What Are the Types of Whiskey? The Difference Between Bourbon, Scotch, Irish and More

Whiskey is a classic distilled spirit enjoyed around the world. With such a wide variety of distinctions, it can be difficult to discern the differences between what are considered to be the four major types of whiskey: bourbon, scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskey.

Within these categories are distinct varieties and styles that make up the wide range of whiskey available on the market today. But how do you distinguish between them? Let’s explore some of the differences between these four major styles.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon is an American whiskey distilled from a mashbill made of at least 51% corn. Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years and tends to have a distinctly sweet flavor.

Brief History of Bourbon

Bourbon is believed to have originated in the 1800s in Kentucky, where settlers distilled and aged whiskey made from surplus corn crops. These settlers used their own recipes and methods, resulting in distinctive bourbons that are still popular today.

How Bourbon Is Made

Making bourbon is essentially a two-step process: distillation and maturation. During the distilling process, grain is ground into meal before being mashed with warm water and left to ferment.

Through the fermentation process, yeast is added to the mash and eventually converted into alcohol through distillation. This distillate is called “white dog” (also known as “moonshine”) because of its cloudy white color.

The next step in the bourbon-making process is maturation. The clear-colored spirit is transferred into charred full-size oak barrels for aging in order to give it the characteristic flavor and color that people expect from bourbon whiskey.

Aging time varies but must be at least two years, per U.S. government regulations, which also stipulate that bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, with other grains like barley, wheat or rye making up the rest of its content.

Today’s Bourbon Market

Today, thousands of distilleries across the country produce their own brands of bourbon, with many small craft distilleries popping up in recent years to tap into the growing popularity of this spirit.

Despite this surge in competition, large-scale producers like Jim Beam remain industry leaders due to their long history of producing quality bourbons that appeal to both veteran connoisseurs and casual drinkers.

Popular bourbon brands to explore include Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek.

Scotch Whisky

Scotch is a type of whiskey that has been made in Scotland for centuries. Although it is now enjoyed worldwide, scotch has remained an iconic part of Scottish culture and heritage. But what makes scotch so unique?

The Earliest Origins of Scotch

Scotch whisky has a long and storied history, tracing its origins all the way back to the 15th century.

The earliest documented record of distillation in Scotland is found in an entry in the Exchequer Rolls, a tax record of the day. This entry read “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” The eight bolls of malt provided enough malted barley to create around 1,500 bottles of a strong spirit that could be improved further over time.

Thus begins the story of scotch whisky, setting off centuries – if not millennia – of whisky production and refinement that would follow.

What Makes Scotch Unique?

Scotch must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, which gives it its smooth taste and smoky flavor. It must be made from malted barley grown only in Scotland, contributing to its distinct flavor profile. Often but not always, scotch is made with peat, which adds a distinct smoky flavor

Additionally, scotch can only be produced in certain areas within Scotland, giving each region its unique characteristics when it comes to flavor and aroma.

Types of Scotch

Scotch can come in a variety of styles, including single malt and blended whiskies.

Single malt whisky is made with just one type of grain (typically barley), while blended whiskies are made with several kinds of grains combined together for a smoother taste.

Blended whiskies are more common as they can be mass-produced, but single malts tend to be preferred by aficionados who focus on their production.

Popular scotch brands include Johnnie Walker, Glenlivet and Macallan.

Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey is a type of whiskey produced in Ireland from malted barley. It has a smooth, mellow flavor and must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Irish whiskey is becoming increasingly popular among whiskey lovers, but knowing where to start when exploring this spirit can be difficult.

Different Types of Irish Whiskey

There are five main categories for different types of Irish whiskey: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain, and pot still whiskeys.

Single malt whiskeys are produced from 100% malted barley, while single grain whiskeys are made from any other grain, such as corn or wheat.

Blended malt whiskeys are made by blending two or more single malt whiskies, while blended grain whiskies are made by combining two or more single grain whiskies together.

Pot still whiskeys are typically made from both malted barley and unmalted barley, which gives them a slightly heavier flavor than other types of whisky.

Some of the most popular brands of Irish whiskey include Jameson, Bushmills, and Tullamore Dew.

Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky is made in Japan, usually from malted barley, and must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Although heavily influenced by Scottish tradition, Japanese whisky is typically unpeated, as Japan doesn’t have the peatlands (wetland ecosystems similar to bogs) of Scotland to source peat from.

Characteristics and Flavor Profile

Japanese whisky is characterized by its light, delicate flavor profile, which can be attributed to the use of malted barley in its production process as well as its aging process, which is conducted in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Additionally, Japanese whiskies are often made with peat-smoked malt and other ingredients like corn, rye, or wheat, giving them a distinct smoky flavor that sets them apart from traditional Scotch whiskies.

The most popular brands of Japanese whiskey include Suntory, Nikka and Yamazaki.

Other Types of Whiskey

Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey made from at least 51% rye grain, most often made in the U.S. or Canada.  It is typically distilled to a lower proof than other types of whiskeys and is characterized by the “spicy” flavor it gets from rye.

Because of its typically intense flavor, rye whiskey is often preferred in cocktails but can also be enjoyed neat.

Canadian Whiskey

Canadian whiskey is a type of blended whiskey that is made from a mixture of different grains. Corn, rye, and wheat are the most common grains used in Canadian whiskey. Canadian whiskeys are typically lighter and smoother than other types of whiskeys.

American Single Malt Whiskey

American single malt whiskey is made from 100% malted barley. It is produced in small batches and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. American single malt whiskeys are typically full-bodied with a complex flavor profile.

Indian Whisky

Indian whiskies are typically single malts, created similarly to Scottish single malts, only in India. However, the angel’s share — the amount of whisky evaporated during the maturation process — is higher in India due to weather conditions, meaning Indian producers reap less whisky per barrel than their Scottish counterparts.


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