On planet spirits, the whiskey region is perhaps the largest and most diverse, which can lead people to wonder how to proceed when looking at all the different varieties in the store. What is the difference between bourbon and rye? Single malt or blend? The whiskey category is home to a host of main subcategories, differentiated by ingredients, geography, and more. Whiskey can also be white (when not aged), blended into multiple grades, or sourced from a specific state, such as Tennessee or Iowa. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of six types of whiskey to give you the basic knowledge you need to navigate and enjoy the iconic spirit. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
A true product of American origin like jazz or pickup, bourbon is essentially a domestic whiskey. It can be produced anywhere in the United States, but Kentucky is by far the king of the category. The bourbon is made from at least 51% corn and aged in new oak vats that have been charred. The end result should be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof or 40% ABV. Bourbon is generally a fuller, sometimes smoother style of whiskey. If that sounds good, check out these excellent bourbons.
Closest cousin to bourbon, rye is made from a majority of rye, or at least 51% of the grain bill. While bourbon is primarily based in the southern United States, rye was bred further north. One distinction is the “plain” title, which refers to rye whiskey that has been aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other whiskeys before bottling. It’s also aged in new charred barrels and can’t be higher in alcohol than 160 degrees (which is very rare, since most ryes, like bourbons, finish at around 40% ABV). Rye tends to be a little spicier or pepperier on the palate.
Originating in Scotland, Scotch is perhaps the most distinctive of the subcategories. At the time of its formation, the entirety of this style of whiskey was made from malted barley. In present times, it is also made from rye or wheat. Scotch must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels. There are more convoluted legal details about the production process, but, overall, you can get away with thinking of Scotch as the smoky parent of whiskey across the pond. Because it’s often made with malted barley that has been heated with peat, it tends to offer peaty (think woodsy) notes. There’s a lot of history in this stuff, with the first documented creation dating back to the 15th century.
You guessed it, Irish whiskey must be made in Ireland. There is more flexibility with the grain bill here, compared to most other types of whisky. It is often sweeter than Scotch, its closest whiskey sibling. It’s also the oldest, dating back to the 1100s. The spirit went into a dramatic decline in the early 20th century due to various wars and trade deals, but has since seen something of a resurgence.
Perhaps the most exciting whiskey sub-category today, Japanese whiskey is on the rise. It’s relatively new, dating back to the late 1800s. There’s usually a lot of mixing involved, as well as the intake of grains or fermented grains from elsewhere, such as Scotland. Japanese whiskey is very much inspired by Scotch, and the current generation of producers are really looking to showcase the place (climate, ingredients, etc.) in their spirits. This is a category to watch over the next few years for all whiskey lovers.
Great Northern White whiskey, as you might expect, carries the Canadian name. This style is often lighter and quite smooth, made mostly from a corn base, often with rye added. They are at least three years old and may include flavorings or caramel for color. The rules are perhaps the most lax, including a wide range of woods allowed for aging. It is therefore a broad-spectrum whiskey sub-category. Early versions were made of wheat, dating back to the 18th century.
How to drink whiskey
We’ve written a whole article on how to drink whiskey, but in short, you’ll either drink the whiskey neat (i.e. on its own without ice), with a drop of water, poured over ice, or in cocktails. Scotch and Japanese whiskeys are more likely to be drunk neat or with a drop of water to open up the flavor. When you think of classic whiskey cocktails like the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan, you probably opt for bourbon or rye. These styles of whiskey also appear frequently in drinks like Whiskey Sour. Experiment with different styles of whiskey for different cocktails to see what you like best.
There are a variety of novelty whiskey glasses out there, but an old-fashioned glass with a nice thick bottom will do just fine. Check your local thrift store to see what you can find. And drinking whiskey doesn’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of whiskeys under $20 to get you started.