The ‘big four’ whisk(e)y countries and subcategories
I love Scotch whisky. It is my career, hobby and passion. But whisky (and indeed whiskey) is not purely a Scottish thing, there is a fantastic world of whisk(e)y out for the curious. Let’s take a world tour?
We’ll start with Ireland as they are the first to have made this glorious drink. There is a written reference dating to 1405 when it was recorded that a clan chief expired after drinking too much. But this is not a history tour, so let’s focus on Irish Whiskey (they spell it with the ‘e’) as it stands today. Irish Whiskey tends to be the lightest and most delicate of all world whisk(e)y styles. It often has with vibrant fresh fruit, floral and grassy notes. This is partly due to triple distillation and their sparing use of peat. There are four types of Irish Whiskey, all of which must be aged in oak for a minimum of three years:
Pot Still Irish Whiskey:
Distilled from a mash of at least 30% malted barley. Well, at least 30% unmalted barley and other unmalted cereals. It must be distilled in pot stills such that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used. Examples include Green Spot and Redbreast.
Malt Irish Whiskey:
Made from just malted barley, water and yeast, and distilled in pot stills such that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used. Malt Irish Whiskey has a distinctively smooth, velvet, full and oily texture with a malty and sweet taste. It is similar in style to a Scotch single malt whisky. Teeling and Tullamore Dew produce single malt Irish Whisky.
Grain Irish Whiskey:
Produced from malted barley not exceeding 30% and other whole unmalted cereals like maize, wheat or barley. It is then distilled in column stills such that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used and the column distillation method. It is comparable to Scotch single grain whisky. Teeling and Kilbeggan produce single grain Irish Whiskey.
Blended Irish Whiskey
This is a mixture of any two or more of the styles listed above and the best-known example is Jameson Blended Irish Whisky.
Sticking with the ‘e’ for a moment, we move onto American Whiskey. The most famous style is Bourbon, with its rich, sweet vanilla-laden style. But there are many different styles to consider:
Made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn, examples include Jim Beam. For the record, Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, not just Kentucky.
Made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye, examples include Sazerac Rye.
Rye malt whiskey:
Made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye.
Made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley.
Made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat.
Made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn.
Not defined in legislation but meets the requirements for Bourbon, with the additional requirements that it be made in Tennessee and go through the ‘Lincoln County’ process. Examples include Jack Daniels.
Most American whiskies, with the exception of Corn whiskey, must be aged in new American oak barrels. Unlike most other whisk(e)y producing countries, they may not use second-hand casks, European or Japanese oak, and other sizes, such as butts, pipes and puncheons. Legislation also does not define a legal minimum aging period. Although the term ‘Straight’ as in ‘Straight Bourbon Whiskey’ indicates that it has aged for at least two years,
The Scots soon followed the Irish in producing whisk(e)y. They choose to spell it ‘whisky’. Quite possible, they are the most famous whisky producers in the world, known for a generally richer and bolder style, with greater use of peat and a tendency towards double rather than triple distillation. They produce five styles, some of which are not too well known.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky:
Their oldest known style, dating to at least 1494 and probably earlier, Single Malt must be made with 100% malted barley, water and yeast. It must be the product of only one distillery and distilled in pot stills. Much loved by whisky fanatics around the world, examples include Glenfiddich and Laphroaig.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky:
First created in the 1800s, single grain is again the product of just one distillery. But, it typically uses a mixture of different grains and is distilled in a continuous still. It is generally a more neutral spirit that single malt. Examples include Haig Club,
Blended Malt Whisky:
A mixture of two or more single malt whiskies with no single grain whisky. Examples include Monkey Shoulder.
Blended Grain Whisky:
A mixture of two or more single grain whiskies with no single malt whisky. Examples include Hedonism, by Compass Box.
A mixture of one or more single malt whiskies with one or more single grain whiskies. This is probably the best-known whisky category in the world. Examples include Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal and Grants.
Whisky does not belong to any one country. Today there are dozens, in not more than a hundred countries producing whisky. The Japanese are particularly noteworthy. They have excelled in learning and adapting the techniques of Scotch whisky. They created one of the most talked-about categories of whisky today and are innovative with Mizunara casks and other techniques. But there are many countries on the rise in whisky, including India, Taiwan, Australia, England, France, South Africa and many more. Many of these ‘new world’ whisky countries are yet to fully develop their own distinctive style. But if you’re a whisky lover with a heart for exploration, the world today is an exciting place.
If you feel that I have missed or you have a question or two you’d like answering, then I’d love to hear from you. You can read more more about me here or click on my social media icons below.
Written for and first published in ThirstMag.