Whisky 101: A Brief Introduction to Navigate Your Journey in the World of Whiskies

This brief introduction will serve as a guide while you explore the world of whiskies. They all taste different because of the variances in the primary ingredients, production processes, and aging needs.

Whisky can be spelled both ways, as you may have observed. Irish and American whiskey drinkers favor whiskey, while Scots, Canadiens, Japanese, and the rest of the world utilize whisky. There are, as usual, a few outliers (see Waterford Distillery for example).

Scottish Whisky

Scottish whisky is produced in five processes (malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and aging) using three elements (water, yeast, and cereals).

The spirit must have been distilled and aged in Scotland for at least three years before being bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Only fresh oak barrels or those that previously held wine, beer, ale, or spirits can be used to age Scotch whiskey. However, this is not authorized if the former occupants of the casks added any flavoring (including fruit) or sweetener after fermentation, or if the casks were used to age alcoholic beverages manufactured from or containing stone fruits.

Also, the method of maturing must have been customary for the alcoholic beverage in question. Ex-gin casks, for instance, wouldn't work because aging isn't a standard step in creating gin.

Scotch whisky can be broken down into five distinct types:

Single Malt Whisky from Scotland

Made from water, yeast, and malted barley in a single distillery. It is distilled in copper pot stills utilizing the age-old method of making it in small batches.

100% Malted Barley Scotch Whiskey

Made in a single location using other grains besides malted barley (such as wheat or corn). Nonetheless, there are an increasing number of new releases by independent bottlers that are made from single grain whisky rather than mixes. Continuous distillation (sometimes called patent still distillation) is typically used, but copper pot stills are used to produce Arbikie Highland Rye.

Scotch Whisky Blend

Whiskey made by combining many types of whiskey, typically Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Single Grain Whiskey. Around 90% of all scotch whisky sold each year is classified under this category.

  • Malted Barley Scotch Whisky
  • Single Grain Scotch Whisky from multiple distilleries blended together. Continuously distilled to ensure the highest quality.
  • Scottish whisky that is a blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries
  • Whisky made from multiple different types of Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Scotch whisky comes in many different varieties, each with its own unique flavor profile. Peat is the most recognizable distinction between whiskies from different regions, yet it is not unique to Scotland. The flavor and texture of single grain scotches are often sweeter and creamier than those of single malts. Because of its sweetness, single grain whisky is sometimes compared to bourbon.

Scotch Whiskey

Irish whiskey can only be made in Ireland and matured there. While triple distillation is the norm for Irish whiskey, it is not required. Whiskey needs at least three years to fully develop. There are no regulations regarding cask type, thus different kinds of wood and seasonings can be tried out. In addition, fresh barrels can be employed. Irish whiskey has a distinct flavor that is typically a touch sweeter and smoother than scotch but not as much as bourbon. The use of unmalted barley increases the spiciness of the final product.

In Ireland, whiskey must be described as Irish Whiskey, Uisce Beatha Eireannach or Irish Whisky. 

Whiskey History

Irish Whiskey comes in a few varieties:

Blended Malt

Whiskey is made from malted barley and distilled multiple times in copper pot stills.

Whiskey Distilled in a Single Pot

Triple distilled in a copper kettle using both malted and (raw) unmalted barley. This one-of-a-kind method was formerly known as pure pot still.

Rye Whiskey

includes malted barley, corn, wheat, and unmalted barley as ingredients. Continuous distillation produces this type, which is employed primarily in blended whiskey.

Mixture of Whiskeys

Blend of Single Malt Whisky, Single Pot Still Whiskey, and Grain Whiskey (column or Coffey still). The majority of Irish whiskey is made in this method.

Whiskey from the USA

Rye, bourbon, rye malt, malt, wheat, Tennessee, and corn whiskey are only some of the varieties of American whiskey. For the time being, I will limit my discussion to the three most well-known types of American whiskey: Bourbon, Rye, and Tennessee Whiskey.


Often associated with Kentucky, however production is not limited to that state. Minimum 51% corn (typically up to 70%) plus additional grains like malted barley, wheat, or rye go into making bourbon. Sour mashing, in which stillage (residue from earlier distillation) is introduced into the new mash, is a common step in the production process.

It is mandatory that Bourbon be matured in brand new, charred American oak barrels. Straight bourbon must have been matured for at least two years. Straight Bourbon cannot contain any flavorings or colorings. Whiskeys from different states can be blended to create bourbon or another straight whiskey. Whiskey must be labeled as blended if it contains spirits from outside of the state.

Bourbon's vanilla, caramel, and oak spice flavors make it sweeter and nuttier than other whiskies.

Bourbon Whiskey

Contains rye grain (at least 51%) and malted barley (or corn) (at least 49%). Some distilleries utilize mash bills that contain as much as 90 percent rye. Two years of aging in freshly charred American oak barrels is required for rye made in the United States. When compared to other types of American whisky, rye whiskey is known for its spicier, pepperier flavor.

Whiskey from Tennessee

Although it has many characteristics with bourbon, it deserves its own category. This type of whiskey can only be made in Tennessee, as suggested by the name. The distinctive flavor of this whiskey is the result of a particular charcoal-filtering process. The Lincoln County Procedure describes this method.

At least two years must pass in new charred oak barrels before the spirit can be consumed. It has a similar taste to bourbon, although it's not quite as heavy or sweet. The use of charcoal softens the whiskey and makes it more approachable. You may taste hints of nuttiness, banana, cinnamon, and vanilla.

The most well-known brand of Tennessee whiskey is undoubtedly Jack Daniel's.

Whisky from Japan

Until recently, any whisky bottled in Japan could be called Japanese Whisky. Blended Japanese whisky often includes foreign whiskies like those from Scotland or Canada (Nikka from the Barrel and Nikka Days, for example).

The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Manufacturers Association has just announced tougher requirements for Japanese Whisky. These don't have the force of law, but they're a good first step.

The updated rules are as follows (adapted from Forbes):

  • Only malted grains, other cereal grains, and water sourced in Japan may be used in the manufacturing process. Malted grains are an absolute necessity.
  • The fermentation, distillation, and saccharification processes must all take place in a Japanese distillery, and the final distillate's alcohol volume can't be more than 95%.
  • The distilled good must age in Japan for at least three years, and be aged in wood casks with a maximum volume of 700 liters.
  • The whisky must be bottled in Japan and have an alcohol by volume (ABV) of at least 40%.
  • The use of plain caramel coloring (E150) is permitted.
  • It is more likely that whisky manufacturers will adjust their labeling to comply with the new rules than that they will alter their production processes.

The flavor characteristics of Japanese whiskies are typically more subtle, aromatic, and flowery than those of Scotch whisky. This is largely attributable to the various cask finishes used. It's possible for distilleries to use their own unique yeast strain during fermentation.

Irish and American whiskey

Whiskey from India

Spirit derived from molasses (akin to rum) is typically combined with grain whiskey or pre-blended scotch whisky to create the majority of Indian whisky sold outside the EU. While there aren't many rules regarding Indian whisky, you shouldn't pass on some truly remarkable Indian Single Malts just because of that. They are made in a fashion analogous to that of Scotch whisky. It needs to be aged for at least three years in oak barrels after being produced at a single distillery from water, yeast, and malted barley.

The fruitiness, maltiness, and spice of Indian single malt whiskies are well-known.

Amrut pioneered the production of single malt whisky in India.

Both single malts and blends can be produced in India with either 100% Indian barley or a combination of Indian and peated Scotland grain.

India's warmer temperatures make for a more rapid ripening process. Moreover, the angel's share is 11–12%, whereas it is only 2% in Scotland. As a result, Indian Whiskies are typically only aged for a few years and do not always include an age statement on the bottle. Regulating the aging process in India may be challenging due to the country's diverse microclimates.

Whisky from Canada

Canadian whisky is commonly referred to as "rye," however there is no legal minimum for the proportion of rye to corn in Canadian whisky. Column stills are the standard in Canadian whisky production.

There are no regulations regarding the types of barrels used to mature Canadian whisky, although barrel sizes larger than 700 liters are discouraged. Whiskey can be flavored with caramel and other sweeteners. When compared to bourbon, Canadian whiskey has a significantly spicier flavor.

The production of whisky is not universally governed, and international regulations are notoriously difficult to compare. Although most products are made using identical processes, their final flavors might vary greatly depending on where they were made and the primary ingredients they contained.

The mash bill determines the flavor profile of American and Canadian whiskies, which can range from honeyed sweetness to hints of Christmas spices and pepper. Scotland's return to rye whisky production (under the umbrella of single grain whisky) has accelerated the category's overall development.

Despite the lack of legally binding rules or laws altogether, distillers in both India and Japan are striving to create single malt whiskies of the highest quality that can compete with their Scottish counterparts.