What Is Whiskey? A Beginner’s Guide
What is whiskey, anyway? Here, we’ll dive deep into what makes whiskey unique, the various types of whiskey available, and how to enjoy the spirit.
The story of whiskey isn’t as old as time, but distilleries have produced this distilled spirit for hundreds of years.
It’s made in various regions worldwide, and each brings a special something to the drink. Bourbon has a sweet smoothness, while Scotch is briny and smoky, and malt whiskey, made from malted barley, is rich and chocolatey.
There’s a lot to whiskey, and it’s not always easy to know where to start if you’re just getting into this spirit.
We’ve compiled this guide on whiskey basics, covering everything from how whiskey is made to the best way to drink your favorite style. And, when you’re ready to order a bottle, check out Gopuff’s whiskey selection.
What is whiskey?
Whiskey is a spirit distilled from a variety of cereal grains, including barley, corn, rye, or wheat. The liquid is usually aged in wooden barrels (sometimes called casks, often made of oak) and generally ends with an ABV of at least 40%.
Since the spirit has various styles, there’s no single flavor associated with whiskey.
Different regions regulate whiskey production, so the legal definition of whiskey changes depending on where you are. Renowned styles produced within larger regions — like Tennessee whiskey — are often held to specific standards.
How whiskey production began isn’t exactly clear, but most experts agree that it probably started off centuries ago in Scotland or Ireland.
Mentions of the spirit in historical records date back to the 15th century, which referred to the spirit as aqua vitae—Latin for “water of life.” The term “whiskey” derives from “uisge beatha,” a Gaelic phrase with the same translation.
How is whiskey made?
While there are several styles of whiskey, most stick to the same basic production process. Little differences in the methods make all the difference in flavor.
For malt whiskey, production starts with the malting of the grain. Malting involves soaking the grain in water to get it to germinate. Once germination begins, the grain is dried with heat before grinding. Not all whiskeys are malt whiskeys, which means some processes skip the malting step. A grain whiskey, for example, comes from any other type of grain — rye, corn, barley, or wheat.
Once ground, the grain is mixed with hot water and stirred to extract sugars. This creates a thick material known as wort.
Next, yeast is added to the wort, converting the sugars from the mashing process into alcohol. This creates another new substance, “wash,” or distiller’s beer.
Distillation is a purification process that separates the alcohol from the other materials in the wash. This is done using stills (large metal containers outfitted with heating devices), which heat the wash until the alcohol evaporates. That alcohol is collected and then boiled again to reach the appropriate purity and alcohol content.
After distillation, the whiskey is ready for maturation. Certain types of whiskey must be aged longer than others, and some governing bodies require whiskies to age in specific kinds of casks, which can directly impact flavor. Bourbon, for example, must be aged in charred oak barrels.
After the aging process, whiskey is bottled. Most big-name whiskey brands combine spirits from several barrels, though some (typically smaller-batch whiskies labeled as single-cask or single-barrel whiskies) come from one.
Another common bottling term, “single malt,” refers to whiskies produced entirely at a single distillery. Whiskies that aren’t labeled “single malt” may blend whiskies produced at different distilleries, even if they’re branded under a single name; a “double malt” whiskey blends alcohol from two different distilleries.
7 types of whiskey
It’s time to find out what kind of whiskey is for you. The best way to do this? Learn about what categorizes each of these spirits.
Take American whiskey, for example. Distilleries in Tennessee are the only producers of Tennessee whiskey, while bourbon whiskey is typically attributed to Kentucky distillers. Some whiskey types have stricter production regulations than others. Irish whiskey is made under stringent requirements about aging, grains, and additives, while Japanese whisky is diverse but doesn’t have the same short-list of requisites as Irish whiskey does.
The types of whiskey include:
American whiskey, which includes the following types:
Bourbon whiskey: Bourbon, which is aged in charred oak barrels, is sweet, nutty, and drinkable. A concentration of 80 percent corn mash and oak barrels make a corn whiskey a bourbon.
Rye whiskey: This variety is light and spicy. It’s not as sweet as bourbons.
Tennessee whiskey: Because of the use of sugar maple charcoal in the distillation process, this variety is smoky and sweet.
Wheat whiskey: Wheat whiskies have an inherent sweetness from the grain and usually have sweet flavors like honey, vanilla, or toffee.
Blended whiskey: This type of drink is a bit of a wild card, considering it is made from several different kinds of whiskey.
Canadian whiskey: Canadian whiskey often contains caramel flavorings, making it kind of like the maple syrup of whiskeys; these blends are usually multi-grain, making them lighter — and they aren’t as highly regulated as many American blends, offering more variation.
Irish whiskey: Aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, this variety is deep, spicy, and woody. They must have at least 40 percent alcohol to be a true Irish whiskey.
Japanese whisky: The flavor profile of this variety is close to that of Scotch, but many producers give their product oaky notes with special barrels. It’s usually drier and smokier than American variations.
Single-malt whiskey: Single-malt is unique through and through, made from one grain at one distillery.
Scotch whisky: This Scottish whisky gets a peaty taste as moss is burned in the process of drying out the grains. It also can’t be called Scotch if it isn’t produced in Scotland.
How to drink whiskey
Think you’ve discovered a whiskey that might strike your fancy? Now you must decide how you’re going to drink it. Yes, you can totally just drink it straight up if you need a place to start. (That’s called “neat,” by the way.)
Neat: Just the alcohol; no ice or water. Drinking neat is typically considered the right way to go when it comes to higher-quality whiskey since you’re getting only the intended flavor of the spirit.
With water: Adding a few drops of water is a great way to make whiskey a bit less intimidating while preserving more of the original flavor than you’d get if you added ice.
On the rocks: Though many whiskey enthusiasts consider drinking whiskey on the rocks blasphemous, it’s a good place to start if you’re still new to this spirit. Just keep in mind that drinking it this way will dull the flavor of the alcohol quite a bit.
In a cocktail: Some whisky styles (like bourbon) mix better than others (like Scotch), but no matter your preference, there’s likely a whiskey cocktail or two that’ll strike your fancy. Popular examples include the whiskey sour, the Manhattan, and the old fashioned.
Best whiskey cocktails
Whiskey sour: Bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup, garnished with an orange wheel and a cherry.
Old fashioned: Muddled sugar, bitters, and water, garnished with an orange wheel and a cherry.
Sazerac: Sazerac rye whiskey with bitters and a sugar cube in an absinthe-coated glass.
Manhattan: Bourbon, vermouth, and bitters, garnished with a cherry.
Rob Roy: Like a Manhattan, but made with Scotch.
Rusty nail: Scotch, Drambuie, ice.
Hot toddy: Hot water, whiskey, honey, and lemon juice.
Lynchburg Lemonade: Jack Daniel’s whiskey with lemon juice (or sour mix) and lemon-lime soda, garnished with a lemon wedge.
Whiskey highball: Ice, whiskey, club soda.
Mint julep: Bourbon with mint leaves and simple syrup, garnished with more mint.
Get whiskey delivered to your door
If you think you’re ready to jump into the world of whiskey, Gopuff is here to help. We’re fully stocked with the whiskies you love — including Scotch, bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and more, all ready for delivery in minutes.
- how its made
- types of whiskey