Whiskey 101

As much as I love a good glass of bubbles, sometimes a girl needs something a bit stronger. There’s something about a dimly lit lounge filled with leather seating or time spent by a toasty fireplace that calls for a good, old fashioned whiskey drink. But for many who don’t indulge in this spirit often, it can be tough to know your way around the whiskey section of a drink menu. If you’ve ever found yourself pondering what “single malt” means, wondered what’s classified as bourbon, or been unsure whether it’s better to sip it on the rocks or straight, well, this article is for you!

Believe it or not, the world of whiskey is a lot like the world of wine—although whiskey is made with grain and not grapes, the two are similar in that they are produced all around the world and each variety has unique characteristics due to its ingredients and how it is made. If you’re interested in whiskey, there are six main varieties to know: Irish whiskey, scotch, Tennessee whiskey, bourbon, Canadian whiskey, and Japanese whiskey. Let’s dive in!

Irish Whiskey

With a last name like Callahan, it’s probably no surprise that I had to pick Irish whiskey to discuss first! There’s a debate between the Irish and the Scottish about where whiskey originated. The Scots believe they were the first, but the Irish argue that they were the ones to bring the distillation process to Scotland. Whichever story you believe, though, there’s no question that Irish whiskey is some of the world’s best. “Whiskey” is actually an Anglicization of the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha, which means “water of life.” Made with pure-malted barley, Irish whiskey is triple-distilled before being aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. It has a smoother taste than scotch, which is typically more smoky and earthy.

Scottish Whisky

Scottish whisky, more commonly referred to as scotch, is another malt whiskey, made with fermented malted barley, distilled in pot stills, and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Even if you don’t drink scotch, you may be familiar with the phrase “single malt,” which is one of the best-known varieties of scotch. Single malt means that the final product is made with malt whiskey from just one distillery (but this usually means more than one barrel). Different barrels produce whiskeys with different tasting notes, so blending is essential to producing a balanced final product. The distillery’s master blender will taste the different barrels and mix them so that the product is consistent with the flavor profile of the brand. If the blend is made from just one distillery’s scotch, then it counts as single malt. Scotch has a smoky flavor because it’s made from barley dried over peat fire.

American Whiskey

The United States is home to a number of different varieties of whiskey. The two best-known varieties are Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, but rye and moonshine are also popular. Tennessee whiskey must be produced in Tennessee and is made from corn, rye, and malted barley. It is filtered through charcoal in a method called the Lincoln County Process, which is said to improve the flavor of the whiskey. Of course, the famous Jack Daniels is one of the best examples of Tennessee whiskey, though there are other distinctive brands on the market as well.

Bourbon has its roots in Kentucky, though unlike Tennessee whiskey, it does not have to be made in Kentucky to qualify as bourbon. It must be made in the U.S., though, and the aging process takes place in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. Made from at least 51% corn, bourbon has a sweeter taste than many other whiskeys.

Rye, as you might guess, must be made up of at least 51% rye, and has a spicier, drier taste than bourbon. White whiskey, also known as moonshine or white dog, is just whiskey that hasn’t been aged. Some people equate the taste of moonshine to vodka, and it is often used nowadays in mixed drinks.

Canadian Whiskey

Sharing several characteristics with Scotch whiskey and bourbon, Canadian whiskey has a history dating back to the early 1800s but became especially prominent during prohibition, with bootleggers smuggling the spirit to speakeasies in the U.S. If you’re a fan of Mad Men, you probably know this variety as Don Draper’s drink of choice. Canadian whiskey is typically made with several different grains and contains a large percentage of rye, giving it a lighter and smoother taste than some other whiskeys. By law, it must be matured in wooden containers for at least three years, though some distilleries choose to age their products for longer.

Japanese Whiskey

“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” If you’ve ever seen Lost in Translation, you’re probably at least nominally familiar with Japanese whiskey. The country’s first distillery, Yamazaki, was opened in 1924. The spirit is more similar to Scotch whiskey than the other varieties on this list. In fact, the Japanese distilleries actually wanted to reproduce the Scottish-style spirit in their native land. However, over the years, Japanese whiskey has come into its own. It is typically made with peated barley malt and distilled in pot stills, much like Scotch, but it differs from scotch primarily in that a number of different kinds of barrels are used for the aging process, from American white oak to sherry casks to barrels made with a rare type of Japanese oak. Some Japanese whiskeys also have lengthened fermentation times or may be filtered through charred bamboo.

How to Enjoy Whiskey

Of course, there are a number of delicious whiskey cocktails, from the classic Old Fashioned to the elegant Manhattan to the derby-ready Mint Julep. If you’re enjoying whiskey straight, you should smell it before you taste, just as you would with a glass of wine. Adding a bit of water to a high quality whiskey is also common, as many believe it releases the aromatics and improves the flavor. If you choose to have yours on the rocks, be sure to use a single big cube that will melt slowly so as not to dilute the spirit too much.

Do you love Irish whiskey like I do, or are you partial to another variety? Whichever way you like to enjoy this “water of life,” I hope you learned something new. Next time you’re at the bar and don’t know what to order, consider whiskey—you won’t be disappointed!


Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels