WhiskEy 101: Scotch, Bourbon and More

Whisk(e)y is a complex category of beverages that is largely based by region. Though all whiskies have the same base – a grain, water, and yeast – the grains and how they’re processed vary. The flavoring and distillation processes can be rather nuanced and are part of what makes each unique.

Let’s dispose of the spelling issue right away. Irish and American distillers spell it “whiskey.” In Japan, Scotland, and Canada, it’s “whisky” without the “e.” If you want to remember which is which, just remember that the countries whose names include an “e” also have an “e” in whiskey, while the other countries don’t.

Then there are the types of malts – single malt and blended

Single malt whiskey comes from a single cask. Its purebred nature makes it easy for the cask to impart flavors on the whiskey inside. Some casks have been aged for many years, infusing the whiskey with even more taste. Due to their proprietary, complex flavors, single malts are generally enjoyed as a standalone drink with the possible addition of ice or a little water.

Conversely, a blended whiskey is comprised of two or more whiskies that came out of different casks. The age of the whiskey on the bottle must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend.

There’s no set minimum or maximum number of whiskies in a blend. Many of the whiskies within blends are single malts. Blended whiskies can be enjoyed solo but are often used as a base ingredient for cocktails.

Single malt whiskies are best enjoyed solo, while blended whiskies are better in cocktails.

types of whiskey

Scotch Whisky

There are hundreds of Scotch distillers, blenders, and independent bottlers. Click here for a searchable database.

Arguably the king of them all, Scotch whisky simply goes by “Scotch.”

The hallmarks of Scotch are:

  • It must be made in Scotland, from Scottish ingredients.
  • It must have barley as its base grain.
  • It must be aged in an oak cask for at least three years.

Scotch is unique in that its malt (base mix) is dried over a fire fueled by peat. The smoke from the fire comes in direct contact with the malt and imparts a smoky flavor.

Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is whiskey that’s made in Ireland (bet you couldn’t have guessed that one!). It can be made from any grain, or even more than one, in which case the product must be labelled as blended.

Like its Scotch cousin, it has to be aged three years in wooden casks. But unlike its Scotch cousin, Irish whiskey is dried without fire or smoke. So it’s a little less heady, which some people prefer.

Irish whiskey is a versatile cocktail ingredient.


Though its name sounds less regional than the other whiskies we’ve covered so far, bourbon can only be called that if it’s made in the USA. Most bourbon comes from Kentucky.

The grain base for bourbon can be a blend, so long as it’s made of at least 51% corn. There is no minimum aging time.

Straight bourbon is pure - no coloring, flavors, or other spirit added - and aged for at least two years. Blended bourbon can have additives in it but must be comprised of at least 51% straight bourbon.

Tennessee whiskey

Tennessee Whiskey is straight bourbon that's made in Tennessee. It has a different taste because it goes through a charcoal filtering process.


Also referred to as Canadian whiskey. In Canada, the rules for rye are pretty lax. Though you’d expect it to come from a rye mash, that’s not necessarily the case. There are no formal rules in place specifying a minimum rye content, so sometimes you’ll find that it’s only a small part of the mash.

However, in the US, the mash must be at least 51% rye, with corn and barley frequently rounding out the mix. Other than that, the same rules that apply to bourbon apply to rye and Straight rye.

Ready for a drink? Click here for recipes for some of Cocktail Spy's favorite whiskey cocktails.