Whisk(e)y Types: What To Know

What’s the difference between a Single Malt Scotch Whisky and a Blended Scotch Whisky? Or between a whisky, a whiskey, a bourbon, a Tennessee whiskey and a rye? Let’s start with what they have in common. In its widest definition, whisky is a drink distilled from the fermentation of malt – that’s any grain that has been allowed to germinate, particularly barley or rye, then dried.

Whether it’s spelt ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’ usually depends on where it’s made. In Scotland, Canada, Japan and other parts of the world, it’s without the ‘e’, while in the US and Ireland it’s normally spelt with an ‘e’. The key differences between the main types of whisky are down to four things: the grain used, how it’s made, where it’s made and how long it’s matured.

  • Irish Whiskey – Ireland
  • Scotch – Scotland
    • Speyside
      • Known for a smooth, fruity finish due to the freshwater used for distillation. Considered by some to be the most elegant of the country’s whiskies, the Speyside has more distilleries than any of the other regions.
    • Islay
      • Known for smokiness, Islay whiskies have a pungent medicinal tang stemming from sea salt-infused peat moss employed to dry the barley malt.
    • Highland
      • Highland scotches vary in character and can include the peaty smoke of an Islay or the smoothness of a Speyside. Generally, they’re considered to be medium-bodied and aromatic, with a range of tasting notes from complex to delicate.
        • The Islands are officially a part of the Highlands according to the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 which among other things governs labelling but are commonly separated into their own category due to the differences in flavour.
    • Lowland
      • Only a few true distilleries remain in the region, but they produce whiskies with a light body, relative sweetness, and a dash of flavour.
  • Bourbon – USA
    • Bourbon
    • Wheated Bourbons
      • Rye is replaced by wheat as one of the grains after the dominant corn. The result is a sweeter whiskey. 
    • Tennessee Whiskey
      • Tennessee whiskey is made just like bourbon, but with one extra key step known as the “Lincoln County Process”. Before being put in charred oak barrels for ageing, it is poured over sugar maple charcoal. The result is mellower, gently sweeter, and smoky. Due to a state-instituted prohibition that outlasted the national prohibition, only a small number of distilleries have survived.
    • Rye
      • American rye can be made anywhere in the US. It is made of a 51% rye mash mixture, versus corn for bourbon, and is noticeably spicier. 
  • Canadian Whisky – Canada
  • Japanese Whisky – Japan

All these types of whiskey are distilled from various and/or specific grains (corn, wheat, rye, oats, and barley) and aged in barrels. In a basic sense, whiskey is simply distilled, hop-less beer. Grains are steeped and yeasted, converting the sugars from the grains into alcohol. Each grain has a different sugar content level. For example, corn has a higher sugar content than wheat or rye, giving a whiskey made with corn a sweeter taste than one with wheat or rye. After converting the sugars to alcohol, whiskey making deviates from beer making and goes through various distillation processes, dependent on which type of whiskey it is. They are all at least 40% alcohol by volume.

Each country has its own set of regulations for producing their whiskies. These regulations combined with their local natural resources, agriculture, and traditions create the foundations for each country’s whiskey.  Let’s take a look.


Spelling – what’s with the different spellings (whisky or whiskey) when talking about types of whiskey? Neither is wrong unless you are regionally biased. Different regions have different historical spellings.

  • Whiskey – Ireland & US
  • Whisky – Scotland, Canada, and Japan

Why Are There Two Spellings of Whisk(e)y?

In a word: marketing. Prior to the 19th century, most of the world spelt it without an e, even the Irish, who were producing 70% of the world’s whisky at the time. The Scots began making inroads into the market, and the big four Irish distilleries published a book decrying the Scottish spirit, “cannot be whisky, and it ought not to be sold under that name.” A royal commission later determined both could be called whisky, and as a result, many of the bigger Irish distilleries began labelling their product “whiskey” as a way to differentiate it. 

Fast forward to post-Prohibition America, Irish whiskey and scotch whisky were the most popular styles in the US, but Irish sold at a 25% premium and was considered to be of a higher quality, so American producers adopted an e in an attempt to associate their spirit with it. 


Some consider Ireland the birthplace of whiskey, as far back as 6th century AD.

  • Made in Ireland
  • Shares some similarities to Scotch, but has its own deviations as well
    • Single-malt whiskey – mostly the same as in Scotland
      • 100% Barley in pot stills, usually 3 distillation runs
      • A closed kiln heated by coal or gas is used to roast the malted barley, giving a clear barley flavour instead of the smoky peat flavours often found in Scotch
      • Product of single distillery
      • Aged at least 3 years
    • Grain whiskey
      • Lighter than single malts
      • Corn or wheat distilled in a column still
    • Blended whiskey
      • Combination of single-malt and grain whiskey
    • Single pot still whiskey
      • Unique to Ireland
      • 100% barley, both malted and unmalted, in a pot still


Smooth and less sweet than bourbon. Doesn’t have the smokiness usually associated with Scotch, although there are a few exceptions to that, and that lack of smokiness combined with the smoothness from the triple distillation, makes them “easier” to consume than Scotch.


In the beginning, Europeans first arrived to the US and they found an abundance of rye, giving birth to rye whiskey in the US. Later after settling into present-day Kentucky, corn grew very well and America’s treasure, bourbon came to be. There are many kinds of whiskeys made in the US ranging from unregulated moonshine to white whiskey to the highly regulated Bottled in Bond Bourbon. Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, and Rye are the primary types we’ll take a look at.


  • Originally and most distilleries are from the South, particularly Kentucky, but doesn’t have to be. Must be made in the US.
  • Must be made from at least 51% corn
  • No additives but water allowed (no colouring, caramel and flavouring additives)
  • Must be aged in charred new oak (aka virgin oak) barrels for at least 2 years to be called “straight” bourbon


  • Is a specific variation of bourbon made in Tennessee and has an additional set of regulations
  • 51-79% corn
  • Other additional regulation – must be filtered through maple charcoal chunks before ageing (called Lincoln county process)
  • Jack Daniels is a Tennessee whiskey


  • A bottling and labelling set of legal regulations for American whiskeys.
  • Stems from Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 – was to ensure authentic and quality whiskey
  • Must be aged at least 4 years
  • At least 100 proof
  • Product of one distillery, from one season
  • Purpose was originally to create a standard of quality for bourbon, but some distilleries also produce bonded rye whiskey, corn whiskey, and apple brandy.

 Rye Whiskey

  • At least 51% rye grain (can range anywhere from 51%-100%)
  • Crisper, spicer, and sharper mouthfeel than bourbon
  • Charred new-oak barrels at least two years
  • No additives but water


Bourbon has a caramel-like sweetness and vanilla tones. Generally the sweetest of the whisk(e)y family. A bit of smokiness from being barreled in charred oak. Tennessee whiskey – tastes kinda like bourbon. Some say it is a bit mellower, slightly sweeter, and a tinge smoky or sooty due to the additional charcoal filtering. Rye – a spicier flavour profile of bourbon and a touch less sweet. Bottled in Bond – tend to have a little more kick since they are on the higher proof side, otherwise simply put, they are a nice bourbon.

Things to Consider: A lot of classic whiskey cocktails were originally crafted with Rye whiskey’s spicier and slightly less sweet flavour profile in mind. Although today you’ll most likely find bars making their whiskey cocktails from bourbon over rye. Rye is great for a classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned. For the sours, Bourbon’s sweeter profile makes a mean Whiskey Sour. Personally, we feel they are like one’s children, we love them all, but some days you love one a little more than the others.


There are two main factors shaping Canadian Whisky, Prohibition and rye. Initially rye was one of the few crops which could survive eastern Canada’s harsh winters. Eventually better farmlands discovered to the west lessened rye’s importance. Still today Canadian whisky can be called “rye whisky” even though it is more likely to use corn than any other grain. There is much less rye used in most Canadian whisky than in American rye whiskies where the largest ingredient must be rye. And in regards to Prohibition, its chokehold on American production led to a boom in Canada. Canadian whiskies became the leading supplier to speakeasies in the States. Even today, America buys about 75% of the whisky Canada produces.

  • Most relaxed rules of the major whisk(e)y nations (each distillery can follow its own production process and methods)
    • Must be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada
    • Must be aged in small wood for not less than three years
    • May contain caramel and flavouring.
    • Must possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky – I know, vague right? But that’s what their FDA stipulates.
  • Similar to Scotch, each Canadian Whisky is generally the product of a single distillery (distillers rarely share barrels or buy whisky from each other).
  • Regardless of grain, Canadian distillers usually create two whiskies (a base whisky + a flavouring whisky) and then combine them together to create the final product.
    • The base whisky is often distilled at a higher alcohol content and matured in barrels that have been used one or more times, reducing the grain and barrel’s influence on the flavour and giving at the characteristic “smoothness” or “elegance” of Canadian whiskies.
    • The flavouring whisky is usually distilled at a lower alcohol content, allowing the grain-derived flavours to be highlighted. It is also usually aged in virgin barrels or a mix of virgin and used barrels, extracting more flavour from the barrel.
  • Can be called Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky.


Generally, Canadian whiskies are lighter and sweeter in character but still full of flavour. Considered easy to drink. When the maker mentions that rye is used generously in the finishing of the whisky, it will usually have a nice spicier bite.

Things to Consider: Different from US rye whiskies – in Canada rye doesn’t have to be the dominant grain used and is often mostly used in the flavouring whisky portion of the bottling. Because of their ease in drinking, they often blend well in cocktail mixes. Tradition drives the process – a Canadian whisky from 15  or 30 years ago will most likely taste nearly identical as same one produced today.


  • Made in Scotland
  • Primarily malted barley, along with other grains, corn, wheat…
  • Here are the main characterizations of Scotch:
    • Single-malt whisky – often considered top dog amongst aficionados
      • 100% Malted barley in small pot stills, at least 2 distillation runs
      • Product of single distillery
      • Aged at least 3 years in oak casks
      • The pot still (alembic still) – an ancient distilling tool virtually unchanged for millennia, produces rich and complex character
      • Often is categorized further by region of origin (areas close to the sea tend to absorb a bit of the briny sea air while inland regions are usually more floral from Scotland’s Lowlands- also some regions will traditionally use more peat more than others, see “Other notes” below)
    • Blended malt whisky
      • blend of 100% malted barley whiskies from two or more distilleries
    • Blended whisky
      • Combining single-malt whisky with corn or wheat whisky
    • Single-grain whisky
      • Used mostly for blending
      • 100% corn or wheat
      • Lighter body, produced in a column still, not the small pot stills
  • Other notes: personal preferences are also often determined by the “peatiness” of the Scotch, whether it being mild (or even none) to having a more aggressive peaty flavour. That smoky flavour comes from early in the distillation process. The barley is first soaked and then dried over burning peat. An example of that heavier, distinctive peaty flavour can often be found in Scotch from Islay, an Isle just off the coast in western Scotland.


It’s going to vary, especially depending on where in Scotland they come from (Scotland has over 100 different distilleries). Whiskies from Islay, like Lagavulin and Laphroaig, often tend to have a strong smoky peat flavour unless they are described as unpeated, while those coming from Speyside tend to be lighter and sweeter. Lowland Scotch also tend to be relatively sweet and lighter. How long a Scotch was aged as well as what type of barrels it was aged in also heavily influence the taste.

Scotch is a beverage with strong character and even the sweeter styles don’t have the same sweetness of bourbon to mellow that out. Yet as one’s palate gets more experienced, the flavours being to open up and there is the discovery of flavours ranging from honey, almond, grassy, leather, nectarine, vanilla, and dried fruit alongside the various levels of smokiness ranging from barely discernible to like bonfire-esque.

Things to Consider: It’s often said that one usually doesn’t like their first taste of Scotch. The second becomes a curiosity. And after the third, one is a Scotch drinker for life. It is often years in-between those first three tastes. Scotch will vary a lot, especially with so many distilleries. They are often a bit harder to create a cocktail off of, yet perfect with some water or ice. And adding a splash of water or ice isn’t any less “manly” of a way to drink Scotch. It helps open up the flavours for a better appreciation and is common throughout Scotland (and with seasoned Scotch drinkers around the world). With Scotland’s 100+ distilleries, there are a lot of varieties of beautiful, brown liquid.


Japan’s distilleries were first modelled after the Scotch whiskies, and are produced much in the same way. There aren’t a ton of Japanese distilleries, but the ones they have are quite good.

  • Distillation nearly identical to Scotch.
  • Commercially produced in Japan since the 1920’s, and after nearly a century, you’ll frequently find a Japanese whisky listed on “Best of the Best” lists.
  • Japanese distilleries will often vary from Scotch distilleries in their use of more still shapes and sizes. Scotland distilleries will usually have just one or two house still sizes, creating a specific style. Japanese distilleries will often have an array of sizes, allowing the Japanese whisky makers to craft a range of styles and tastes according to their individual desires.


Sort of like Scotch, which isn’t too surprising since that is the initial inspiration, although they have now evolved to take on their own character. They are bold and complex, but are also very well-balanced. There are some, such as Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, which share more flavour notes with bourbon than with Scotch.

Things to Consider: In 2015 Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, a prominent guide to the world’s whisk(e)y rankings, named a Japanese whisky (Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013) the best whisky in the world. “Continuous refinement” can sum up Japanese whisky making. Always tweaking and trying to perfect the process, it is no wonder they are not staying static and are now producing some of the best whiskies in the world.


  • What is malted barley?
    • Raw barley that has been soaked, germinated, and then dried to halt the germination process. In Scotch, the drying process often happens using burning peat, imparting in varying degrees Scotch’s classic smoky, peaty flavor.
  • Brand-new oak barrels are required in making Bourbon. Scotch and Irish whiskey commonly age in the used bourbon barrels. Occasionally Scotch will age in used wine (or sherry, port, madeira) barrels, but is fairly rare due to the scarcity of the wine barrels and the availability of the bourbon barrels. The barrel age and type (if previously used for sherry, port, etc.) will impart significant flavour profiles to the whisk(e)y.
  • Irish pot stills are much larger than those used for Scotch, yielding a slightly milder flavour.
  • There are over 20 countries producing their own whiskey. India, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan, and New Zealand are just a few of the many.

We hope this helps unlock a few of the mysteries between the different types of whiskeys. Of course, the only thing to really do that is to go out there and taste them. Find what you like and enjoy it!

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