For both uninitiated and seasoned drinkers, whisky is a tricky world to navigate.
Obscure terminology, unhelpful labelling and marketing puffery make it all but impossible to figure out what means what.
Here’s our guide of the most common types of whisky: from Scotch to Rye to Bourbon. Next time you're at the bar, impress your companions by effortlessly reeling off the definitions of each.
Oh, and we've included a few of our choice favourites to look out for, because knowledge is pointless without utilisation.
What is Scotch whisky?
Whilst ‘Scotch’ is often used as a catch-all term to refer to whisky of many sorts, that’s a bad habit worth breaking. In addition to casting aside the fact that a great many countries have their own long-established ways of distilling, it unhelpfully oversimplifies what it takes to (legally) call a whisky Scotch.
To adhere to some of the strictest regulations in the trade, Scottish distillers must craft a spirit from a mixture, or ‘mash’, of cereal grains of which barley must be one. They must then age their raw, ‘new make’ spirit in oak casks in Scotland, for at least three years.
What's the difference between Single Malt and Blended?
The definition of ‘Single Malt’ is stricter still. These whiskies must be distilled at a single, named distillery using only malted barley; lesser grains such as wheat don’t make the cut.
Single malts must also be distilled in ‘pot stills’, copper kettle-like contraptions which boil up the liquid inside to a vapour that rises and cools into the high-proof, infantile spirit that will age and mature into whisky once filled into casks. Pot stills produce spirit batch by batch, meaning they must be cleaned out and refilled each time.
By contrast, ‘Single Grain’ whiskies can be distilled using tall, ‘column’ stills which can run continuously, allowing for industrial quantities of high proof spirit. Single grains are not limited to malted barley - although a small amount must be used by law -- so cheaper grains are used, too. Combine two or more single malts and you have a ‘Blended Malt’ - a fairly unusual find. Mix single malts with single grains and that's a ‘Blend’.
A common metaphor on the topic imagines single malts as star, solist performers whilst the blends are like orchestras, artfully bringing together many parts to produce a masterpiece. It rightly acknowledges the skill of the blender; powerful, smoky whiskies must be used sparingly and tempered by lighter, fruiter styles to produce a well rounded dram. Check out our guide to the best single malts.
Square Mile recommends: Glen Moray 2006 14 Year Old Sauternes Cask Single Malt
What is Bourbon?
‘That's the American stuff, right?’ Pretty much. All Bourbon is American whisky but not the reverse doesn’t hold true; Bourbon must be an American whisky distilled with at least 51% corn and matured in unused, ‘virgin’ charred white-oak casks.
State side distillers may erroneously deploy an ‘e’ in their whisk(e)y spelling (as do the Irish) but we’ll forgive them for Scotch distillers would be pretty stuck without their American cousins. The legal requirement to use casks only once means that barrels are sold to frugal, Scottish distillers looking for wood to mature their own wares. Unlike Scotch, Bourbon does not have any minimum aging requirements but ‘Straight Bourbons’ must spend at least two years on wood. Likewise, ‘Bottled in Bond’ bourbons must adhere to higher standards; these must hail from one distillery, be aged for at least four years and bottled at exactly 100 proof (50% abv).
A common misconception is that Bourbon refers only to whisky from Kentucky, America's whisky heartland. It can actually be made anywhere in the States; the source of the confusion may be that distilleries in Bourbon County, Kentucky once marked their barrels with the ‘Old Bourbon’ moniker. As those barrels were shipped downriver and distributed across state lines, the name stuck.
Square Mile recommends: Michter's US*1 Small Batch Bourbon
What is Rye Whiskey?
Obscurer still, Rye whiskies are best thought of as the weighter, spicier variant of American whisky. Think of Ryes like Bourbons but swap out the 51% corn requirement for rye grains. As with Bourbon, Rye aged for at least a couple of years in new, charred oak barrels, earns the ‘Straight Rye’ designation.
While Ryes can be a bit bitter and feisty when young, they often settle with age into complex whiskies much richer and fuller than their corn based siblings.
Square Mile recommends: Koval Rye Whiskey
What is Irish Whiskey?
Irish whisk(e)y largely mirrors the various categories of Scotch whisky - with malts, blends, and so on -- until you get to ‘Single Pot Still.’ This distinctively Irish style sees distillers craft what is essentially a single malt but with a mixture of both malted and unmalted, or ‘raw’ barley, amongst other unmalted grains.
The addition of unmalted grain -- cereal grains that have not been germinated and dried -- adds a spiciness and beefens up the texture of the resulting whisk(e)y. Sounds good? Check out our guide to the best Irish whiskey.
Square Mile recommends: Dingle Single Pot Still Whiskey Batch 4