee and Kentucky, they discovered that the land abounded with everything necessary for whiskey production, including corn for the mash and wood for the barrels. It’s these such conditions that prompted the rapid development of the industry, with bottling becoming standard practice by the 1890s and stringent regulations like the “Bottled-In-Bond” act coming to ensuring the spirit’s authenticity. Although the Prohibition era of the 1920s aimed to put a stop to alcohol consumption altogether, it was quickly discovered to be more of a hindrance to the economy than any kind of moral triumph. In fact, whiskey’s return proved so well-received that Congress eventually declared it “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964.

Production Characteristics: Because American whiskey is such a broad category of alcohol, there are only a few production requirements that apply to each of its various subtypes. In addition to being distilled in the United States, a spirit must be stored in oak containers, bottled at or above 40% ABV, and generally taste as an American whiskey should. This is obviously only a generalized definition, as each variety will have its own particular nuances. We outline them below.

Bourbon: Arguably the most notable of all American whiskeys, bourbon is also the strictest in its qualifications. For starters, it must contain no less than 51% corn in its mashbill, and it must be completely free of additives. Furthermore, it has to be aged in new charred oak, with the spirit entering the cask at 125 proof and being distilled to no more than 160 proof. Straight bourbons add to that a two-year maturation mandate, while bonded varieties require four-year aging, single-year single-distillery fermentation, as well as 100 proof bottling. Oh, and barrel-proof bourbons are exactly as they sound — they’re bottled to the same strength at which the whiskey was aged.

Rye Whiskey: Rye whiskey is considerably more accommodating, as it only requires that the mashbill be comprised of at least 51% rye. Otherwise, it can feature corn, wheat, malted barley, and even other additives so long as it’s not being classified as a straight rye. Rye malts are only slightly different in that they must be malted before distillation.

Corn Whiskey: This type of whiskey is similar to bourbon insofar as it has a high corn content; however, a mere 51% isn’t enough — it must be made up of at least 80% corn grain. Though it can be bottled without maturation, if it’s to be aged, it should be in used or uncharred oak.

Other Whiskeys: Other whiskeys like malt and wheat are effectively the same in their requirements as rye, only they need to feature a mashbill consisting of 51% of their namesake grain.

Knob Creek Rye Whiskey

Pouring a light gold in color, this rye whiskey from Knob Creek features a flavorful nose befitting much higher rye expressions and a palate that’s spicy without taking away from its smooth oaky finish. Sure, you might not be pulling this one out for special occasions, but it’s widely available and affordable enough to be an everyday drinker at just $40 a bottle.

Purchase: $40

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon

If you want to experience a bourbon as a master distiller would taste it, a barrel-proof expression is easily your best bet. This offering from Elijah Craig features a nose packed full of sweet fruit, a palate rich with cinnamon spice, and a finish that’s so smooth you’ll be reaching for another dram before you know it.

Purchase: $100

The 15 Best-Looking Whiskey Bottles You Can Buy

Now that you’re well-steeped in the wide world of whiskey types, it’s time to turn your attention to how the spirit is stored. If you’re looking to give your bar cart an aesthetic upgrade, be sure to check out our guide to the best-looking whiskey bottles you can buy.

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