What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey, or whisky, is a type of distilled alcoholic drink made from fermented grain mash. Different grains, including barley, rye, corn, and wheat, are used during fermentation to create the different types of whiskey.

Whiskey vs Whisky

Is it "whiskey" or "whisky?" Turns out, both are correct. The spelling doesn't depend on a particular whiskey type or how it's made, but rather where it is made. The Scotts spell it "whisky," while the Irish add the extra "e." The spelling varies in other countries as well -- Japan and Canada spell it "whisky," while "whiskey" is used in the U.S.

whiskey in a glass and bottle on wood

How Is Whiskey Made?

All whiskey goes through a process of distillation and aging before it is packaged and exported for public consumption. After the mash of yeast, sugar and malts are fermented, it is placed in copper stills where sulfur-containing compounds are removed from the mixture. The different types of whiskey use different types of stills to create flavor.

Then it's time for the aging process, which is vital to achieving the desired flavor of whiskey. The whiskey is put into wooden barrels that are charred on the inside. The ethanol reacts with the barrel and brings out the whiskey's flavors. The whiskey is aged to the distiller's liking, sometimes up to 20 years.

However, whiskeys that are aged longer do not necessarily taste "better. After about two decades, additional aging does not have an effect on the drink.

barrels of whiskey in a distillery

Blended Whiskey

Origin: worldwide

Popular brands: Canadian Mist, Crown Royal

Blended whiskeys are the result of combining straight whiskey with other ingredients. Blended whiskey doesn't have to be 100 percent whiskey -- they can be as little as 20 percent actual whiskey, while the other 80 percent can be colorings, flavorings, and neutral grain spirits. This allows for a particularly wide range of flavors, colors, and other variations. The ABV, or alcohol by volume, varies by country and blend.

Bourbon Whiskey

Origin: the U.S.

Popular brands: Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Wild Turkey

Bourbon is an American whiskey and strongly associated with the south. Kentucky, specifically, is the home to bourbon. The first bourbon distilleries can be traced to 18th century Kentucky and today the state produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon supply.

In order for a whiskey to be classified as a bourbon, its mash (the combination of grains from which it is distilled) must be at least 51 percent corn and distilled to no more than 160 proof after entering the barrel at 125 proof or less. Bourbon is about 80 percent ABV, and typically sweet with a smoky, wooden undertone.

glass of whiskey on the rocks

Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Canadian Whisky

Origin: Canada

Popular brands: Alberta Premium, Forty Creek

Distilling in Canada began with Scottish immigrants who made their whisky just as they did back in their motherland. Therefore, Canadian whisky began with a similar methodology as Scotch whisky, but has shifted over time. Like bourbon whiskeys, the main ingredient in Canadian whisky is corn, but Canadian whiskies have some rye present as well. The ABV of Canadian whisky must be at least 40 percent.

Irish Whiskey

Origin: Ireland

Popular brands: Jameson, Kilbeggan

Irish whiskey is made in Ireland, which is thought to be home to the first distillers in the British Isles. The drink dates back to the 12th century and Irish monks are thought to have introduced it to the island after returning from travels in the Mediterranean.

Irish whiskey is a rival to Scotch, as they are close in proximity and both made from barley. Some historians have claimed that the extra "e" was added in the 19th century to differentiate itself from Scotch whisky. Irish whiskey is known for being smooth and can be consumed straight or mixed into cocktails. Irish whiskey must be at least 40 percent ABV.

whiskey being poured into a glass with ice


Japanese Whisky

Origin: Japan

Popular brands: Yamazaki, Nikka Whisky

Japan began distilling its own form of whisky around 1870, but the first commercial production wasn't until 1924. Though the country only has a handful of young distilleries, it has developed a variety of styles ranging from light to smokey flavors. Most of Japan's whiskies are consumed in mixed drinks. Japanese whisky is at least 40 percent ABV.

Rye Whiskey

Origin: the U.S. and Canada

Popular brands: Old Overholt, Templeton Rye

For a whiskey to be classified as a rye whiskey, it must contain 51 percent rye and age in wooden casks for at least two years. These whiskeys are made in the U.S. and Canada and can be between 40 and 80 percent ABV. Though rye whiskeys are not as popular as other brands because of their unique spicy flavor, they were once highly popular in the 1800s. Today, rye whiskey is commonly used in Manhattan mixed drinks. Rye whiskey has an ABV of between 40 and 80 percent.

man pouring whiskey into a glass


Single Malt Whisky

Origin: Scotland

Popular brands: Springbank, Royal Lochnagar

Single malt whisky is distilled from a fermented mash made exclusively with malted barley, so there is no unmalted grain present. This process is most commonly associated with single malt Scotch, but other countries, including Ireland, produce their own single malts as well. The whisky is distilled twice in pot stills and aged for at least three years, and can have a wide range of flavors. Single malt whisky is typically between 40 and 50 percent ABV.

Single Pot Still Whiskey

Origin: Ireland

Popular brands: Green Spot

Single pot still whiskeys are similar to single malt whiskies, but unlike single malt whisky, this is a style of Irish whiskey that uses a mix of malted and unmalted barley. The whiskey goes through triple distillation to achieve a spicy and incredibly smooth taste. This style of whiskey was created in the 1800s when distillers began adding unmalted, or "green," barley into their process to cut down on the high malt taxes. Single pot still whisky is at least 40 percent ABV.

whiskey distillery copper stills

Scotch Whisky

Origin: Scotland

Popular brands: Johnnie Walker, Monkey Shoulder

Scotch is a whisky made mostly from malted barley in Scotland and aged for three years or more. Scotch whisky tastes a lot like bourbon, but with a stronger bite reminiscent of wood, fire, and leather. Because of its striking taste, Scotch doesn't usually do well in mixed drinks. It's typically ordered straight, either "neat" (without ice) or "on the rocks" (with ice).

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, tax records of distilleries in Scotland date back to 1494, when Catholic monks were major producers of the whisky. This 15th-century record lists "Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae." Aqua vitae is Latin for "water of life." Scotch is normally 40-46 percent ABV.

Tennessee Whiskey

Origin: the U.S.

Popular brands: Jack Daniel's, George Dickel

Though Tennessee whiskey is almost identical to bourbon, distillers of the alcohol won't classify the two as the same. The drink, made in Kentucky's southern neighbor state, has one major difference in its production that separates it from bourbon -- the Lincoln County Process. This process requires the whiskey to be filtered in charcoal before beginning its aging process.

This key step, coupled with the legal requirement that all Tennessee whiskey be made in Tennessee, is its only defining difference from Kentucky bourbon. Like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is sweet but with an added charcoal-like taste. Tennessee whiskey is typically at least 40 percent ABV.

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