Whisky at its most basic is made up of just three ingredients – water, grain and yeast. From there however it can have a multitude of differences, from the intense smokiness of some Scottish single malts to the sweet caramel and vanilla notes of American bourbon. There’s something for everyone – you just need to find the right one.
The world’s biggest producer has five different types of whisky:
Single malt scotch whisky: made only from malted barley, and the product of only one distillery.
Blended scotch whisky: A combination of different single malt and single grain whiskies, blended together after the individual whiskies have matured.
Blended malt scotch whisky: A blend of single malts from different distilleries.
Single grain scotch whisky: The product of one distillery, and can be made with a variety of grains including corn, wheat and barley.
Blended grain scotch whisky: a blend of single grains, from more than one distillery.
Though its whiskies are officially divided into geographical regions, when it comes to flavour profiles Scotland, as a general rule, has two traditional styles – those from the mainland, which tend to be fruity and smooth, and those from the islands, where the barley used to make the whisky has been dried over burning peat, adding a characteristic smokiness to the end result.
Which Scotch whiskies to buy
Smooth – The Glenrothes 12-year-old Speyside single malt scotch whisky. Why? Fruity, sweet and smooth – this is easy drinking with bags of depth and flavour.
Smoky – Ardbeg 10-year-old Islay single malt scotch whisky. Why? Spicy, sweet and smoky.
On a budget:
Smooth – Glenmorangie 10-year-old single malt scotch whisky. Aged in bourbon casks, this has citrus and vanilla notes.
Smoky – Laphroaig Select single malt scotch whisky. Fiery and assertively smoky.
Japanese whisky has long been making its own mark on the world, with whisky-makers producing modern, delicately flavoured, unique whiskies. Despite its modern approach, reports of Japanese whisky date back to as early as the 1850s. Japanese whisky was officially established in 1923, when Suntory launched the first genuine malt whisky distillery in Osaka. The company was helped by employee Masataka Taketsuru, who was famously sent to Scotland to learn Scotch whisky-making in 1918, and he is now known as the father of Japanese whisky.
While there were once only a handful of whisky producers in Japan, new distilleries are now booming, and with them bring new flavours and distilling techniques.
How is Japanese whisky made?
Rather than leaning on tradition or focusing on a consistency like their Scottish counterparts, Japanese whisky-makers look for refinement and elegance in their whisky.
Distillers source water locally and play with peated and unpeated barley, different yeast strains, cut points and fermentation to craft individual whiskies with unique flavours.
Some distillers use an eclectic collection of still shapes and sizes to produce a creative array of whiskies. By using a range of woods in the barrels, like mizunara oak, a tree found only in Japan, or finishing in plum wine casks, distinct flavours are introduced to Japanese whiskies that can’t be recreated anywhere else in the world.
The modern Japanese whisky scene
Japan’s early debt to Scottish techniques can mask the innovative streak that runs through the country’s whisky industry, but the individuality of Japan’s whiskies is hard to ignore when sampling its blends.
These whisky blends are the drivers of the industry. Blends such as Hibiki and Nikka From the Barrel are rightly lauded for their quality and are equally remarkable for their experimental side.
The country’s love for whisky blends is fuelled by the mizuwari cocktail, a shot of whisky stirred with plenty of ice and sparkling water. This cocktail is the epitome of Japan’s modern whisky scene, served chilled in a highball glass.
Which Japanese whiskies to buy
Suntory Hibiki Japanese Harmony. Why? A blend of malt and grain whiskies, with notes of orange peel and white chocolate.
On a budget:
Akashi blended. Why? Matured in bourbon and sherry casks, with notes of toffee, oak and vanilla.
The last few years have seen an exciting renaissance in Irish whiskey, with distilleries old and new producing some of the world’s best spirits. From just four to more than 30 and counting in the space of 10 years, if the boom in new distilleries is anything to go by, then the Irish whiskey category is coming back stronger and better than ever.
With new brands coming to market every month, it can be difficult to know exactly who is nailing it and what you should even be looking for when it comes to choosing the right bottle from the Emerald Isle.
What you need to know
All Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years in wooden barrels such as oak in Ireland (including Northern Ireland). There are currently four spirit categories in Irish whiskey:
Single malt: made by one distillery, distilling 100% malted barley in a pot still. Typically giving notes of toasted oak, biscuits and malt chocolate.
Single grain: made by one distillery, distilling no more than 30% malted barley with the majority unmalted cereals (typically corn, wheat or barley) and distilled in a column still. This style usually gives light floral notes of sweet grain and honey.
Single pot still: made by one distillery, distilled from a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley with up to 5% cereals added. This is classed as the most traditional style of Irish whiskey. It’s classically a heavier style with flavours that can range from baking spices and vanilla to rich Christmas cake.
Blended: a combination of two or more styles of Irish whiskey blended together. A very exciting classification of whiskey which allows brands space to create stunning blends.
As Irish whiskey is not strictly held to maturing in oak casks, there has been a huge surge in exciting cask ageing outside of the whiskey norm. Another point to keep in mind is that while a lot of brands will triple distil their whisky, it is not a legal requirement, and is instead a style that adds to the adventurous nature of the category.
Not sure where to start? Check out our pick of some of the most category defining and innovative Irish whiskeys out currently. As a lot of brands are testing the water with products, you might have to be quick to snap up a new Irish whiskey gem.
Which Irish whiskies to buy
Bushmills 16 year old. Why? Matured in three different casks – bourbon, oloroso sherry and port – which each bring their own nuances. Spicy, with berry fruits and a deep colour from the port.
On a budget:
Tullamore Dew. Why? Triple distillation brings smoothness while a blend of golden grain, pot still and malt whiskies give complexity and depth.
Unlike Scotch whisky, bourbon doesn’t have a minimum ageing requirement, but if a bottle is labelled as ‘straight bourbon’ then it will have been aged for at least two years. If a bourbon has been aged for less than four years it must have an age statement on the bottle. Other terms you may come across are ‘small batch’ – which tend to be bourbons blended from a carefully curated, relatively small selection of barrels – while ‘single barrel’ is bourbon from just one barrel. ‘Cask strength’ is where bourbons are bottled without dilution so these will be stronger and more alcoholic.
Because of its high corn content, bourbon usually tastes sweet in character, with other factors such as barrel-ageing giving flavours and aromas of vanilla, caramel, baking spice, maple, toasted oak, nuttiness and cocoa. As well the 51% corn requirement the mash bill can be made up of varying amounts of other grains such as rye, malted barley and wheat and this will impact how the bourbon tastes. High-wheat bourbons will be soft and sweet in character, while high-rye bourbons are spicier.
Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon – it’s made in almost exactly the same way with many of the same legal requirements governing the production process. The key differences are that it can only be made in the state of Tennessee and the spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal after distillation, called the Lincoln County Process. This results in a smooth, mellow end result, and it’s why bourbons tend to be a little more bold and robust in character. Tennessee whiskey will be labelled as such on the bottle (Jack Daniels being the most famous example).
It’s delicious sipped neat, although higher-ABV spirits may benefit from a tiny splash of water – this will dilute the spirit but also softens the kick of the alcohol which can numb the tastebuds. It also helps to open up the spirit. Bourbon is brilliant in cocktails, and many classic recipes call for it. Try it in an old fashioned, mint julep, boulevardier or highballs.
Which bourbon whiskies to buy
Woodford Reserve Double oaked. Why? Unusually this has a second aging period in heavily toasted oak barrels to give a complex, toasty finish.
On a budget:
Buffalo Trace. Why? Made from corn, rye and malted barley and aged for at least eight years, this is sweet, smooth and very easy drinking.
Bourbon’s edgier, rebellious cousin, rye is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, with sales surging and demand increasing as drinkers fall for its opulently spicy charms, and a new wave of craft distilleries create exciting, innovative spirits.
Rye whiskey traditionally falls into two categories. American rye whiskey must be made with at least 51% rye, while the remainder of the mash bill (the mix of different grains used in the whisky production process) includes a mixture of corn, malted barley or wheat. There’s no minimum ageing requirement with rye but anything labelled ‘straight rye whiskey’ will have been aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
Canadian rye whisky, interestingly, does not actually have to be made with rye. The legal requirements are that the whisky must have a profile characteristic of Canadian whisky, which includes some of the flavour traits that rye provides, but this is achieved through blending. Typically, Canadian whisky is a blend of different grains with small amounts of rye used as a flavouring (although now you can also find 100% rye Canadian whiskies), aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks.
The past few years have also seen other countries, from Denmark to the UK, produce stunning rye whiskies.
What does rye whisky taste like?
Rye whiskies have an assertively spicy, savoury, peppery and earthy flavour profile, especially when compared to their bourbon counterparts, which tend to be sweeter and more rounded thanks to their higher corn content. Flavours you might come across when tasting rye include baking spice, nuts, rye bread, pepper, vanilla, citrus, caramel and oak, and whiskies can range from light and easy going to bold and muscular in character. They are delicious sipped neat but work brilliantly in classic cocktails such as the sazerac, manhattan, whisky sour and old fashioned.
Which rye whiskies to buy
Whistlepig Amburana Rye. Why? A 12-year-old whisky finished, unusually, in a cask of South American amburana wood – which is typically used to age cachaça. The end result is complex and off-beat: think fragrant woodiness, surprising notes of sweet coconut, glacé cherry and mint, as well as more classic spicy rye flavours.
On a budget:
Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye 80 Proof. Why? Made in Virginia from 100% locally sourced rye, this is a sweety and fruit number replete with flavours of banana bread, baked apple, oak and buttery caramel. Winningly easy-going.
Not sure what glass to drink your whisky in? Check out our guide, from classy crystal tumblers to sleek tasting glasses.