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Whiskey 101 – the basics

Posted by Ivana Rnjak on Dec 21, 2016 8:05:00 AM
Ivana Rnjak

Is it whisky or whiskey? Is whiskey the same as bourbon? And what’s the deal with rye? If you know the answers to these, you’re probably either a connoisseur of this fine spirit or a bartender – because these distinctions can cause quite a bit of confusion for the rest of us!

If you're finding yourself struggling to get your head around it all, don't stress – there is a lot to learn, and the good news is that you don't have to know every detail about whiskey to develop an appreciation for it. 

We’ve put together this Whiskey 101 post to help you get the basics down pat – so you can decide what you’d like to drink, make better and more informed suggestions to customers, and maybe even impress someone with your newfound knowledge next time you’re out drinking!


Disclaimer: As you’ll find out when you read on, the difference in spelling is significant – but for the sake of easy reading, we’ll be writing whiskey throughout this article... that is, until we start talking about Scotch!  


What is Whiskey?

The term whiskey is derived from a Gaelic word meaning water of life. That’s how you know it’s a damn good drink!

Whiskey is an umbrella term for distilled alcoholic drinks made from fermented grain mash – barley, corn, rye, oat, wheat (and increasingly other grains as well). These grains are the source of the sugars that allow fermentation to occur. Different grains are used for different varieties of whiskey but are also often mixed together.

The first written record of the existence of whiskey was back in 1494, but by that stage it already had mass appeal. This popular spirit has had a very interesting history – from monks privately making it to earn a buck after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, to the Whiskey Rebellion in the US in the 18th century, opposing the so-called “whiskey tax.”  



How is Whiskey Made?

Did you know – to make whiskey, you first have to make beer! Here’s why…

There are four main steps in the creation of whiskey:



The important part – that’s when sugar is converted into alcohol with a little bit of help from yeast.

But before fermentation can take place, malting and mashing have to occur. Malting is a process that essentially tricks barley into germinating faster in order to get those alcohol-producing sugars.

When the barley is dried in a kiln, peat is often used to influence the flavor. The grains are then turned into mash (the combination of malt and water). As the mash is stirred, the sugars from the malt start to dissolve, giving us a liquid called wort that allows for the fermentation process to begin.

The water used in the mashing process has a massive impact on the quality of the final product, which is why you'll often find distilleries located near natural springs! When yeast is added to the wort, it becomes a type of beer that is referred to as wash – adding hops would turn it into your everyday beer!


In this step of the process, the hop-less beer starts to become whiskey as it goes through a separation process that turns it from a low alcohol by volume percentage (about 7% for wash) to a much higher one worthy of spirits (about 70% at cask strength – at the end of the process it’s usually sold at about 40%).

This process happens in stills – it can be made in column stills or copper pot stills, depending on the variety that’s in the making. Some are distilled twice and some three times, depending on where production is happening. 


Whiskey is aged in wooden (oak) casks – it does not mature in the bottle, so its age reflects the time between distillation and bottling (the time spent in the cask).

The cask itself impacts the flavor of the whiskey – the chemical processes that the spirit undergoes in the cask help determine the final flavor as well as the color. This step is also very important because it determines if the spirit can be called a whiskey, with laws in place about the necessary number of years it must spend in the cask – three years minimum is the standard (with some variations according to different countries).

The type of oak used, how often the cask has been used before, the environment in which the cask is stored, the size of the cask and its overall quality all impact the final result. The ageing process has a massive impact on the flavor of the final spirit and many techniques are employed to get the desired result, including the charring of casks and the re-use of old sherry casks. 


How this step is undertaken is determined by what the desired final product is – it usually involves combining whiskeys from a few different casks. Bottling also requires turning the spirit from cask strength to bottling strength through filtering, and caramel may sometimes be added for color. 


Whisky vs. Whiskey

So what’s the deal with the different spelling? It’s not just because different regions use different spelling for some words, although in the past it was a little like that. These days though, the spelling of whisky vs. whiskey actually reflects the many variations of the spirit.

Scotland, Ireland and the US are the powerhouses of whiskey production, but Japan and Canada are major players as well.

The region in which the spirit is made has a big impact on the final product as countries have rules and regulations about the nature of production, including ageing, alcohol by volume, and percentage of certain grains (eg. bourbon has to be at least 51% corn) that determine if the spirit can bear a certain name (eg. Scotch Whisky).


Refers to the Scottish variant, Scotch, which is generally distilled twice. Canadian and Japanese variants are usually spelled this way as well. All Scotch whisky must contain some malted barley and must be produced in Scotland. Peat is typically used in the malting process to give it a smoky flavor.


Refers to the Irish and American variants, generally distilled three times. Irish Whiskey must be produced in Ireland and American whiskey must be produced in America if it is to carry the name. Bourbon has been declared a distinctive product of the US, so it’s real bourbon only if it is American made.



The Many Variations of Whiskey

The different variations of whiskey are determined by the types of grains used, the location of the distillery, the length of ageing, and the type of cask used for ageing – among many other small factors! 

There are three main types of whiskey: malt, grain and blended. Then there are two further distinctions: single cask and cask strength. There are many traits that determine the type, such as alcohol by volume, but these vary according to the country of production. These are the key differences:   


Made exclusively from malted barley grain, rather than other types of grain. Other grains are sometimes malted as well but this is specified – for example, “malted rye whiskey” rather than simply “malt whisky” when barley is involved. If the whiskey is made from one batch of grain mash at one distillery, it is called single malt. If it is made from single malt grain mash from several distilleries, it is called blended malt


Made from at least one other type of unmalted grain (usually corn, wheat or rye). Some grain whiskeys may be single grain but are generally a blend of different grains, with one majority grain and one balancing grain. A little bit of malted barley is used to help with the fermentation process. Most American and Canadian whiskeys are grain whiskeys! 


These are whiskeys that have been combined after ageing to create the desired flavor. So they might be a combination of whiskeys from different distilleries that have been combined to achieve a certain flavor if it didn't happen through maturation. Because the process of distilling whiskey relies so much on natural elements, without blending it would be near impossible to achieve a consistent flavor! 

Single Cask

Each bottle comes from from its own individual cask, which means that no other previously made whiskies have been mixed with it. The bottle bears specific information about the cask and specific flavor.

Cask Strength

A very potent drop that is bottled from the cask undiluted or only slightly diluted. While quite rare in the past, it's becoming more common with the rise of the craft whiskey movement. 



A Bartender's Perspective

We asked Danny Connock, a manager at Easey's in Melbourne, for some whiskey recommendations. Danny's advice for bartenders – it's important to know what you sell but it's just as important to know what whiskeys you like to drink so you can give customers good recommendations beyond what's on the shelf in your venue.  

Favorite Scotch: The Glenlivet 12 Year Old 
Favorite Rye: WhistlePig, The Boss Hog
Favorite Bourbon: Maker's Mark 46
Recommendation For a Whiskey Novice: Talisker 10 Year Old 
Best Whiskey-Based Cocktail: Sazerac
Best Whiskey-Based Cocktail For a Novice: Old Fashioned 


Now that you’re armed with all this knowledge, you deserve to treat yourself to a drop of the water of life. Cheers!



If you would like to see how things get done at Willett Distillery in Kentucky, watch our latest mentor session with master distiller Drew Kulsveen. Drew's family has been making bourbon whiskey for 150 years! 

Willett Distillery tour  


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