Categorizing will help you get a grip on the endless variations of whiskey – as will using a shopping trolley. There are in fact, three ways to categorize the different types of whiskey: by the grain or grains used to extract the alcohol, by the laws and production methods of the country they’re made in and by various aspects of a whiskey’s taste.
The three ways of categorizing the different types of whiskey work together. Since the grain used and the production methods affect the taste of the whiskey, knowing all three ways of categorization will allow you to understand how each whiskey gets the various aspects of its flavor. You’ll then be able to predict the taste of every new whiskey you encounter just by knowing how and where it’s made.
A then you can make the fourth and most important categorization of all.
The types of whiskey you like and those you’ll resort to in an emergency.
How Whiskey Is Made and the Differences in the Production Process Which Will Affect Its Taste
Since the first two ways of categorizing the different types of whiskey are to do with how it’s made and the third is connected because the method of production affects a whiskey’s taste, we first need to have a basic understanding of how whiskey is made and what differences in the production process will affect its taste.
Don’t worry. This won’t hurt a bit.
A grain is ground down and then cooked so that its starches can be accessed, although if it’s barley it’s usually malted by being soaked in warm water and then left to germinate before being dried and ground.
The starches are then mixed with water so that they’re converted to sugars and then yeast is added to turn the sugars into alcohol.
The 5%-10% ABV product is distilled into 65%-95% ABV and then aged for possibly decades in whiskey barrels. The whiskey may be blended and then it’s bottled.
I told you it wouldn’t hurt.
You can read about the whiskey making process in more detail, here.
Despite the general process of making whiskey being the same the world over, there are numerous possible variations that can occur, the slightest of which will affect the taste of the final product.
This includes but is not limited to: the grains and water used, the type of fuel used in the heating part of the malting process, how long the malted barley is heated for, how long the grain is fermented for, how many times the alcohol is distilled, the shape of the stills used in the distillation process, the type of barrels used for the aging process, the length of time the whiskey is aged and how (or not) the whiskey is blended.
With so many taste affecting variations in the production process, it’s no wonder that we have so many different types of whiskey.
Categorizing the Types of Whiskey by the Grain Used
Since the basic ingredient of whiskey will affect its taste, one can categorize the types of whiskey by grain used. When doing so there are three factors to consider: The grain used, how the starches of the grain are accessed and how whiskeys made from different grains are (or not) combined.
The Grain Used
Any grain can be used by the most common ones are barley, corn, wheat, oats, and rye.
How the Starches Are Accessed
Malt Whiskey is made from grains whose starches are accessed by malting.
Grain Whiskey is made from grains whose starches are accessed by cooking.
Usually the only grain that’s malted is barley while other grains are cooked. There are of course, exceptions. For example, in America, single malts are sometimes made from rye not barley.
Malt whiskeys, which usually come from Scotland or Ireland, are considered the best whiskeys in the world. Though not by those who prefer other types of whiskeys. But who wants to stick their head in that debate. Buy every type of whiskey and decide for yourself. Invite me to your tasting session.
How Malt Whiskeys and Grain Whiskeys Are Combined (Or Not)
Single Malt Whiskey is made from one type of malted grain from one distillery. It’s blended (though not in the same way as blended whiskey is blended) by being mixed with the same whiskey from other casks and other years. This is done because the taste of every run is slightly different and so must be blended in the above way to ensure a consistent and recognizable taste.
Blended Malt Whiskey is a mixture of single malt whiskeys from different distilleries.
Blended Whiskey is a mixture of different whiskeys (grain and malt) from different distilleries combined in precise formulaic proportions. This is real whiskey blending and done so that a brand can produce a whiskey of definite and recognizable character with a consistent flavor.
Most blends contain more grain whiskey than malt whiskey, though the higher the ratio of malt whiskey the better the blend. It seems I am sticking my head into that debate after all.
In American blended whiskey, neutral grain spirit is often added to lighten the flavor. Flavoring and coloring may also be added.
It’s this type of whiskey that allows you extra involvement (over and above the usual way you’re involved with whiskey. You know. By drinking it) because to make any of the other types of whiskey you have to buy your own distillery. To blend your own whiskey, all you need is a minimum of two bottles of whiskey and you’re good to go.
Cask Strength Whiskey is bottled straight from the cask. This is in contrast with most whiskey which is mixed with water to dilute it to about 40% ABV. Since cask whiskey is about 52%-66% ABV it’s much more potent. This is done rarely and only the best whiskeys are bottled this way.
Single Cask / Barrel Whiskey is bottled from a given cask. Since it’s not even blended with the same whiskey from different casks and years, it has, being from one run, a totally unique taste.
Categorizing the Types of Whiskey by Country in Which It’s Made
Since laws, traditions, availability of ingredients and production methods vary by country, another good way to categorize the different types of whiskey is by country in which it’s made.
There are over 20 countries producing their own whiskey. We’ll look at the five main ones.
We’ll start with the country that has the first written record of whiskey production, because making it for 500 years should mean you know how to produce the best tasting whiskey.
It also explains a lot about that country.
In Scotland Malt Whiskey is made from malted barley …
Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry. Please don’t hurt me. I should have said whisky. (It’s spelled with an ‘e’ if it’s made in America and without an ‘e’ if it made in Scotland, Canada, Japan and anywhere else, except for Ireland that’s decided to use whiskey as well as specific brands regardless of their location.)
… In Scotland Malt Whisky is made from malted barley …
No way. This is going to be far too complicated. If you think I’ve got nothing better to do than ensure that I use the right spelling for the right country, then you haven’t been drinking enough whiskey. I’m just going to go with what I’m used to and I’m sure you’ll all cope.
… In Scotland Malt Whiskey is made from malted barley and Grain Whiskey is made from corn or wheat.
In the malting process, peat is often used to fuel the kiln when drying the germinating barley. Malt Whiskey has to be distilled twice in pot stills.
Grain Whiskeys are distilled in column stills which means a higher alcohol content but, on the downside, it means less flavors. They’re also distilled twice, but some are distilled three times and others up to 20 times.
By Scottish law whiskey must be aged in used oak barrels which means they originally held something else, usually bourbon, as barrels that previously held bourbon are easier to get hold of than barrels that previously held wine or port. Whiskey must be aged for at least three years but are often matured for much longer, even decades.
Whiskey must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and if the bottle has an age statement the whiskey will be known as a guaranteed age whiskey. The age statement must reflect the age of the youngest whiskey used not the average age of all of them.
Oh, and it has to be made in Scotland.
Irish whiskey regulations are almost identical to those for Scotch whiskey, except of course that it can only be made in Ireland or Northern Ireland.
The differences are that the Irish malting process rarely uses peat to fuel the kiln when drying the barley, their pot stills are much larger than those in Scotland and their Malt Whiskeys are often distilled three times in a pot still not just twice.
Also, they have something called Pot Still Whiskey which is whiskey made of malted and unmalted barley that’s distilled, unlike other non-Malt Whiskeys, in a pot still. The inclusion of unmalted barley means it can’t be called Malt Whiskey and being the only non-Malt Whiskey that’s distilled in pot stills, it gets the name Pot Still Whiskey. If made in one distillery it’s called Single Pot Still Whiskey.
There are many types of American whiskeys, but the most important ones are bourbon and rye.
All American whiskeys must be made in America, and usually contain more than 50% of one type of grain, for example corn (maize), rye or malted barley. They are mainly distilled in column stills.
They must be aged in new charred oak barrels but there’s no legal minimum aging period. If they are aged for anything more than two years, they are designated as straight whiskey of whatever grain type is used. A straight whiskey without the grain being named will have less than 51% of one specific grain.
Corn whiskey does not have to be aged, though if it is it must be in uncharred or used barrels.
Whiskey must be bottled at no more than 40% ABV. Only water may be added to the final product and they cannot contain any additives that affect their color or flavoring, to keep them pure.
Bourbon is historically associated with Kentucky but can be made anywhere in the United States. It’s made from at least 51% corn (maize) and the rest is a combination of other grains, typically malted barley as well as rye and / or wheat. It’s usually distilled three times.
Tennessee Whiskey is simply bourbon made in Tennessee. The only difference is that it’s filtered through sugar maple charcoal before being aged to eliminate impurities, mellow the flavor and jump start the aging process. The technique even has a fancy name: the Lincoln County Process after the place that originated it.
Rye Whiskey is made from at least 51% rye with the remainder usually malted barley and corn. It’s aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years.
Corn Whiskey is made from 80% corn and either not aged or aged in uncharred or used barrels.
Malt Whiskey is made from at least 51% malted barley.
Rye Malt Whiskey is made from at least 51% malted rye.
Wheat Whiskey is made from at least 51% wheat.
You’ll have noticed that corn is used more in American to make whiskey whereas barley is used more in Scotland and Ireland. Probably something to do with the fact that America has a lot of corn and one of Scotland and Ireland’s primary grains is barley. The lesson: Whiskey is so delicious that people will use whatever grain they have to make it. At least that’s the lesson I’m taking out of this.
Canadian whiskeys do not require a specific grain in their production and are often a blend of two grains or more. The grains that are used are mostly corn and rye but could be wheat or barley.
They have to be aged for three years but there’re no restrictions on the type of barrel that can be used (new or used, charred or uncharred).
They must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and may contain caramel or flavoring.
Regardless of the grain, Canadian distilleries usually create two whiskeys, a base and a flavoring whiskey and then combine them. In order to reduce the flavor of the base whiskey, it’s often distilled to a higher alcohol content and aged in used barrels so that the flavor coming from the grain and the barrel is downplayed. In order for the taste of the flavoring whiskey to be dominant it’s usually distilled at a lower alcohol content and in new barrels so that there will be lot of flavors from the grain and the barrel.
Canadians commonly refer to all Canadian whiskey as rye although it doesn’t need to contain any rye at all. This is because historically, Canadian whiskey was made from rye as it was one of the few crops that could survive Eastern Canada’s harsh winters.
Of course, Canadian whiskey must be produced in Canada.
Japanese whiskey is similar to Scotch whiskey in most respects because their industry’s pioneers modelled their product on Scotch and use similar distilling methods.
This doesn’t make Japanese whiskey Scotch because of the pesky rule that Scotch can only be made in Scotland but in terms of production, Japanese whiskey is the closest you’ll get to making Scotch outside of Scotland.
Although they started by mimicking the flavor of Scotch as closely as possible, they are developing their own style. They use double malted or peated barley and far more still shapes and sizes than Scotland (which uses just one or two) allowing them to create a range of styles and tastes.
Categorizing the Types of Whiskey by the Various Aspects of a Whiskey’s Taste
There are various aspects to a whiskey’s taste, and this the final way of categorizing the different types of whiskey. After all, the point of knowing the grains used and the country of origin is so that you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from a whiskey taste-wise. And then develop your own preferences.
In general, American whiskeys have the sweetest taste. Bourbon is the sweetest whiskey due to corn being the most sugary grain used in whiskey production. It’s almost caramel in flavor. Tennessee whiskey which tastes like bourbon is sweeter according to some.
Some Japanese whiskeys can also be quite sweet. The same applies to Speyside whiskeys (Scotland has five distinct regions when it comes to producing whiskey: Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.)
Irish whiskeys can be quite bourbon-like though not quite as sweet.
Smooth whiskeys mean whiskeys that are not harsh and don’t burn.
Canadian whiskeys are smoother than American whiskeys. Bourbon is smoother than rye whiskey.
Irish whiskeys are smoother than scotch whiskeys because of the triple distillation and because peat is not used in the malting process.
A full-bodied whiskey is one that has a complex flavor profile which means several if not dozens of dominant flavors. Whiskeys produced in the Scottish Highlands are full-bodied.
Light-bodied whiskeys have one or two dominant flavors and a clear fresh taste. Whiskeys produced in the Scottish Lowlands are quite light as are some Irish whiskeys. Canadian whiskeys are lighter than American whiskeys.
Smoky / Peaty Flavor
Many Scotch Malt Whiskeys use peat to fuel the kiln when drying the barley in the malting process, so they’ll have a smoky, peaty flavor. This also applies to the few Irish Malt Whiskeys that also use peat. American Single Malts are also smoky. Japanese whiskeys can be drier and smokier than scotch because they use double malted or peated barley.
Bourbon also has a slightly smoky flavor due to being aged in new charred barrels.
Tennessee whiskey has smoky and sooty hints from the charcoal used in the filtering process.
American rye whiskey is an assertive spicy whiskey. Scotch from the Highlands also tend to be spicy.
Highland scotches tend to be fruity as is Irish whiskey. American rye whiskey also has a fruity flavor.
Some (Campbeltown and Islay) of the five scotch whiskey regions absorb some of the briny sea air which you can taste in the whiskey along with the salt.
There may be lots of whiskeys out there but it’s possible to reduce the confusion by categorizing the different types of whiskey in one of three ways. By the grains used to extract the alcohol, by the laws and production methods of the country the whiskey is made in and by the various aspects of a whiskey’s taste.
Knowing all this is not about being able to dazzle your friends with information about Malt Whiskeys versus Grain Whiskeys, methods of distillation, which types of barrels different whiskeys are aged in and for how long, so that you can liven up the (now understandably) dying conversation at your party.
It’s about knowing what you like and why. So that you can have more of the types of whiskey you prefer. If that’s not an admirable goal I don’t know what is.