World Whisky: Know Your Booze
There is a wider range of whisky being produced now, from a broader mix of regions, than ever before. This is a truly exciting time to be a whisky lover. Alongside this growth in popularity, thre are ever more terms and techniques to get your head around. As such, I thought it would be useful to run through some of this terminology, and the differences between some of the main types of whisky.
The terms below, whilst originating in Scotland, are now fairly common worldwide.
Malt Whisky - The main feature of malt whisky is that it’s made from 100% malted barley (the ‘malt), using a copper pot still. Malt whiskies tend to be fairly rich, with a deep flavour.
Single Malt Whisky - A malt whisky made from a single distillery. Many of the most popular whiskies on the market, Macallan, Laphroaig, Bowmore, etc. are single malt whiskies.
Blended Malt Whisky - As you may guess, these are a mixture of malt whiskies produced at different distilleries then blended together. Unlike a straight ‘blended whisky’ they contain no grain whisky at all. Relatively unusual, the most popular example of a blended malt would be Monkey Shoulder.
Grain Whisky - Unlike malt whisky, grain whisky is produced from a mix of different types of grain alongside (but not necessarily including) malted barley. Typically these produce a lighter whisky, and they make up a key component of many blended whiskies.
Blended Whisky - These are made up of a combination of single malt and grain whisky. Most of the best selling whiskies in the world are blends (Johnnie Walker, Ballantines, Chivas Regal etc.). The benefit to blending is that the blender has options available to be able to create exactly the flavour profile they’re looking for. Blended whisky covers a wide range of quality and price points, from bargain basement supermarket whiskies, to extremely expensive bottles popular with collectors.
Peat - Peat is a fuel made up of decomposed vegetation - similar to a much younger version of coal. Mainly used in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (as they had no coal), peat was burned to dry out the barley as part of the whisky making process. The smoke from the peat gives certain whiskies their distinctive ‘smoky’ flavour. When describing whisky people tend to use the terms ‘peaty’ and ‘smoky’ more or less interchangeably.
Independent Bottler - Whilst the vast majority of whisky available on the market has been released by the company that produced the whisky, there is a growing trend of independent bottlers who are really making a mark on the scene. These companies buy casks from the distilleries which they then bottle and release independently - typically as single cask, or very small batch releases. The benefit to this is that you get many more idiosyncratic and interesting whiskies available through independent bottlers, than are typically released from the distilleries. The acronym IB is used to typify an independently bottled whisky (as opposed to an OB - an original bottling). Famous established bottlers worth looking out for include Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory Vintage, Samaroli, and Douglas and Hunter Laing.
Whilst there is a lot of overlap, there are a few key distinctions between Scottish and Irish whisky.
Pot Still Whiskey - This style is now popular all over the world, particularly in America, but it originated in Ireland. The process involves using both malted and unmalted barley, alongside a mix of other grains - this mix is known as the ‘mash bill’. This type of whisky would be called ‘grain whisky’ in Scotland, but the Irish version has a distinctive, typically slightly sweeter, flavour profile.
Triple Distilled - Irish whisky has a long history of using triple distillation for it’s whisky. This involves passing the liquid through the copper pot still three times, rather than twice (as is typically the case with Scotch). This is said to make the liquid ‘more smooth’, and helps with marketing.
Bonders - In Ireland people tend to use the term ‘bonders’ instead of independent bottlers. Historically there wasn’t nearly as much Irish whiskey being produced as Scotch, so this was an extremely niche scene, however more recently it has been growing in popularity.
American whisky is hugely varied, and encompasses a very wide range of techniques and styles.
Bourbon - Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made using at least 50% corn (aka maize), with the rest of the mash bill coming from a mix of malted barley, rye and a couple of other grains. Unlike Scotch and Irish whiskies which are allowed to reuse oak barrels for maturation, bourbon legally has to be aged in new oak casks every time. These fresh oak casks, along with the corn, give the spirit its characteristic sweet flavour.
Rye/Oat/Wheat Whiskey - These whiskies are made using the same process as bourbon, however, they need to be made from at least 50% rye/oat/wheat. The flavour here depends on the dominant grain being used. Rye tends to be spicy, oat is creamy etc.
Tennessee whisky - These whiskies effectively follow the same rules as bourbon, however post distillation the spirit must be filtered through charcoal, before being matured in fresh oak casks. It also, perhaps obviously, has to be made in Tennessee. The most famous example of this is Jack Daniel’s, although there are a bunch of interesting new distilleries popping up trying to grab some of the market (my favourite being Uncle Nearest and Daddy Rack).
Corn Whiskey - Corn whiskey is completely different from any other type of American whisky. It has to be made from at least 80% corn (maize) and is allowed to be aged in either fresh oak or aged casks.
Straight whiskey - These whiskey have to have been aged for a minimum of 2 years. Further to this, if the whisky is less than 4 years old, it has to include the age statement on the label.
Bottled in Bond - Slightly stronger than most, whiskey that has been ‘bottled in bond’ comes out at atleast 50% ABV.
Whilst Japanese whisky has been one of the biggest success stories in whisky of the past 10 years, until 2021 it was completely unregulated making the term ‘Japanese’ slightly meaningless. Brands would import whisky made in other countries, mainly Scotland, and then slap a Japanese label on the front and hey presto - you have a Japanese whisky.
This changed in April 2021 when they finally introduced proper regulation insisting that Japanese whisky does in fact have to be distilled and matured in Japan.
Famous for a soft flavour profile, there is no single ‘Japanese style’ and they use a wide range of the techniques included above.
I’ve covered the current major whisky producing nations here. Beyond these, there is some fantastic whisky now being made in Taiwan, Sweden, England, Australia and beyond. To learn more, stay tuned to our blog!