What is Whiskey? A guide for beginners

28/11/2020
Updated: 24/12/2020
5 mins read
What is Whiskey? A guide for beginners

Distilled from a range of different grains and aged in wood barrels, whiskey is an alcoholic beverage with a unique flavor profile. For a drink to be called whiskey, it needs to have no added flavoring. All the flavor must originate from the barrel it is aged in, unless it's a flavored whiskey of course.

This is one attribute that makes whiskey different from other alcoholic beverages; its unique flavor comes from the distillation and aging process.

A popular addition to cocktails and different shot recipes, whiskey is produced globally. Still, the most famous examples are distilled in Ireland and Scotland. The type of grain and the wood used for the barrel can make every batch of whiskey one of a kind. Whiskey really is an exceptional drink.

A brief history of whiskey

There are many urban legends in respect of the origins of whiskey. Many people believe that whiskey is an ancient Celtic drink. In contrast, others point to the Islamic Golden Age’s distilling techniques in the tenth century AD. However, just because distillation techniques occurred centuries ago, there is little evidence to document whiskey production.

Its well-known whiskey was first documented in 1494 in Scotland. However, the Irish do contest that whiskey originated from them thanks to Irish monks learning distillation techniques in Arabia around 500-600AD.

The origins of whiskey in Scotland came when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in Scotland. These newly unemployed monks began an illicit whiskey production to provide them with an income. They spread their knowledge of fermentation and the distillery process throughout Scotland.

At the same time, the French were experimenting with wine and cognac to produce something whiskey-like.

Man pouring aberlour 12 year old whisky on glasses

Whiskey smuggling became rife because of the extortionate English malt tax to raise revenue for the Crown. 

In America, whiskey was used as currency throughout the Civil War and was seen as a useful asset. Over time, distilleries refined their processes for producing this alcoholic beverage, creating a smooth well-loved drink across the globe. Strangely, India drinks the most whiskey in the world, although their whiskey is not highly regarded by whiskey connoisseurs.

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Learn more about whiskey

One of the great things about whiskey is its rich history paired with a deep diversity of flavors. If you want to learn more about whiskey, here is the best place to start.

Peated whiskey barrels

How is whiskey made?

Whiskey is made via a process of distillation and aging. The grain used to ferment may include barley, corn, rye, or wheat (or maybe a mixture of grains) to produce excellent flavor qualities and color profiles. Combined with American oak or French oak casks, the final whiskey produced will be one of a kind and difficult to perfectly replicate. Learn more about how whiskey is made here:

Japanese whisky 2 1

Whiskey compared

Whiskeys are like wines in that they have different tastes and flavors. This is all thanks to their unique aging and distillation process.

Take a look at these articles to compare the different types of whiskeys available today.

Whiskey tasted by man

Drinking whiskey

You might choose to enjoy a blended whiskey in a cocktail, or you might like your Scotch neat. Experiment and find the most enjoyable way of drinking your favorite whiskey. Find out what whiskey tastes like, how to order it at a bar, and much more below.

Types of whiskey

If you have ever ventured to a swanky bar only to be bamboozled by the sheer amount of different whiskeys behind the counter, you might want to become more of a connoisseur. Many kinds of whiskey are produced in many different regions of the world. Take a look at these different types of whiskey:

  • Scotch whisky - A whisky without the ‘e,’ this whisky originates in Scotland and has to be aged in an oak barrel for at least three years. A lot of people drink it neat rather than as a mixer or in a cocktail.
  • Irish whiskey - Again, Irish whiskey needs to be aged for at least three years in a barrel. Using caramel coloring and originating from the Emerald Isle, this whiskey is often used in a range of blended drinks.
  • Bourbon whiskey - An American whiskey that needs to be produced using at least 51% corn.
  • Rye whiskey - As the name suggests, this whiskey is distilled using rye grain. Straight rye whiskey has no other added grains to help the distilling process.
  • Japanese whiskey - Japan doesn’t just produce sake. It has a long history of producing whiskey similar to scotch that is drunk with soda.
  • Canadian whiskey - Again aged for at least three years and originating in Canada, distilleries use various grains to produce lighter and smoother flavor profiles.
  • Tennessee whiskey - Produced in Tennessee and having gone through the Lincoln County Process of filtration. 
  • Single malt - Single malts use one sole grain (usually malted barley), but rye can be used.
  • Blended whiskey - A cheaper whiskey, a blended whiskey mixes different whiskeys to create a more commercial drink to be used mainly in cocktails.

Popular whiskeys

It can seem like a minefield out there with so many different brands, logos, and price points out there when selecting a whiskey brand. 

We’re an independent review site with no affiliation to other brands in the whiskey industry, making our lists an excellent starting place for impartial advice. Here are some of our recent ones.

Tokinoka japanese whisky

Best Japanese whiskey

Producing both single malt and blended whiskeys, Japanese whiskey is a relative newcomer to the global market.

Bulleit 95 rye bourbon frontier whiskey

Best rye whiskey

Rye whiskeys tend to be made in America and include at least 51% rye grain to be classed as rye whiskey.

Jack daniels 150th anniversary tennessee whiskey

Best Tennessee whiskey

Jack Daniels, Collier, McKeel, George Dickel. All great whiskey brands, but which ones are the best?

Discover your new favorite

One of the great things about whiskey is there are so many to choose from! Browse some of our latest reviews below.

Summary

Whiskey is perhaps the most strictly regulated alcoholic beverage in the world. Distilleries guard their blends with their lives, and nearly every whiskey connoisseur has their favorite. If you've learned all you can about whiskey and your ready to start tasting, head over to our reviews and pick one that suits your palate.

By Ashleigh Cain

Ashleigh is a key part of the editorial team at Whiskey Rocks. You'll often find her either writing educational articles or reviewing the latest artisan whiskeys. Her favorite drink? Ashleigh loves smokey scotches like Laphroaig, but you'll also often find her with an old fashioned in hand.

Pepperjam Verification

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