Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once dubbed whisky “liquid sunshine,” and few whisky enthusiasts would disagree. It’s never too late to explore the world of whisky and find your own signature brand, blend, and style of drinking, as it’s truly a spirit for all occasions.
Once you learn how to differentiate between certain types of whisky, you’ll be able to start tasting and selecting the ones that are right for you. Here we’ll discuss all the basics before you begin, such as the origins of whisky, key ingredients, types, distillation procedures, and how to drink whisky like a pro. We hope you enjoy our beginners guide to whisky.
What Is Whisky?
Whisky is a distilled spirit derived from grain. A whisky distiller mashes up the grain, which releases natural sugars that are then fermented into alcohol. The alcohol is distilled and during the process produces a stronger spirit. The whisky is then aged in a specific barrel that determines its colour and flavour, as well as quality, before being bottled or blended with other whiskies.
So what is whisky made of, you may be asking? We’ll cover that in depth a little further on.
Where Does Whisky Originate From?
Whisky in Old Gaelic means “water of life,” and is first mentioned in historic texts as a medicinal remedy for 15th century Irish monks. The earliest whisky was neither aged nor diluted, and contained a variety of botanical infusions that, to the modern palette, would have likely placed it in the category of a gin.
While distillation techniques acquired from the east were widely used in the production of perfumes and aromatics, it took our ancestors some time to make the gradual shift from the apothic to the more libatious.
Were you to travel back to medieval Britain for a whisky sampling, you would have found a significantly different beverage, one with a considerable amount of sediment and generous quantities of honey, berries, and various spices and herbs. Needless to say, the discovery of ageing was whisky’s greatest game changer.
A quick note on spelling: in the United States and Ireland an “e” is added to whiskey, while in Scotland, Canada, Japan, and the rest of the world, the “e” is omitted from whisky. Both spellings are acceptable and often used interchangeably by brands and in cocktail recipes, so don’t be confused; the two are one and the same.
What Is Whisky Made Of?
At its core, all whisky contains four key ingredients: cereal grain, yeast, water, and barrels for ageing. The most common grains used are barely, corn, wheat, and rye, with corn and barley the most widely used combination base. For special batches other grains such as quinoa and millet may be used, although this is comparatively rare.
How Is Whisky Made?
Whisky production typically follows a series of five steps:
- The grains are ground up or milled, then hot water is added to create a mash mixture.
- Synthetic or malted barley enzymes are added to convert the grain starches into sugars.
- Yeast is then added to induce fermentation, during which time (typically 3-7 days) all sugars are consumed and converted into various alcohols.
- After fermentation the liquid (similar to distiller’s beer) is placed in a pot or column still, and thus begins the single or multiple-step distillation. The more a whisky is distilled the purer the result, as any unwanted alcohols are continuously being eliminated to extract a cleaner liquor, known as ethanol. Excess water is also removed during this time in order to produce a higher alcohol percentage, or ABV.
- The alcohol is placed in barrels, preferably oak, and aged anywhere from one year to thirty before bottling.
Beginners Guide To Whisky Types
Here is where whisky connoisseurs cut their teeth, as everyone has a preferred favourite that ultimately boils down to personal taste.
There are a number of ways in which a whisky can be classified, though it’s worth keeping in mind that these categories are somewhat fluid due to the countless new types of whisky being introduced from around the world.
The most universal components by which whiskies are categorised are:
- Country and region
- Types of grains used
- How long they’ve been aged
- Bottling methods (blended or single barrel)
US regulations stipulate that in order for a whisky to be categorised as a bourbon, five requirements must be met: the product must be produced in the USA, contain at least 51% corn, be distilled to 160 proof or lower, transferred to a barrel at no higher than 125 proof, then stored in a previously unused charred oak barrel. There are no ageing requirements for bourbon.
When it comes to naming bourbon, the rules are fairly straightforward. Kentucky Bourbon must be aged at least a year, while straight bourbon must be aged for at least two years, or else carry an explicit statement of age.
Flavour Notes: vanilla, honey, caramel, cinnamon, brown sugar, fruity, nutty, “oaky”
2. Tennesse Whisky
While technically a bourbon due to meeting the above five requirements, Tennessee whisky has a few differing components that earn it a separate labeling. Tennessee whisky must be produced exclusively in Tennessee, as well as undergo a procedure called the “Lincoln County Process,” in which the whisky is filtered through sugar maple charcoal chips as the last step before ageing.
Flavour Notes: Maple, maple syrup, vanilla, honey, caramel
3. Rye Whisky
The two main types of rye whisky are American and Canadian. In the latter’s case, Canadian whisky, Canadian rye whisky, and rye whisky are all used interchangeably, as Canadian production standards simply require that the final product contain the ubiquitous qualities of Canadian whisky, which include aroma, taste, and overall character.
In order for a rye whisky to be deemed as such in the USA, it must contain at least 51% rye, have a distillation of no higher than 160 proof, and be aged in new charred oak barrels to no more than 125 proof.
Flavour Notes: spicy, peppery, herbal
4. Malt Whisky
A malt whisky must by definition consist of 100% malted barley, as well as be double or triple distilled in a pot still. The malting process consists of soaking the barely until it germinates, during which time the grain produces enzymes that in turn convert starches into sugars, after which the process is halted.
The two main types of malt whisky are single malts and blended malts, with a few noteworthy distinctions. Single malt is in reference to the whisky being made in a single distillery, whereas a blended malt is blended from whiskies produced in multiple distilleries, regardless of their single-grain barely use.
Flavour Notes: depending on the ageing process and barley, flavours can range from light to bold, smooth to smoky, and malty to woody
5. Grain Whisky
Grain whisky is produced from one or more cereal grains, among them corn, wheat, rye, and malted and/or unmalted barley. Grain whisky is usually distilled in an ongoing or continuous “coffey” still.
The two types of grain whisky are single grain and blended grain. Single grain whiskies are made in only one distillery, while blended grain whiskies usually consist of two or more single grain whiskies produced in different distilleries. Grain whisky is normally distilled in a column still, which produces faster results at a higher alcohol proof but doesn’t allow for any strong flavour characteristics. For this reason, grain whisky is most commonly used for blended whiskies, rather than bottled and sold individually.
Flavour Notes: sugary, floral, smooth, light
6. Single Pot Whisky
Single pot whisky is an Irish whisky consisting of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. The origins of single pot whisky can be traced back to an ingenious way of dodging a tax introduced on malted barley in 1785; while the tax was eventually repealed, the popularity of single pot whisky endured, reaching its peak in the 19th century.
Single pot whisky would continue to be one of Ireland’s most in-demand exports until cheaper distillation methods were introduced in the 20th century, thus rendering single pot whisky something of a rarity. In recent years there’s been a renewed interest in single pot whisky, with more and more distilleries attempting their own heritage product.
Flavour Notes: depending on the greater amount of malted or unmalted barely, flavours can range from sweet to spicy, creamy to oily, and baked-good to bitter
7. Blended Whisky
Blended whisky is the result of two or more types of whisky being blended together and bottled. A blended whisky will usually contain a base whisky, which is cheaper but less flavourful, and a flavouring whisky of much higher, costlier quality.
Every country has its own methods for producing and categorising blended whiskies, but here are a few examples:
By USA standards, blended whisky must contain between 20-50% malted or unmalted grains distilled at no higher than 80% ABV and aged for no less than 2 years. If the product has more than 51% of any one whisky type, that grain must be specified on the label.
Most Canadian whiskies are blended using a combination of high-proof, column-distilled corn grain whisky and a lower-proof rye, wheat, or barley whisky distilled in a pot still.
There are three types of blended whiskies in Scotland: blended malt, blended grain, and blended Scotch whisky. Blended malts consist of two or more single malts blended together, while a blended grain whisky is when two or more single grains are blended; all are made in different distilleries before being brought together for blending.
Blended Scotch whisky is comprised of a single malt from one distiller blended with a single grain from a separate distillery.
Blended Irish whisky is made by blending two or more pot still, grain, or malt whiskies together.
Flavour Notes: honey, toasted, smooth, balanced
How to Drink Whisky
There are several ways you can enjoy whisky, provided you understand that certain types/tiers of whisky may work better for certain drinks. There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy whisky, but here are the principal styles:
To take your whisky neat is to drink it from a glass in which the whisky was poured directly from the bottle, with no added ice or mixers.
2. On The Rocks
“On the rocks” refers to whisky served on ice. For this method, frozen whisky stones can also be used to prevent dilution.
3. With Water
Some aficionados prefer their whisky with a small amount of water in order to open up the flavours and smooth out the taste. If ordering a whisky and water, it’s recommended that you order the water–preferably mineral–on the side.
4. As A Shot
While you can absolutely take your whisky in a shot glass, it’s advisable to save this for less expensive whiskies. (Remember, the better the whisky the better for savouring!)
5. In Cocktails
There are a number of popular whisky cocktails, including the rye and ginger, whisky coke, mint julep, and whisky sour. You can ask your bartender what their recommended whisky specialities are, or check out cocktail recipes for inspiration.
Beginners Guide To Whisky Terms To Remember
Charred Barrel: A barrel with an inside that’s been burned
Column Still: A still consisting of a tall metal cylinder with separate chambers divided by filtering plates. Column stills are generally used in higher-proof distillation.
Pot Still: A large pot similar to a kettle, which is used to distill whisky by heating the bottom and directing the vaporised alcohols through a condenser. This type of still typically produces richer, oiler whiskies.
Mash: The mixture of water + one or more grains, that ultimately converts starches into sugars
Lincoln County Process: A final step before ageing, in which the whisky is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before cask storage. This process is used by Tennessee whisky producers to differentiate their product from bourbon.
Mashbill: The colloquial term for a whisky recipe, which includes all of the grains and any spices used, as well as specific steps.