Whiskey is a very popular alcoholic drink but on the other hand, many people don’t like it at all. That’s why when I’m drinking whiskey I’ve often been asked whether whiskey is sweet. Here’s what I tell them.
Whiskey usually tastes sweet because it’s made in a way that gives it lots of sweet flavors. Of course, some whiskeys are sweeter than others, sometimes other flavors can overshadow the sweet flavors and some whiskeys are made to be spicy, smokey or peaty instead of sweet.
If they’re still interested I explain it to them in more detail, including the different types of sweet flavors in whiskey and where they come from, and which whiskeys are particularly sweet. I also offer several reasons as to why they might find that a whiskey doesn’t taste sweet.
Whiskey Is Sweet
There are a lot of different whiskeys out there, with a lot of different flavors. Some of the most common flavors are:
As you can see, many of the most common flavors found in whiskey are sweet, which is why many whiskeys are sweet. Of course, the number and intensity of sweet flavors vary between whiskeys which is why some whiskeys are sweeter than others. It also depends on personal preference, as some people find certain flavors sweet when others do not, and vice versa.
As mentioned, in some whiskeys the sweet flavors are overpowered by the other flavors and some whiskeys are made to be spicy, smokey or peaty instead of sweet – more on that later.
Why Whiskey Is Sweet
It’s not just by chance that whiskeys are sweet. Lots of effort goes into the whiskey making process and much of it is to ensure that the whiskey has the sweet flavors we enjoy. There are actually three sources of sweetness in whiskey.
1. The Grain
Any grain can be used to make whiskey, but the most common ones used are barley, corn, wheat, and rye. That’s because of the mostly sweet flavors they impart to the whiskey.
Malted barley imparts sweet flavors of caramel, toffee and brown sugar to the whiskey.
Corn also imparts very sweet flavors to the whiskey. This time however, it’s flavors of vanilla, white sugar, maple syrup and cotton candy.
Rye makes a whiskey more spicy giving it flavors of pepper and cinnamon. This is why whiskeys made from rye are not as sweet as whiskeys made from malted barley or corn.
Wheat will impart flavors of wheat bread and honey to the whiskey, which is why wheat whiskeys have a more gentle sweetness.
2. The Barrel
The years (or decades) a whiskey spends maturing in barrels is when it picks up most of its flavor, but several things are done to make sure those flavors are sweet.
The Barrel Is Made from Wood with Sweet Flavors
Whiskey picks up flavors during the maturation process because over time it seeps in and out of the wood of the barrel and picks up its flavors. The type of flavors will depend on the wood the barrel is made of.
Most whiskeys are aged in barrels made of American White Oak because it’s a wood that contains a lot of mono galloyl glucose – which gives the whiskey sweet vanilla and caramel flavors.
The Barrel Is Toasted or Charred
Some barrels are toasted. Toasting barrels means heating them slowly and gently so the sugars in the oak do not have enough time to caramelize. Toasted barrels will impart some sweet notes and give the whiskey light vanilla and toffee flavors.
Some barrels are charred. Charring barrels basically means setting them on fire to break down parts of the oak and cause the wood sugars to caramelize. This creates sweet flavor compounds like caramel and honey which is then imparted to the whiskey.
3. Previously Aged Spirits
Some whiskeys are aged (fully or partially) in barrels that were previously used to mature other spirits. This is done because some of the flavors from that spirit will have been absorbed by the barrel, and the whiskey now being matured in it, can pick them up.
Of course, these previously aged spirits are often sweet, for example:
Types of Sweet Whiskeys
You’ll have noticed that not only is there more than one source of sweet flavors in whiskey, but also that the sweet flavors they impart are different. This is why different types of whiskey, that are made differently, will have different sweet flavors.
Bourbons are the sweetest whiskeys. That’s because they’re made with at least 51% corn, which is the most sugary grain used in whiskey production. Of course, many bourbons have a far higher percentage of corn in their mash bill. Jack Daniel’s, for example, has a mash bill that’s 80% corn!
Bourbons are also aged in new, charred, American White Oak barrels. That’s why the sweet flavors of bourbon are vanilla, caramel, honey, white sugar, cotton candy and maple syrup.
Single Malt Scotches
Single malt Scotches are made from malted barley only and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. They have the caramel, toffee and brown sugar flavors from the malted barley as well as some vanilla and honey flavors from the ex-bourbon barrels.
Whiskeys Aged in Other Used Barrels
Some whiskeys are aged or merely finished in ex-sherry, ex-port or ex-rum barrels. Some whiskeys are aged in a mixture of all three. They will have the sweet flavors of sherry, port or rum, as well as the sweet flavors from the grain and the barrel.
Whiskeys That Are NOT Sweet
Of course, while many whiskeys are sweet, some are not. That doesn’t mean they’re sour or bitter – most whiskeys will contain at least some sweet flavors, it just means that a different type of taste (that’s non-sweet) dominates the flavor profile. The most common non-sweet types of whiskeys are:
Spicy whiskeys are often made from a large amount of rye which gives it spicy pepper and cinnamon flavors. Whiskeys matured in barrels made from European Oak, will pick up its darker, spicier and slightly bitter flavors.
This doesn’t mean that spicy whiskeys are not sweet at all. It means that they’re less sweet than whiskeys made with less rye and whiskeys that haven’t been matured in European Oak barrels.
In fruity whiskeys, fruit flavors dominate the flavor profile and depending on the type of fruit(s), the whiskey may or may not be sweet. It’s also going to depend on whether you personally find certain fruit flavors sweet or not.
Peaty whiskeys have a smoky, peaty flavor from the peat used to fuel the kiln that dried the barley during the malting process. These are the least sweet whiskeys of all (usually single malt Scotches) as the peat is usually a medicinal tasting peat that dominates the whiskey. Some peated whiskeys are only lightly peated and some are made with a sweet peat, so there are peated whiskeys that are somewhat sweet.
Other Reasons Why Whiskey Doesn’t Taste Sweet
There are several other reasons why you may find that a whiskey doesn’t taste sweet.
You’re Tasting the Alcohol Not the Flavors
Whiskey has a very high level of alcohol (between 40% – 68%ABV) which can get in the way of you tasting any of the whiskey’s flavors, sweet or otherwise. You need to reduce the impact of the alcohol by using a whiskey glass and learning how to detect the flavors of your whiskey.
I’ve written an article explaining exactly how to do that, which you can find here.
There’s A Dominant Flavor You Don’t Like
As mentioned above, there are lots of whiskeys out there with lots of different flavors, so you’re bound to come across some with flavors you don’t like. If that happens, any sweet flavors in the whiskey will be offset by the flavors you don’t like. Fortunately, the problem is also the solution, and you’ll also find many whiskeys with sweet flavors you do like.
There Are No Flavors in The Whiskey
Cheap whiskeys are rushed through the production process with the goal of getting a relatively inexpensive product to market quickly. They’re not made for flavors which is why they don’t have any, so of course those whiskeys won’t taste sweet.
This doesn’t mean that you need to buy an expensive whiskey, just not the cheapest available. There are several relatively inexpensive yet sweet whiskeys available.
The Whiskey Has Gone Bad
It’s not very likely but it is possible that poor storage has made your whiskey go bad. If your whiskey has been exposed to direct light or direct sunlight for a long period of time (one or two months), the flavors will degrade making it taste of rubber, paint thinner or rotten fruit – none of which are sweet flavors. In such circumstances you’ll definitely need a new bottle of whiskey.