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The Many Varieties of Whiskey

Updated on June 28, 2016
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Whisky is an alcohol, distilled from grain, that has been enjoyed by many around the world for centuries. The earliest origins of the classic drink are somewhat disputed. Dating to the thirteenth century there is evidence that the Italians distilled alcohol from wine. As it spread through Europe, distillation became more common to create Aqua Vitae, which was an alcohol mainly used for medicinal purposes. As more regions adopted the technique, such as Ireland and Scotland, whisky began to take shape and distinct variations arose.

There are many types of whisky and they vary in definition by components used, aging time, location, and production practices among others. The most common are types are Irish, Scotch, Bourbon, Tennessee, Malt, and Rye.

Scotch Whiskey

Map of Scotch Regions
Map of Scotch Regions | Source

Scotch whiskey was historically only distilled from malted barley and water and then aged in oak casks. For several centuries, distilleries have been adding wheat or rye into the mixture to develop unique flavors and expand their opportunities.

The more rigid, legal definitions of scotch are as follows:

  • produced at a distiller in Scotland from only barley (and water of course) and whole grains of other cereals
  • has been processed at the distillery into mash
  • fermented only by adding yeast
  • distilled to no more than 190 proof
  • matured in oak casks for no less than three years in barrels less than 185 gallons. no
  • added substances besides water and caramel coloring
  • must be at least 80 proof

In more general terms, scotch is different from others because the peat is used in the distillation process, giving it a distinctly smoky flavor. Combined with the oaky flavor derived from the barrels used for aging scotch has a unique, well known flavor profile.

Below is a map of the different regions of Scotland as they pertain to Scotch production. Variations in whiskeys of the regions stem from the different production styles and specific recipes used to produce the same, legally defined scotch. In general terms the differences can be defined as follows:

Speyside - Complex scotch, sweet aroma, rich flavor profile

Islay - Strong flavored, peaty, smoky

Islands - middle ground between Islay and Highland varieties

Highlands - Flavor range from fruity to woody, light to full bodied

Lowlands - Very light bodied Scotches

Campbeltown - Briny and peaty. Influenced by the sea in production


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Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey is whiskey distilled in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Generally, Irish pot still whiskey is distilled three times, compared to scotch's two times. This is one of few distinctions from scotch whiskey. Naturally they are similar due to their proximity and developing whiskey production at similar times. Another distinction is that peat is used less in Irish whiskey.

The legal definitions include:

  • must be produced and aged in Ireland
  • must be distilled less than 94.8% alcohol by volume from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains.
  • the distillate must have the aroma and flavor of derived materials
  • must be aged at least 3 years in wood casks smaller than 185 gallons

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Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey is an American whiskey distilled from the grain 'rye' and other grains such as corn or malted barley. Rye whiskey is more strongly associated with the northeastern United States in production in contrast to bourbon whiskey.

The more rigid legal definitions include:

  • must be distilled from a mash of at least 51 percent rye
  • It may not be distilled above 160 proof
  • must be aged in charred, new oak barrels
  • may not be put into the barrels above 125 proof.

There are no minimum age requirements, but if it is aged for at least 2 years, it may be considered 'straight' rye whiskey.

Author commentary:

Rye has a smoother flavor than bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. In my opinion it tastes better than bourbon in cold weather situations and gives a warming feeling all the way down, whereas bourbon is perfect for enjoying on a warm evening on your front porch.


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Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskey is another American whiskey that is primarily distilled from corn. The name was derived from the French Bourbon dynasty. It has been distilled for centuries in America and is most associated with the southern United States, particularly Kentucky. While bourbon production is not restricted to Kentucky, much of the production takes place in the state.

The legal definitions include:

  • must be produced in the United States
  • must be made from 51% corn
  • must be aged in charred, new oak barrels
  • must be distilled to no more than 160 proof but no less than 80 proof
  • must be put in the barrels at no more than 125 proof

Similarly to rye, there are no minimum aging requirements. However, after 2 years of aging it may be considered 'straight' bourbon whiskey.

Tennessee Whiskey

There has been recent legislation and debate over legal definitions and trade agreements surrounding Tennessee whiskey. A lot of this is relatively inconsequential to the consumer as long as the quality remains high.

Disregarding a lot of the legislative nonsense, Tennessee whiskey is just a bourbon whiskey that has been produced in the state of Tennessee. Exactly as the name implies. Easy, right?

Therefore, the legal definitions are the same as they are for bourbon plus the geographic restriction.

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Wheat Whiskey

Wheat whiskey is less common, given that most whiskey is either made from corn or barley, but it is produced. It must be made from a mash of at least 51% wheat and is generally aged in charred, new oak barrels like other whiskeys.

It may also be labeled 'straight' wheat whiskey if aged for at least 2 years. There are no formal aging requirements.

Currently production is relatively low with few large scale distilleries and a handful of microdistilleries.


Author commentary:

Wheat whiskey has a lighter flavor than the rest listed in this article. It is very smooth and tastes very much of the wheat that has gone into it. Not a very strong aroma, but it is pleasant. Perhaps with more flavor infusions wheat whiskey could be a very good drink.

Other Distinctions & Varieties

There are other distinctions that may separate whiskeys from one another, even within an already established variety, such as scotch.

Single Malt

Single malt whiskey means that it has been distilled exclusively from a mash consisting of only malted grain (barley for the most part).

The malting process involves water, yeast, and the grain and a few days fermenting on the floor.

Blended

A blended whiskey is one that is made from mixing different types of whiskeys together, typically whiskeys made from different grains, to produce a new and distinct whiskey with a unique flavor combination. Sometimes other spirits may be mixed in as well.

Single Pot Stilled

Single pot stilled is a term to describe Irish whiskey that has been produced at a single distillery from a mash of malted and unmalted barley in a pot still.

Whisky or Whiskey

One theory on the difference in the spelling is that is has to do with the country of origin. For example, a country with an 'e' in the name would spell whiskey with an 'e'. Ireland therefore spells it whiskey. Scotland spells it whisky. This isn't a hard fact, but it seems to work out in many cases.

What is your favorite type of whiskey?

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