Simple Guide to Types of Whisk(e)y : Bourbon, Scotch, Rye
Our Guide to learning the different types of whiskey
What is the difference between Scotch, Bourbon, and Whiskey (or Whisky)?
Great question. Whisk(e)y is the general overlying term to categorize them all. Basically, they’re all whiskeys and just different types of whiskeys. After that, it is just breaking them down into where in the world it comes from, the distillation processes which each region uses, and the grains used. Here’s where the main 5 whiskey types come from.
- Scotch – Scotland
- Bourbon – USA
- Irish Whiskey – Ireland
- Canadian Whiskey – Canada
- Japanese Whisky – Japan
All these types of whiskey are distilled from various and/or specific grains (corn, wheat, rye, oats, and barley) and aged in barrels. In a basic sense, whiskey is simply distilled, hop-less beer (99.9% of the time – we have had a whiskey which used hops too). Grains are steeped and yeasted, converting the sugars from the grains into alcohol. Each grain has a different sugar content level. For example, corn has a higher sugar content than wheat or rye, giving a whiskey made with corn a sweeter taste than one with wheat or rye. After converting the sugars to alcohol, whiskey making deviates from beer making and goes through various distillation processes, dependent on which type of whiskey it is. They are all at least 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).
Each country has its own set of regulations for producing their whiskies. These regulations combined with their local natural resources, agriculture, and traditions create the foundations for each country’s whiskey. Let’s take a look.
Is it Whisky or Whiskey?
Spelling – what’s with the different spellings (whisky or whiskey) when talking about types of whiskey? Neither is wrong, unless you are regionally biased. Different regions have different historical spellings.
- Whiskey – generally US & Ireland
- Whisky – Scotland, Canada, and Japan
What is American Whiskey
In the beginning Europeans first arrived to the US and they found an abundance of rye, giving birth to rye whiskey in the US. Later after settling into present day Kentucky, corn grew very well and America’s treasure, bourbon came to be. There are many kinds of whiskeys made in the US ranging from unregulated moonshine to white whiskey to the highly regulated Bottled in Bond Bourbon. Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, and Rye are the primary types we’ll take a look at.
- Originally and most distilleries are from the South, particularly Kentucky, but doesn’t have to be. Must be made in US.
- Must be made from at least 51% corn
- No additives but water allowed (no coloring, caramel and flavoring additives)
- Must be aged in charred new-oak barrels for at least 2 years to be called “straight” bourbon
Tennessee sour mash whiskey (Tennesse Bourbon)
- Is a specific variation of bourbon made in Tennessee and has a additional set of regulations
- 51-79% corn
- Other additional regulation – must be filtered through maple charcoal chunks before aging (called Lincoln county process)
- Jack Daniels is a Tennessee whiskey
Bottled in Bond
- A bottling and labeling set of legal regulations for American whiskeys.
- Stems from Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 – was to ensure authentic and quality whiskey
- Must be aged at least 4 years
- At least 100 proof
- Product of one distillery, from one season
- Purpose was originally to create a standard of quality for bourbon, but some distilleries also produce bonded rye whiskey, corn whiskey, and apple brandy.
- At least 51% rye grain (can range anywhere from 51%-100%)
- Crisper, spicer, and sharper mouthfeel than bourbon
- Charred new-oak barrels at least two years
- No additives but water
What Do American Whiskey’s Taste Like?
Bourbon has a caramel like sweetness and vanilla tones. Generally the sweetest of the whisk(e)y family. A bit of smokiness from being barreled in charred oak. Tennessee whiskey – tastes kinda like bourbon. Some say it is a bit mellower, slightly sweeter, and a tinge smoky or sooty due to the additional charcoal filtering. Rye – a spicier flavor profile of bourbon and a touch less sweet. Bottled in Bond – tend to have a little more kick since they are on the higher proof side, otherwise simply put, they are a nice bourbon.
Things to Consider: A lot of classic whiskey cocktails were originally crafted with Rye whiskey’s spicier and slightly less sweet flavor profile in mind. Although today you’ll most likely find bars making their whiskey cocktails from bourbon over rye. Rye is great for a classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned. For the sours, Bourbon’s sweeter profile makes a mean Whiskey Sour. Personally, we feel they are like one’s children, we love them all, but some days you love one a little more than the others.
What is Canadian Whisky
There are two main factors shaping Canadian Whisky, Prohibition and rye. Initially rye was one of the few crops which could survive eastern Canada’s harsh winters. Eventually better farmlands discovered to the west lessened rye’s importance. Still today Canadian whisky can be called “rye whisky” even though it is more likely to use corn than any other grain. There is much less rye used in most Canadian whisky than in American rye whiskies where the largest ingredient must be rye. And in regards to Prohibition, its chokehold on American production led to a boom in Canada. Canadian whiskies became the leading supplier to speakeasies in the States. Even today, America buys about 75% of the whisky Canada produces.
- Most relaxed rules of the major whisk(e)y nations (each distillery can follow its own production process and methods)
- Must be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada
- Must be aged in small wood for not less than three years
- May contain caramel and flavouring.
- Must possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky – I know, vague right? But that’s what their FDA stipulates.
- Similar to Scotch, each Canadian Whisky is generally the product of a single distillery (distillers rarely share barrels or buy whisky from each other).
- Regardless of grain, Canadian distillers usually create two whiskies (a base whisky + a flavoring whisky) and then combine them together to create the final product.
- The base whisky is often distilled at a higher alcohol content and matured in barrels that have been used one or more times, reducing the grain and barrel’s influence on the flavor and giving at the characteristic “smoothness” or “elegance” of Canadian whiskies.
- The flavoring whisky is usually distilled at a lower alcohol content, allowing the grain derived flavors to be highlighted. It is also usually aged in virgin barrels or a mix of virgin and used barrels, extracting more flavor from the barrel.
- Can be called Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky.
What Does Canadian Whisky Taste Like?
Generally Canadian whiskies are lighter and sweeter in character but still full of flavor. Considered easy to drink. When the maker mentions that rye is used generously in the finishing of the whisky, it will usually have a nice spicier bite.
Things to Consider: Different from US rye whiskies – in Canada rye doesn’t have to be the dominant grain used and is often mostly used in the flavoring whisky portion of the bottling. Because of their ease in drinking, they often blend well in cocktail mixes. Tradition drives the process – a Canadian whisky from 15 or 30 years ago will most likely taste nearly identical as same one produced today.
What is Scotch Whisky
- Made in Scotland
- Primarily malted barley, along with other grains, corn, wheat…
- Here’s the main characterizations of Scotch:
- Single-malt whisky – often considered top dog amongst aficionados
- 100% Malted barley in small pot stills, at least 2 distillation runs
- Product of single distillery
- Aged at least 3 years in oak casks
- The pot still (alembic still) – ancient distilling tool virtually unchanged for millennia, produces rich and complex character
- Often is categorized further by region of origin (areas close to ocean tend to absorb a bit of the briny sea air while inland regions are usually more floral from Scotland’s Lowlands- also some regions will traditionally use more peat more than others, see “Other notes” below)
- Blended malt whisky
- blend of 100% malted barley whiskies from two or more distilleries
- Blended whisky
- Combining single-malt whisky with corn or wheat whisky
- Single-grain whisky
- Used mostly for blending
- 100% corn or wheat
- Lighter body, produced in column still, not the small pot stills
- Single-malt whisky – often considered top dog amongst aficionados
- Other notes: personal preferences are also often determined by the “peatiness” of the Scotch, whether it being mild (or even none) to having a more aggressive peaty flavor. That smoky flavor comes from early in the distillation process. The barley is first soaked and then dried over burning peat. An example of that heavier, distinctive peaty flavor can often be found in Scotch from Islay, an Isle just off the coast in western Scotland.
What Does Scotch Taste Like?
It’s going to vary, especially depending on where in Scotland they come from (Scotland has over 100 different distilleries). Whiskies from Islay, like Lagavulin and Laphroaig, often tend to have a strong smoky peat flavor unless they are described as un-peated, while those coming from Speyside tend to be lighter and sweeter. Lowland Scotch also tend to be relatively sweet and lighter. How long a Scotch was aged as well as what type of barrels it was aged in also heavily influence the taste.
Scotch is a beverage with strong character and even the sweeter styles don’t have the same sweetness of bourbon to mellow that out. Yet as one’s palate gets more experienced, the flavors being to open up and there is the discovery of flavors ranging from honey, almond, grassy, leather, nectarine, vanilla, dried fruit alongside the vary levels of smokiness ranging from barely discernible to like bonfire-esque.
Things to Consider: It’s often said that one usually doesn’t like their first taste of Scotch. The second becomes a curiosity. And after the third, one is a Scotch drinker for life. It is often years in-between those first three tastes. Scotch will vary a lot, especially with so many distilleries. They are often a bit harder to create a cocktail off of, yet perfect with some water or ice. And adding a splash of water or ice isn’t any less “manly” of a way to drink Scotch. It helps open up the flavors for a better appreciation and is common throughout Scotland (and with seasoned Scotch drinkers around the world). With Scotland’s 100+ distilleries, there’s a lot of varieties of beautiful, brown liquid.
What is Irish Whiskey
Some consider Ireland the birthplace of whiskey, as far back as 6th century AD.
- Made in Ireland
- Shares some similarities to Scotch, but has its own deviations as well
- Single-malt whiskey – mostly the same as in Scotland
- 100% Barley in pot stills, usually 3 distillation runs
- A closed kiln heated by coal or gas is used to roast the malted barley, giving a clear barley flavor instead of the smoky peat flavors often found in Scotch
- Product of single distillery
- Aged at least 3 years
- Grain whiskey
- Lighter than single malts
- Corn or wheat distilled in a column still
- Blended whiskey
- Combination of single-malt and grain whiskey
- Single pot still whiskey
- Unique to Ireland
- 100% barley, both malted and unmalted, in a pot still
- Single-malt whiskey – mostly the same as in Scotland
What Does Irish Whiskey Taste Like?
Smooth and less sweet than bourbon. Doesn’t have the smokiness usually associated with Scotch, although there are a few exceptions to that, and that lack of smokiness combined with the smoothness from the triple distillation, makes them “easier” to consume than Scotch.
Things to Consider: There are only 3 working distilleries in Ireland, however each of them make multiple spirits. For example there is the Midleton distillery which makes Redbreast, Midleton, Paddy, Powers, and Jameson and all of their individual brands variations. And remember, it isn’t Irish Coffee unless you use Irish whiskey. Otherwise it is just a coffee with whiskey ;).
What is Japanese Whisky
Japan’s distilleries were first modeled after the Scotch whiskies, and are produced much in the same way. There aren’t a ton of Japanese distilleries, but the ones they have are quite good.
- Distillation nearly identical to Scotch.
- Commercially produced in Japan since the 1920’s, and after nearly a century, you’ll frequently find a Japanese whisky listed on “Best of the Best” lists.
- Japanese distilleries will often vary from Scotch distilleries in their use of more still shapes and sizes. Scotland distilleries will usually have just one or two house still sizes, creating a specific style. Japanese distilleries will often have an array of sizes, allowing the Japanese whisky makers to craft a range of styles and tastes according to their individual desires.
How Does Japanese Whisky Taste:
Sort of like Scotch, which isn’t too surprising since that is the initial inspiration, although they have now evolved to take on their own character. They are bold and complex, but are also very well balanced. There are some, such as Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, which share more flavor notes with bourbon than with Scotch.
Things to Consider: In 2015 Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, a prominent guide to the world’s whisk(e)y rankings, named a Japanese whisky (Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013) the best whisky in the world. “Continuous refinement” can sum up Japanese whisky making. Always tweaking and trying to perfect the process, it is no wonder they are not staying static and are now producing some of the best whiskies in the world.
Other Fun Whisk(e)y Facts:
- What is malted barley?
- Raw barley that has been soaked, germinated, and then dried to halt the germination process. In Scotch, the drying process often happens using burning peat, imparting in varying degrees Scotch’s classic smoky, peaty flavor.
- Brand new oak barrels are required in making Bourbon. Scotch and Irish whiskey commonly age in the used bourbon barrels. Occasionally Scotch will age in used wine (or sherry, port, madeira) barrels, but is fairly rare due to the scarcity of the wine barrels and the availability of the bourbon barrels. The barrel age and type (if previously used for sherry, port, etc.) will impart significant flavor profiles to the whisk(e)y.
- Irish pot stills are much larger than those used for Scotch, yielding a slightly milder flavor.
- There are over 20 countries producing their own whiskey. India, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan, and New Zealand are just a few of the many.
- Here’s a cool interactive visual guide to whiskey.
We hope this helps unlock a few of the mysteries between the different types of whiskeys. Of course the only thing to really do that is to go out there and taste them. Find what you like and enjoy it!
After learning the different types of whiskey, now comes the cool tools. If you care as much about your whiskey as we do, you probably feel the same about your barware. Here’s some of our favorite barware we’ve collected over the years with different groupings we rotate between use at home and use in studio. You don’t need a lot of tools, but it is nice to have a few quality tools that adds a classiness and bit of swagger to that evening cocktail or beverage. Choose your favorite style and create a set around them
Check out our Cocktail Recipes Here
Our guide to Types of Whiskey was originally published in 2016 and re-published in 2018 with more great info.