Whisky is one of the most interesting and diverse spirits you can drink. There are many different types of whiskies to try, containing flavours ranging from vanilla and honey through to tobacco and oak. It can be very exciting to open a new bottle and identify the flavours within.
However, the sheer diversity of flavours available can be a little confusing to anyone new to whisky. This guide will help by identifying the major varieties of whisky and what flavours they usually contain. It will help you choose a type of whisky that has the flavours you enjoy.
What is whisky?
Whisky is an alcoholic spirit that has been created from fermented grain mash you can read more about it in this FAQ page on Whiskybon. It can be created from many types of grains including barley, wheat, rye, and corn (maize). Many types of Whisky use malted grains — which are grains that are soaked in water, germinated, then dried using hot air.
After the grain is fermented, the liquid it produces is distilled. Traditionally, whisky will be distilled twice, but some varieties will use triple distillation. The whisky is then placed in a cask to age. The cask is usually made from some type of oak, which is often charred to have a greater impact over the flavour of the whisky.
The whisky undergoes a complex transformation while inside the cask, which involves oxidisation, filtration, colouration, evaporation, and extraction of certain compounds. The whisky will acquire new compounds after the ageing process which give it additional flavours and aromas.
The combination of the raw materials used, the fermentation and distillation processes, the type of cask used, and the duration of the maturation process will all combine to create a uniquely-flavoured whisky. For more information read this guide on Whisky For Everyone.
What do different types of whisky taste like?
The most common types of whisky include:
Scotch whisky is created from malted barley and water which is typically distilled twice and aged for at least 3 years in oak casks. All Scotch whiskies must be produced by a distillery in Scotland. There are two types of Scotch whiskies:
- Single malt whisky
Single malt whiskies are the product of a single distillery and created using a single grain.
- Blended whisky
Blended whiskies contain multiple single malt whiskies. They are blended in a way that enhances the best flavours and makes the whisky smooth to drink.
Scotch whiskies tend to have a smokey flavour with hints of vanilla, nuts, cedar, oak, malt, tobacco, earth, and various fruits. The smokey flavour found within Scotch whiskies occurs because Scottish distilleries use malted barley that has been dried with peat moss smoke. Single malt whiskies tend to have more distinctive flavours than blended whiskies.
Most Irish whisky is created from unmalted barley and water, however distilleries can use other combinations of grains — as long as the bottle is labelled “blended”. Because the grains are not peated, the end product tastes less smokey than Scottish whisky. Irish whisky is also triple distilled and aged for at least 3 years, which give is a smoother taste than Scottish whisky. Irish whisky has a smooth velvety texture with hints of caramel, nuts, and spices. It is a delicate whisky that is less intense than Scotch whisky.
There are three types of American whisky:
- Bourbon Whisky
All bourbon whiskies are created from a mash with at least 51% corn. The remainder of the mash usually consists of rye and malted barley. Many bourbon whiskies will blend a new grain mash into an older mash — a process called sour mash.
- Rye Whisky
All rye whiskies are created from a mash with at least 51% rye. The remainder of the mash usually consists of corn and malted barley
- Tennessee Whisky
Tennessee whisky is bourbon Whisky that has been filtered through charcoal to achieve a smoother flavour. It must be distilled in Tennessee to be given this name.
To be called an American whisky, the product must be distilled in the United States and aged in barrels. The most common flavours in American whisky are caramel, vanilla, citrus, oak, berries, spices, and cherries. American whiskies tend to be very sweet compared to Scotch whisky and they usually have stronger flavours than Irish whisky.
Most Canadian whisky uses 51% or more rye for its mash. It is then distilled and aged for at least 3 years. All Canadian whisky must be distilled in Canada. Most Canadian whiskies have a light and smooth flavour similar to Irish whisky with plenty of oak, vanilla and caramel. However, there are some distilleries making darker whiskies in a Scotch whisky or bourbon whisky style.
The best way to find out which whisky you like is to try them! They all have their own unique characteristics and it is up to the consumer to decide which style they prefer.