There are so many different types of whiskey out there that it can be difficult to know the difference between them. When I first began drinking, I could tell you that Irish whiskey was from Ireland, scotch was from Scotland, Bourbon was from America, and that was the extent of my knowledge. And if you’ve ever been around a whiskey lover or whiskey snob, you know they can be very particular about what they like. So, we’re going to help you navigate the waters of whiskey.
In this article, we’re going to cover the most popular types of whiskey in the world, so you can understand the differences between scotch and Irish whiskey past their country of origin. As a note, in America and Ireland, it is spelled whiskey or whiskeys. In Japan, Canada, and Scotland it is whisky or whiskies.
It only makes sense to start at the beginning, the place where whiskey originated. Ireland. Now, there is a debate between scholars of whether whiskey was first distilled in Ireland or Scotland, nobody really knows, so we’re just going to give the nod to the Irish.
There are only a three must-have components that make up Irish whiskey. First and most obvious, it must be distilled in Ireland. Second, it must age a minimum of three years in wooden barrels and bottled at no less than 40% abv. Lastly, it must be made from cereals and water and can’t contain any additives other than caramel coloring. Malted barley has to be one of the cereals used in making Irish whiskey.
After this, there can be some variation. Many people believe Irish whiskey has to be triple distilled, but this is not true, it is just typically triple distilled in copper pot stills. 90% or so of Irish Whiskey is, also, blended with grain whiskey. Most Irish whiskey also uses unmalted barley in their mash.
Most Popular Irish Whiskey
Below is a list of the most popular brands of Irish whiskey. You can read more about Jameson and Bushmills in our comparison guide HERE.
Next, we have scotch whisky, and the regulations regarding scotch are similar to that of Irish Whiskey. It must be produced in Scotland, contain no additives other than water and caramel coloring, must use malted barley, and be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years.
What then is the difference, other than location and spelling, between Irish whiskey and scotch whisky. It lays in how each are typically made. Scotch is known for its single malts, not their blended whisky. Furthermore, scotch is typically distilled twice in comparison to the three times of its Irish counterpart. To truly understand scotch, you need to understand the types of scotch. we’ll explain in the next section.
Types of Scotch
You’ll likely see the area of Scotland that the bottle of whisky was made from. These 5 regions – Speyside, Campbelltown, Islay, Highlands, and Lowlands – are popular ways to describe scotch but not necessarily the best. Below are the 5 ways scotch is typically categorized.
- Single Malt Scotch: Made at a single distillery from 100% malted barley. This category dominates the scotch industry.
- Single Grain Scotch: Made at a single distillery with a mixture of grains, typically corn, wheat, or rye along with malted barley.
- Blended Scotch: A blend of single grain and single malt scotch. The most popular is Johnnie Walker, which you can read about HERE.
- Blended Malt Scotch: Two or more single malt scotch whiskies from different distilleries blended together. Monkey Shoulder is an example. Read about it HERE.
- Blended Grain Scotch: Two or more single grain scotch whiskies from different distilleries blended together.
Most Popular Scotch Whiskies
- Johnnie Walker
- Chivas Regal
Now, we can get into American whiskey which is heavily dominated by bourbon. There are only a couple regulations for what can be considered bourbon, and they are as follows: it must be made in America, contain at least 51% corn, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
There are no regulations on how long it must be aged, but to be considered a straight-bourbon it must be aged at least 2 years. Furthermore, any bourbon aged less than four years must contain an age statement. Bourbon can also be made anywhere in the United States, but it is heavily associated with Kentucky because 90% or so of bourbon is made there.
Most Popular Bourbon
We aren’t giving Tennessee Whiskey its own category in ‘types of whiskey’ because it’s really a subset of bourbon. Tennessee whiskey follows all the same distilling processes as bourbon with the addition of one process – the Lincoln County Process. The distilled whiskey is slow-dripped through maple charcoal to create a more mellow flavor. Other than that, there is one additional regulation – it must be produced in Tennessee.
Tennessee Whiskey is dominated by one name you are sure to have heard of and a bunch of smaller, less known whiskeys.
Most Popular Tennessee Whiskey
- Jack Daniels
- George Dickel
- Heaven’s Door
- Corsair Triple Smoke
Canadian whisky has few regulations governing it. It must be made from cereal grains that are mashed, it must be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada for a minimum 3 years, and be bottled at no less than 40% alcohol.
The trickiest part about Canadian whisky is that it is often referred to as ‘rye whisky’ or ‘Canadian rye whisky’ even if there is little to no rye in the mashbill. Let me explain. Canadian whisky is primarily made from corn, like that of its southern neighbor, but they called their whisky ‘rye whisky’ a couple hundred years ago because they had begun using rye in their mashbill.
We will get into what those of us in America know as rye whiskey shortly, just be sure to pay attention to the spelling. Rye whisky may not contain much, if any at all, rye, whereas rye whiskey will certainly contain more rye.
Most Popular Canadian Whisky
- Crown Royal
- Alberta Rye
- Lot No. 40
Masataka Taketsuru helped found the first distillery in Yamazaki in 1924. He studied the art of distilling in Scotland, so much of Japanese Whisky is made similarly to Scotch. The differences between the two are subtle, namely geographical and economical. Japan’s elevation allows for lower boiling points and simply has different terrain than that of Scotland. Also, Japanese businesses typically don’t work with their competition, thus blended whiskies are blended at the same distillery.
While Japan came around to whisky distilling later than the other countries, they have quickly became known for producing high quality whisky. One the distillers, Suntory, owns brands such as Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.
Most Popular Japanese Whiskies
- Ichiro’s Malt & Grain
*If you like Japanese whisky and are interested in learning about their beer, head HERE to learn about their most popular brews.
The laws governing whiskey are different as you cross borders, and this is no different when it comes to rye whiskey. As I mentioned, in Canada any whiskey can be called rye whiskey, but in America rye whiskey has to be made from a mash of at least 51% rye.
Rye whiskey follows all the same regulations as bourbon, but as you can remember, bourbon must be made from 51% corn. Rye provides a spicier flavor and finish than does corn. Below are some popular rye whiskey brands. As a note, most bourbons and whiskey brands will offer a rye whiskey as part of their selection.
Most Popular Rye Whiskeys
- High West Rye
- Slow & Low Rock and Rye
- Sazerac Rye
- Bulleit Rye
- Knob Creek Rye
Types of Whiskey Summary
As you can gather, the world of whiskey can be a complicated one and especially so, once you start crossing borders. This list is really just a beginners guide to that world. There are other types of whiskey out there, but I simply covered the whiskey you’ll come across most often. The two other whiskeys you’ll come across are blended and single malt. I opted to only cover these in the scotch section, but blended and single malt whiskeys are available in any country, not just Scotland.
If you’re wondering where to start in you’re whiskey journey, there are endless options, and, ultimately, when it comes down to the best whiskey, it’s really all personal preference. The best thing you can do is try them all. Find out what whiskey you prefer and enjoy!
Types of Whiskey FAQ
Below are frequently asked questions about the different types of whiskey. Many of these are covered in the article above.
Where Did Whiskey Originate?
Scotland and Ireland. The earliest document of whiskey comes out of Scotland in 1494 from James IV to Friar John Cor. Whiskey was first distilled by traveling monks, so it’s hard to know who was really first.
What Type of Whiskey Is the Best?
This is really all personal preference. Scotch is widely renowned for its depth and complexity. We recommend trying a couple entry level bottles of each to find out what you like.
Is It Whiskey or Whisky?
Either one works. In America and Ireland it is spelled with the ‘e’ – whiskey. In Scotland, Canada, and Japan it is whisky, without the ‘e’. You should use the spelling that coincides with the country the whiskey is from, but you can also just stick to the one you prefer.