Here’s what to know about the major types of whiskey! Learn the basics of bourbon, rye, Scotch, and Irish whiskey, and how to drink them.
There are so many types of whiskey, it’s hard to know where to start! What’s the difference between a rye vs bourbon? Bourbon vs Scotch? What’s the best whiskey for drinking straight, and what are the best cocktails for a specific type of whiskey? I’ll admit: this category had me overwhelmed until we spent years mixing up the best cocktails with each type. Here’s all the basics about whiskey (or, whisky…we’ll get to that).
Major types of whiskey
Whiskey is a family of distilled liquor made by fermenting grain mash: wheat, rye, barley or corn. It’s then aged in wooden barrels, usually made of oak. Whiskey is the correct spelling for American and Irish-made whiskey, and whisky is the spelling for the Canadian, Japanese, and Scottish-made versions. There are several major types of whiskey:
- Bourbon whiskey
- Rye whiskey
- Irish whiskey
- Scotch whisky
- Canadian whisky
- Japanese whisky
- Tennessee whisky
- Flavored whiskey
Many of the types above may offer blended whiskey: a whiskey that’s a blend between one or more types, which is generally a lower-priced option. Single barrel whiskey or single malt (for Scotch and Irish whiskey) is a premium type of whiskey that comes from an individual aging barrel or a single distilled grain.
Bourbon whiskey is a specific type of American whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn and aged in oak barrels. The name bourbon comes from Bourbon Country, Kentucky: the region where the spirit was invented. Today over 95% of the bourbon produced is made in Kentucky.
- Flavor: Bourbon has a sweeter flavor than other styles of whiskey, with notes of vanilla, oak and caramel. But there’s a wide variation in flavor between brands and how long the bourbon is aged. One expert breaks bourbons into four major flavor categories: grain forward, nutmeg forward, caramel forward, and cinnamon forward. (Want to nerd out? Here’s how bourbon is made.)
- Best bourbon cocktails: The Whiskey Sour is a favorite, or try a Kentucky Mule, Bourbon Smash or Gold Rush. For boozier spins, opt for a Bourbon Manhattan or the famous Classic Old Fashioned. See the full list at Great Bourbon Whiskey Cocktails.
Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey made with a majority of the grain rye. This term refers to either American rye whiskey, made of at least 51% rye mash, or Canadian whisky, which may or may not contain rye. Canadian regulations don’t require it to contain rye, though historically it did.
- Flavor: Rye whiskey is full bodied and spicy, with a peppery finish. It’s dryer than the flavor of bourbon, which is sweeter (and made of at least 51% corn).
- Best rye whiskey cocktails: The Whiskey Sour, Ward 8, or Whiskey Ginger mix sweet tart flavors to make rye palatable. If you love its spicy bite, go for the boozy Manhattan or Sazerac. For a full list, see these Top Rye Whiskey Cocktails.
Irish whiskey is a type of whiskey made in Ireland. It has a light, mellow flavor compared to other types of whiskey. Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world: it went into decline in the 1900’s but has been growing since the 1990’s. Jameson whiskey is the best selling brand of Irish whiskey worldwide. There are four major types of Irish whiskey: Irish single malt, Single pot still, Single grain Irish, and blended Irish whiskey.
- Flavor: Irish whiskey tastes light and fruity, with a lightly floral scent and hints vanilla. It’s the easiest to drink of all types of whiskey, making a great intro for drinkers new to whiskey. Aging it makes a more sophisticated flavor profile, with signature oak and caramel flavors.
- Best Irish whiskey cocktails: The most famous is Irish Coffee. Irish whiskey makes a mean Irish Sour: it’s so smooth it melds seamlessly into the cocktail. Also try an Irish mule. See the full list at Top Irish Whiskey Cocktails.
Scotch is whisky made in Scotland from either barley or a mix of grains. There are several types of Scotch: the most common are Single Malt Scotch, a whisky that’s from one distillery from a mash of malted barley, and Blended Scotch, made by blending barrel-aged malt whisky and grain whisky.
- Flavor: Blended Scotch has a smooth flavor: malty and buttery, with a spicy finish. Single malt Scotch tastes oaky and woody, with signature peaty and smoky notes.
- Best Scotch cocktails: The Penicillin is a fantastic modern spin on the whiskey sour. Also try Blood and Sand, Scotch Sour, or the Rob Roy, a Manhattan with Scotch. See the full list at Top Scotch Cocktails.
Canadian whisky is any type of whiskey made in Canada. Much of Canadian whiskey is rye whiskey, though Canadian regulations don’t require something labeled “rye whiskey” to actually contain rye. (Yes, it’s confusing!) A popular brand of Canadian Whiskey is Crown Royal. Some people consider Canadian whisky at the lower strata of the whiskey world.
- Flavor: Much of Canadian whisky is rye, so it can be spicy like rye or more straightforward. Crown Royal has vanilla, brown sugar and oaky notes.
- Canadian whiskey cocktails: Try the Royal Flush or Crown and Coke, or any of these Crown Royal Cocktails.
Japanese whisky is a style of whiskey developed and produced in Japan. It’s closest in flavor and production method to Scotch whisky. This similarity is also why the Japanese version is spelled “whisky” instead of “whiskey.” If you like a good Scotch, you’ll love Japanese whisky.
- Flavor: Japanese whisky has a dry, fruity, and smoky flavor. The finish is mellow, with notes of oak.
- Japanese whiskey cocktails: The most famous is the Japanese Highball, a mix of Japanese whiskey and club soda.
Tennessee whiskey is a type of whiskey made in Tennessee. It’s often lumped in with bourbon, but producers claim that it’s a distinct product. However, Tennessee whiskey and bourbon have almost identical legal requirements, and most Tennessee whiskeys meet the criteria for bourbon (source). The difference? After distillation, Tennessee whiskey must be filtered through sugar maple charcoal. A popular brand of Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniels.
- Flavor: Tennessee whiskey tastes like a lighter form of bourbon, since the charcoal filtering mellows some of the bite. It has the signature vanilla, oak and caramel notes of a bourbon.
- Cocktails: Try Jack and Coke, Whiskey Sour, or any of the Best Bourbon Cocktails above.
Flavored whiskey is any whiskey with added flavoring: cinnamon, vanilla, peach, apple, cherry, honey, peanut butter, and so forth. A popular peanut butter whiskey is Skrewball. A popular cinnamon whiskey is Fireball whisky. For cocktail ideas, go to Peanut Butter Whiskey Drinks or Fireball Drinks.
How to drink whiskey
What’s the best type of whiskey to sip on? Traditionally connoisseurs sip on a single barrel or single malt whiskey, and save a blended whiskey for cocktails. The longer the whiskey is aged, the more premium the product (and more expensive). But really anything goes when it comes to sipping on the stuff. Here’s how to drink whiskey straight:
- Whiskey is great straight up in a lowball glass
- Add ice to drink whiskey on the rocks (clear ice is a nice touch)
- Swirl in a few drops of water to bring out the flavor
Here’s the oldest cocktail there is, the Old Fashioned! The classic method uses a sugar cube, bitters, and any type of whiskey for a truly timeless drink.
- 1 sugar cube (1 teaspoon sugar)
- 4 dashes Angostura bitters
- ½ teaspoon water
- 2 ounces* whiskey of any type: bourbon, rye, Irish, Scotch, Japanese, Canadian or Tennessee whiskey
- Orange peel for garnish
- Cocktail cherry for garnish (optional)
- Place the sugar cube in a lowball glass and add the bitters. Add the water and mash and swirl it with a muddler or wooden spoon until the sugar is mostly dissolved.
- Add the whiskey and swirl to combine. Add a large ice cube.
- Use a knife to remove a 1″ wide strip of the orange peel. Squeeze the orange peel into the drink to release the oils. Gently run the peel around the edge of the glass, then place it in the glass. If desired, garnish with a cocktail cherry for additional sweetness.
*To convert to tablespoons, 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons
- Category: Drink
- Method: Stirred
- Cuisine: Cocktails
Keywords: Whiskey, types of whiskey