The Different Styles of Whiskey
Whiskey (or whisky) is one of the most diverse distilled spirits on the planet. It can be made from so many different ingredients, in so many ways, that the finished products can vary so dramatically you have to wonder how they can all be called whiskey but that’s why the different types of whiskey are so fascinating.
There are differences in the distilling process, the aging process, and some whiskeys even have flavor additives. Each country has its own style and traditions when it comes to producing whiskey.
Despite so many spirits all falling under the same category, there are some distinctions, legal and otherwise, that can be made. We’ve listed out the different styles of whiskey below so that you can better understand each type.
Irish whiskey is the oldest of all the different styles of whiskey. It is referred to as the “father of all whiskey” and was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe. Around the 12th century, after travelling through southern Europe Irish monks brought the technique of distilling perfumes back to Ireland.
Because of its use of cereal grains, such as barley and malt, Irish whiskey is known for being light and fruity.
By European law, Irish whiskey must be:
- Be distilled and matured on the island of Ireland (either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland)
- Be made from a mash of malted barley, plus other cereal grains (optional);
- Be mashed, fermented, distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV, and matured in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 liters for a minimum of three years
- Contain no additives other than water and caramel coloring (e150a);
- Retain the characteristics of its raw materials
- Have a minimum alcoholic by volume content of 40%
Jameson is one of the best known brands of Irish whiskey, selling over 31 million bottles annually. Close behind is Bushmills, which was founded in 1608. If you’re trying the different styles of whiskey, make sure you pick up a bottle of Jameson’s.
How to Enjoy
The best way to enjoy Irish Whiskey is straight. You can also mix it with ginger ale, or enjoy it in a cocktail such as an Irish Coffee or Massey Cocktail.
Related: How is Bourbon Made?
Within each of those categories, there are more strict regulations. For example, American whiskey can contain artificial colors and flavors, but the subcategory of Bourbon cannot.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) gives a fairly generic legal definition:
“Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).”
Worldwide, whiskey is a little better regulated. Scotland, Ireland, and Canada all require that whiskey is aged for at least three years in wooden casks.
You’ll notice we’ve dropped the “e” in whisky this section of the different styles of whiskey. That’s because Scotch whisky (aka Scotch) is labelled without it. In order to be called Scotch whisky, it must be distilled and bottled in Scotland.
Scotch is split into five separate categories – single malt Scotch whisky, single grain Scotch whisky, blended malt Scotch whisky, blended grain Scotch whisky, and blended Scotch whisky.
The most popular and traditional version of Scotch is single malt, which means that it is distilled from water and malted barley, without any other cereals such as wheat.
Some single malt scotches, such as Laphroaig, dry their malt over a peat fire from anywhere between 18-30 hours, which gives it a deep smokey taste.
Good Scotch has a tendency to be pretty pricey, and if you’re trying the different styles of whiskey some of the most famous brands include Macallan, Glenfiddich, and Johnnie Walker. There are over 130 malt and grain distilleries within Scotland, so there are lots of different options to choose from.
How to Enjoy
How you enjoy your scotch depends greatly on the price you paid for it. If you are drinking a single malt scotch in the price category of $150+, you probably want to drink it neat so that you can enjoy the flavors you are paying for. There are some classic scotch cocktails to be enjoyed though, including a Scotch Sour or Penicillin.
American whiskey is split into three camps – Bourbon, Tennessee, and Rye. These different styles of whiskey all have very different flavor profiles.
We’ve covered bourbon and rye pretty extensively, from their composition to their aging process. Simply put, bourbon contains at least 51% corn. Rye contains at least 51% rye. But Tennessee whiskey is a slightly different story.
Tennessee whiskey is very much like bourbon, except they use a filtering technique called ‘the Lincoln County Process” prior to aging the whiskey. This process filters the whiskey through charcoal chips before it heads to the casks. This step supposedly mellows the flavors of the whisky, giving it a smooth finish.
There are about 2,000 whiskey distilleries in the United States, and so many are recognized brands. You should aim to try a few of the different styles of whiskey available in the United States.
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The most famous of the Tennessee whiskey producers is Jack Daniels, which prides itself as being distinctly different (and better) than bourbon.
How to Enjoy
Rye, bourbon, and Tennessee whiskeys can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail. Try a classic whiskey cocktail such as whiskey smash, an adventurous cinnamon maple whiskey sour, or a simple rye and coke.
Here’s where explaining the different styles of whiskey can get complicated. Canadian whisky (notice we’ve dropped the “e” again?) must be produced in Canada. It started off as a high corn-based whisky, but when some distillers began adding small amounts of rye, it became colloquially known as “rye whisky.”
Canadian rye is very different from American rye whiskey, because there are no rules for how much rye it contains. Some distillers use high rye mashbills, such as Canadian Club, but others contain no rye at all. They can also include up to 9.09% of another spirit or wine.
The most popular Canadian whiskies are Forty Creek, Crown Royal, Canadian Club, and JP Wiser’s. There are distilleries and brands throughout Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.
Related: The 11 Health Benefits of Whiskey
Canadian whisky also has been sold by American brands, such as WhistlePig and Masterson’s.
How to Enjoy
Canadian whisky is a versatile spirit, and makes for a great cocktail or mixed drink. Try it with cranberry juice, or in a hot toddy.
The “Other” Whiskeys
There is one more category of the different styles of whiskey that encompasses a few different areas – we’ll refer to it as the “other” category.
Whiskey production was once limited to Ireland, Scotland, and North America. In recent years however whiskey has begun to open into other markets. England is distilling whiskey for the first time in over a century. Japan has a burgeoning whiskey market, with an expected compound annual growth rate of 9.4% from 2019 to 2025.
Another whiskey that has gained popularity is flavored whiskey. There are the bar staples, like Sazarac’s Fireball, but you can also find whiskey with interesting flavors like salted herring, jalapeno peppers, and chocolate.
Finally, many smaller whiskey companies are making an art of blending whiskey. While they don’t distill the spirits themselves, they choose from some of the best casks and create their own blends. Blended whiskey can also refer to straight whiskey that has vodka added, like Seagrams Seven.