Whisky is a beloved beverage with a rich history and a range of flavours enjoyed by people all over the world. Made from fermented grain mash aged in wooden casks, whisky is known for its complexity, depth, and unique taste profiles that vary depending on the production methods, ingredients, and ageing processes.
With whisky production based in various countries around the world, including Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Japan, there is a wide array of styles and types of whisky to explore. Learning about the different types and styles of this iconic spirit can help everyone from the casual consumer to the connoisseur to develop more of an appreciation for this well-known drink. From a traditional Scotch like Kilkerran whisky, or a bold American bourbon, below we will take a closer look at the characteristics, terms, production methods, and flavour profiles of each type of whisky.
Grab your glass, and let’s embark on a short introductory journey through the wonderful world of whisky.
In whisky production, “mash” and “malt” are two key terms that refer to specific processes and ingredients.
Mash: Mash is the mixture of grains, usually malted barley, combined with water and heated to extract the sugars needed for fermentation. Hot water is then added to the grains to create a slurry, and the mixture is heated to specific temperatures to activate enzymes converting the starches of the grains into fermentable sugars. This process, known as mashing, produces a sweet liquid called wort, which is then fermented with yeast to produce alcohol.
Malt: Malt refers to grains, typically barley, that have undergone a germination and drying process to create malted barley. The grains are soaked in water to initiate germination, which triggers the production of enzymes that convert the barley’s starches into fermentable sugars. The germinated grains are then dried, often using hot air or heat from burning peat, to stop the germination process and preserve the enzymes. The resulting malted barley is then used in the mashing process to create wort, which is fermented to produce alcohol.
Fermentation: Whisky fermentation is where sugars extracted from the mash or wort are converted into alcohol by the action of yeast. Yeast is a microorganism that consumes the sugars and produces alcohol and other by-products during fermentation. The fermentation typically occurs in large tanks or barrels, and the length of the fermentation can vary depending on the type of whisky and desired flavour profile. Once fermentation is complete, the resulting liquid, known as wash or beer, is distilled and aged to produce whisky.
Scotch is renowned for its distinctive flavours and long-standing traditions. The production of Scotch whisky is regulated by strict laws, which ensure that the whisky is made using specific methods and ingredients to maintain its high quality and authenticity. Scotch is made from malted barley or a combination of malted barley and other grains, such as corn or wheat. The grains are mashed and mixed with water to extract sugars, which then are fermented to produce alcohol. The resulting liquid, or wash, is distilled in copper pot stills to purify and concentrate the alcohol.
The distilled spirit is aged in wooden casks, often made from oak, imparting unique flavours and characteristics to the whisky over time. Scotch whisky is categorised into several styles, including single malt whisky, made from malted barley at a single distillery, and blended whisky, a combination from multiple distilleries. Each style has its own distinct flavours, from sweet and fruity to smoky and peaty, and is often labelled with a statement that indicates the minimum number of years the whisky was aged.
Rooted in American history and culture, American whiskey, which includes styles such as bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey, boasts a rich heritage that spans centuries and continues to captivate whiskey enthusiasts around the globe. American whiskey is crafted from fermented grain mash that typically includes corn, rye, wheat, and barley and then distilled in copper stills to create a potent and flavorful spirit to be aged in charred oak barrels, where it acquires distinct flavours and characteristics, such as notes of caramel, vanilla, spices, and oak.
The production of American whiskey is governed by stringent regulations set forth by Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations that dictate specific criteria for ingredients, distillation, ageing, and labelling, ensuring the authenticity and quality of the final product. American Whiskey further breaks down into several sub-classifications:
Rye: Rye whiskey is made from a grain mash that contains at least 51% rye and is cherished for its spicy and robust flavours.
Malt Whiskey: Distilled from a mash made of at least 51% malted barley.
Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbon, one of the most well-known styles of American whiskey, is made from a grain mash containing a minimum of 51% corn and is aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Straight Whiskey: Straight whiskey has been distilled to a maximum of 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) and has aged for a minimum of two years, starting with an alcohol concentration of no more than 62.5%.
Find A Type And Style Of Whisky That You Enjoy
Whisky is a diverse and beloved spirit that comes in various types and styles, each with its own unique production methods, ageing techniques, and flavour profiles. From the smoky and peaty malt variants of Scotch to the rich and complex bourbons of America, the world of whisky offers a vast array of palettes for whisky enthusiasts to explore and enjoy. Take the time to try some different styles, and experience a variety of tastes and soon you will find a style that you enjoy.