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What Is Whiskey? Explore the 9 Types of Whiskey

From the Old Fashioned to the Manhattan, whiskey is a quintessential spirit that features in numerous classic cocktails.

What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey (sometimes spelled whisky) is an amber-colored distilled spirit made out of fermented grain (most often rye, wheat, corn, or barley). Most whiskeys are aged in wooden casks before bottling and have a minimum 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). There are many different whiskey types, usually distinguished by their place of origin, types of grain, blending process, or the aging process. While each whiskey type varies in flavor, the spirit is commonly described as warm, spicy, sweet, caramelly, or toasty.

A Brief History of Whiskey

Here’s a brief historical overview of the quintessential spirit:

  • Origins. The earliest reports of distilled alcohol come from the thirteenth century in Italy, where they distilled alcohol from wine to create medicinal tonics. Distillation practices spread throughout Europe. By the late fifteenth century, countries such as Ireland and Scotland were distilling aqua vitae (literally “water of life,” the original term for distilled spirits) for medicinal purposes and recreational drinking.
  • Distinctive styles. Many distillers—whether professionals or home-distillers—began experimenting with different recipes for distilled spirits, including using other recipes for their grain mash and different approaches to aging the liquor after distillation. These varying recipes and techniques gave rise to many different whiskey production styles, from the oak casks of Scotch whisky to the corn kernels in Kentucky bourbon mash.
  • English Malt Tax. Whiskey quickly became lucrative for distillers, which caused it to be a significant source of political conflict. In Britain, the government passed the English Malt Tax of 1725, making distillation highly expensive and forcing many whiskey distilleries to make the spirit at night in secret (giving it the nickname “moonshine”).
  • Whiskey Rebellion. The United States was in significant debt after the Revolutionary War. To help alleviate the deficit, the government passed what became known as the Whiskey Tax in 1791, which forced citizens to pay when selling domestically produced spirits. This tax sparked protests dubbed The Whiskey Rebellion, which finally came to a head when President George Washington ordered 13,000 troops to dispel the protesters.
  • Modern day. Whiskey production is now in full force all across the globe, from Kentucky Bourbon to Japanese whisky. The popular spirit is one of the most best-selling liquors globally, whether consumed neat or mixed into cocktails.

9 Types of Whiskey

There are many different types of whiskey, usually distinguished by their place of origin, types of grain, blending process, or aging process:

  1. 1. Bourbon whiskey: Bourbon is American whiskey, often (though not exclusively) produced in Kentucky, that contains at least 51 percent corn in its mash bill or grain makeup. Bourbon must be aged in newly charred oak barrels if produced in the United States, which makes for a typically nutty flavor profile and a mellow, caramelized sweetness.
  2. 2. Tennessee whiskey: A subtype of Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before it is aged. This filtering method is the Lincoln County Process, and it is what gives Tennessee Whiskey its own unique flavor.
  3. 3. Single-malt whiskey: A single-malt whiskey comes from a single distillery and only contains one type of malted grain. A single-malt whiskey bottle may include whiskey from several different casks—unless it’s a single cask whiskey.
  4. 4. Rye whiskey: Rye a whiskey containing at least 51 percent rye in its mash bill. Like bourbon, rye must be aged in newly charred oak barrels if produced in the United States. In general, rye is lighter-bodied than many other whiskeys; you can identify it by its tingly spiciness.
  5. 5. Irish whiskey: A spirit must be produced from malt, cereal grain, and barley and distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland to qualify as Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years. The more muted, malt character of Irish whiskey shines most when the spirit is aged in less conventional vessels like sherry casks or rum casks.
  6. 6. Scotch whisky: Scotch must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland. Scottish law mandates that scotch be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Scotch malt whisky producers traditionally operate in five specific Scottish regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Speyside. Scotch receives its smoky character from peat, a dense moss that is lit on fire to dry out the malted barley used in distillation. Unless a recipe calls for a particular scotch by producer or style, a blended scotch will be your best bet for most cocktails. Use a single-malt scotch if you’re drinking it neat or on the rocks.
  7. 7. Canadian whisky: Canadian whisky must be produced and aged in Canada, have a minimum of 40 percent ABV, and be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels no larger than 700 liters. Canadian whiskey can also contain caramel and other flavorings or additives, leading to diverse tastes between brands.
  8. 8. Japanese whisky: Whisky is bottled in Japan, but it isn’t necessarily distilled or aged there. Some Japanese whisky draws immediate comparisons to Scotch whisky, while other producers are continually evolving, harnessing the unique qualities of indigenous Japanese oak.
  9. 9. Blended whiskey: A blended whiskey is a mixture of different whiskeys, potentially produced by different distilleries.

10 Common Whiskey Cocktails

Here are some classic whiskey cocktails that you can make at home:

  1. 1. Boston Sour: A popular variant of a Whiskey Sour, the Boston Sour includes egg white, bourbon whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup.
  2. 2. Boulevardier: The Boulevardier cocktail is equal parts bourbon whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Serve a Boulevardier in a rocks glass over ice, and crown it with a fragrant orange twist.
  3. 3. Hot Toddy: A popular cold-weather cocktail, the Hot Toddy is a combination of whiskey, honey, lemon, and tea or hot water, typically served hot in a mug.
  4. 4. Manhattan: Named for the New York City borough of its birth, the Manhattan is a cocktail made of two parts whiskey (rye or bourbon), one part sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of aromatic bitters. Stir a Manhattan and garnish it with a brandied cherry or two.
  5. 5. Mint Julep: A Mint Julep is a classic bourbon cocktail brightened with fresh mint and simple syrup. They’re traditionally served in a Pewter or Silver cup (often called a Julep cup), which is meant to be held by the rim to allow the cup to frost over.
  6. 6. New York Sour: The New York Sour (also known as the Continental Sour or Southern Whiskey Sour) is a combination of whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup, sometimes egg white, and a fruity red wine float.
  7. 7. Old Fashioned: The Old Fashioned, one of the original whiskey cocktails, was once considered a simple way to elevate poor quality spirits into something palatable. You can make it with bourbon or rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, and sugar. Garnish it with an orange twist or maraschino cherry.
  8. 8. Whiskey Highball: A Highball refers to various “tall” drinks containing one shot of a base spirit topped with a non-alcoholic mixer, served in a highball glass or a narrow Collins glass over ice. Make a Whiskey Highball with a shot of whiskey and a generous pour of ginger ale on top.
  9. 9. Whiskey Smash: A popular summertime cocktail, the Whiskey Smash is a classic cocktail made with whiskey, fresh lemon juice, and mint leaves.
  10. 10. Whiskey Sour: A reliably satisfying whiskey cocktail, the Whiskey Sour includes bourbon whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Garnish it with half an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.

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