Whisky has lived more than 500 years since its very first inception in Scotland back in 1494. To call it a liquor steeped in history feels like an understatement. While some traditions continue to hold strong, new innovations, cultural influences, and technology will inevitably advance the art of whisky production.
As a result, we are now gifted with various types of whisky crafted by innovators who had the foresight and creativity to experiment with different ingredients, materials, and techniques.
Though there isn’t a handbook that states an official number for the types of whisky available out there, these eight classic styles will provide you with adequate knowledge if you’re new to the world of whisky or simply need a refresher.
Single Malt whisky
Many would assume that the word ‘single’ is an implication of the whisky being produced from a single barrel or a single batch. But that’s not actually the case.
Single Malt whisky simply means that the whisky is made up of a single malted grain—usually barley—and comes from a single distillery.
Dubbed the original whisky of Scotland, great Single Malt whiskies have come a long way and are now produced in various parts of the globe such as Ireland, America, Japan, and Canada.
The life cycle of a Single Malt whisky starts off as raw barley grains—this is where the single term is employed as only one type of grain is used. The grains are then soaked in water to begin the germination process as part of the malting technique—hence, the word ‘malt’.
You can differentiate Single Malt whiskies from other types of whiskies by their tastes. Single Malts usually have a woody and roasted profile, though there are some that bear fruity and nutty notes as well.
Blended whisky started as a spin-off from the scotch whisky as not many were accustomed to the strong and raw flavour of the good ol’ Single Malt scotch. Blending made whisky gentler, subsequently appealing to a larger group of people.
Today, blended whisky has risen the ranks and accounts for the majority of whisky sales in the world. It is also a preferred pick among beginners.
There are three kinds of blended whisky. The first being blended scotch whisky, which is a blend of single malts and single grains from different distilleries.
Next, we have the blended malt whisky—the marrying of only single malts from separate distilleries. Lastly comes the blended grain whisky. As its name suggests, blended grain whiskies are a blend of single grains also from different distilleries.
You can imagine that blended whisky would naturally have a burst of varied flavours, which make blended whiskies take on incredibly complex and rich profiles.
Bourbon and whisky are often compared side by side, but let’s solve the debate once and for all—bourbon is a type of whisky. Originating from America, bourbon can be produced from anywhere in the country and not necessarily just in Kentucky as most might think.
The spirit is made with a mix of different grains—usually corn, barley, and rye—with corn making up 51% of the composition. There isn’t a minimum number of ageing years, but new charred oak barrels are always used.
Putting together the flavours derived from corn and the potency of new charred oak, you’ll get a profile that’s both sweet and woody, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak—smooth and pleasant on the palate.
Tennessee whiskey is pretty similar to bourbon. The one thing that sets Tennessee whiskey apart though, is one extra crucial step—the Lincoln County Process.
The Lincoln County Process is the filtering of whiskey through charcoal chips before they go into the ageing barrels. These charcoal chips are not your everyday charcoal as they can only be procured from specially selected sugar maple trees. The charcoal filtration is intended to remove congeners—active chemical compounds broken down from sugar—which creates a smoother spirit in the end.
Taste wise, Tennessee whiskey is said to be a mellower version of bourbon with similar hints of toasted oak, vanilla, caramel, and lest we forget, charcoal.
Japan may have entered the whisky game later than its Western counterparts, but their skills, techniques, and quality are said to be on par as evident through their successes, awards, and number of Japanese whisky enthusiasts on the international market.
Japanese whisky is usually produced using peated barley, which will then undergo a double distilling malted technique before going into maturation in wood barrels. You’ll get a smoky, crisp, and peaty profile as a result.
Most major distilleries used to source their ingredients from Scotland, but the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) recently announced a new ruling that will redefine Japanese whisky.
One of the criteria denotes that malted grain must always be used, though other non-malted cereal grains may be added in, too.
Prior to this, imported whisky can be labelled as Japanese whisky as long as it’s bottled locally. This has changed since the new ruling came into effect on 1st April 2021, as it states that the fermentation, distillation, ageing, and bottling have to be carried out exclusively in Japan only.
Even the water used has to be sourced from Japan. As with Japan’s knack for refined details, some distilleries do source their water from the mountains near Tokyo. Some believe that the mountain water has mythical attributes.
There are also those that go to the lengths of using Japanese Mizunara Oak in making their casks and barrels. It’s a specific tree that only grows in the land of the rising sun, which adds a localised, distinct flavour to some Japanese whiskies.
You should get the gist by now—types of whiskeys obtain their identities from their country of origin. Therefore, Irish whiskey is called Irish whiskey because it’s produced in Ireland. No brownie points for guessing correctly.
On a serious note, Irish whiskey is actually one of the oldest whiskey styles in the world. It’s usually made from unmalted barley, blended with other grains, and follows a triple-distillation technique.
Irish law also dictates that all whiskeys produced in the country must be aged in barrels for a minimum of three years. The casks can either be new or used.
Amateur whiskey drinkers will most likely enjoy an Irish whiskey as it’s exceptionally smooth. It also has a light, fruity profile, though some do take on a more cereal and malted note. On the other hand, Irish whiskeys that were matured for longer periods of time will taste like rich oak.
Rye whiskey first originated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. Today, the whiskey is produced in various countries. As such, the definition and composition of rye whiskey may diverge in different parts of the globe. But to give credit where it's due, let’s delve into the American rye whiskey for now.
Similar to all the whiskeys above, rye whiskey has to meet certain criteria in order for it to earn its name. It has to first comprise at least 51% of pure rye grain. The remaining blend usually consists of wheat, corn, or malted barley.
Rye whiskey also has to be matured for a minimum of two years using charred and new oak barrels, and it is of utmost importance that it is not blended with other spirits for it to deservedly earn the ‘straight rye whiskey’ label.
Rye whiskeys fall on the savoury palate as they have a spicy profile, often accompanied with a stinging, peppery flavour and leave a strong finish.
Learning to tell your whiskies apart
It might take a hot minute to identify the various types of whisky at first, but fret not, as you’ll eventually familiarise your way around the numerous styles and all the characteristics that come with it. New types of whisky might even crop up in the future, but for now, these top eight are enough to prep and equip you on your whisky journey.