Guide to Whisky: Everything You Need to Know
If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to decipher the wide world of whisky, you’re not alone. The industry is awash with grain choices, distillation practices and flavours, not to mention more than its fair share of jargon thrown in for good measure. In order to fully appreciate whisky, you need to understand what makes each individual style unique, the process behind the spirit and the cultural connection to the land on which it was distilled. Enter the following whisky guide, which tackles the best types, price points, styles and regions from every conceivable angle.
Not only does our expert guide touch on virtually every type of whisky (or whiskey)—complete with links to more comprehensive articles—it features trending topics, helpful pointers, and recipes as well. From single malts to blends, Scotch, rye, and bourbon, we’ve got you covered. May it take your late-night sipping to the next level.
Table of Contents
- What is Whisky?
- Types of Whisky
- Whisky By Region
- Whisky by Price Point
- Whisky Gifts
- Whisky Recipes
- Whisky How-Tos
What is Whisky?
Starting from the very basics, whisky (or whiskey) is a form of distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash. In most cases, this spirit will be crafted from malted barley or corn, however, you’ll also come across whiskies produced using rye and wheat.
Importantly, whisky is a strictly regulated spirit across the globe, meaning there are a number of different categories and classes to explore. Some, like Scotch whisky, have set rules for what can be classified under the category with regulations that have passed in Federal Court. So, if you are just starting your whisky journey or you are an experienced dram-holder, knowing the terminology is key.
Whisky Production Process
There are six main steps in the whisky production process, however, this can change depending on the type of whisky and the regulations involved.
- Malting – As all whisky starts off as grain, the first step in producing the spirit is malting. Barley, for example, must be specially treated to open its sugars. This process involves moistening the sprout and allowing it to germinate. As a result, the grain will release an enzyme that helps convert starches to sugars.
- Mashing – Next comes mashing, whereby the sugar must be extracted prior to fermentation. Here, the grains are collected and put into a large tank with hot water and agitated. Ground malted barley is also added to help promote the conversion of starches to sugars. Once as much sugar as possible has been extracted, the residual mixture is referred to as mash.
- Fermentation – This step occurs when the mash comes into contact with yeast. The yeast helps to convert the sugars left in the liquid into alcohol, with the entirety of this process generally taking place in large vats. What is left is a strange liquid often referred to as ‘Distiller’s Beer’ for its resemblance to the drink.
- Distillation – Next, the liquid is placed into a still for distillation. The two most common types of still distillations are Pot Still and Column Still. Both structures work to increase the alcohol content of the liquid, whilst removing any unwanted flavour or aroma compounds.
- Maturation – A step you’ve most likely seen before, maturation involves placing the new make whisky into barrels and letting it soak up the beautiful flavours of the wood. These barrels are stored in warehouses, often for years until they reach the desired alcohol content and flavour profile.
- Bottling – Finally, once the whisky has reached its peak maturity, the distiller removes it from the barrel and bottles it ready for sale. You may also hear the term ‘chill-filtered‘ when this stage is discussed. This refers to a filtration process that prevents the whisky from becoming cloudy by adding cold water or ice.
Types of Whisky
While whisky production is very similar across the board, subtle changes can make enormous differences to the end result, both in flavour and style. As a result, there are a number of different types of whisky to work your way through. Here are the main whisky types:
Single Malt Whisky
Often referred to as the king of whisky, single malts are whiskies produced at a single distillery using a single malted grain. This type of whisky is commonly found in Scotch, Irish and Australian distilleries, however, it generally comes with a heftier price tag.
The term ‘blended’ refers to whisky that is comprised of a blend of various whiskies that have previously been aged. This is by far the most common type of whisky, with reports suggesting that around 90 per cent of the market is made up of products that combine malt and grain spirit. Examples include Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s.
One of the best-loved types, rye is a whisky produced from rye grains rather than barley or corn. Importantly, this category is not exclusive to any region, so you will regularly find Australian, Canadian and American rye whiskey at your local bottle shop.
A style exclusive to the USA, bourbon is a whisky type that has its own set of rules. Specifically, bourbon can only be made in America from at least 51 per cent corn, be barrelled no higher than 125 proof, aged in new, charred oak barrels and distilled to no more than 160 proof. For more information on bourbon, check out our guide to the American spirits.
Similarly, Tennessee Whiskey follows the same regulations as bourbon, with one major geographical difference. Tennessee whiskey can, unsurprisingly, only be produced in the state of Tennessee. It also goes through a slightly different filtering procedure called the Lincoln Country Process. The most common brand of Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniel’s, however as you’ll find out in our guides below, there is a lot more to explore with this unique category.
Our Guide to Tennessee Whiskey
One for the adventurous drinkers, peated whisky has a unique, smoky flavour that lingers on the tongue. More specifically, peated whisky can be classified as any whisky that uses peat as a part of the distilling process. If you didn’t know, peat is partially decayed vegetation or organic matter, which when added to the whisky production process, releases compounds similar in flavour to smoke and fire. This type of whisky is an acquired taste but has steadily grown in popularity over the years. You’ll commonly find this whisky type in the Islay region of Scotland, best typified by brands such as Laphroaig and Benriach.
Wheat whisky is a style crafted from a grain bill that consists primarily of wheat. While the United States regulates that all products under this distinction must be composed of at least 51 per cent wheat, the style is perhaps best typified by the Germans. With a steady flow of ‘Brewer’s Wash’ made from heavily fermented wheat, the conditions are best suited for producing wheat whisky.
Most non-alcoholic whiskeys are made from three core components; water, citric acid and other flavouring components. Some may then be distilled so that the oils and compounds in the aromatic components can be expressed and captured. The liquid is then pumped into oak barrels to age for an often undisclosed period of time, just like many conventional whiskies. Once it has matured, the liquid is ready to be consumed.
Our Guide to Non-Alcoholic Whiskey
Whisky By Region
When it comes to whisky, you may already know some of the key production regions like Scotland and Ireland, but in recent years the industry has gone truly global. Some of the best whiskies in the world come from unexpected lands, with India laying claim to an assortment of world champions, not to mention Japan’s cult-like whisky following. Here, we’ve dispelled it down to the top whisky-making countries in the world.
The most significant player in the world of whisky, Scotland has been commercially producing the spirit since the late 18th century, however, the first mentions of whisky date back as far as the 1490s. Part of the reason Scotch whisky is so revered is due to its strict production guidelines, which have helped the spirit to gain a fabled following. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, the country’s whisky industry supported “40,000 jobs and accounted for £4.37 billion in exports in 2017”. With names like Johnnie Walker, The Balvenie, Glenfiddich and The Macallan, it’s little wonder Scotland is seen as the home of whisky.
- Best Scotch Whisky Brands
- Guide to Scotch Whisky Regions
- Best Islay Whisky
- Best Speyside Whisky
- Best Lowlands Whisky
- Best Highlands Whisky
- Best Campbeltown Whisky
- Best Single Malt Scotches Under $150
- Best Peated Whisky Brands
- Best Scotch Whiskies Under $100
As the name would suggest, Irish whiskey is a type of spirit produced in Ireland generally from a mix of malted cereals and matured in wooden casks. Like Scotch, Irish whiskey must be aged for at least three years and have a minimum of 40 per cent ABV. The category is one of the most popular in the world, courtesy of big-name brands such as triple distilled favourite Jameson, craft special Redbreast, and the world’s oldest licensed whisky producer, Bushmills.
American whiskey is a unique category that encompasses a few different types. While the spirit is made across the country, the process can differ from region to region, with certain distillers opting to utilise a variety of grains rather than the traditional malted barley. In general, American whiskey has a sweeter finish, courtesy of the highly-propensity of corn as the base cereal, alongside the high temperatures in the maturation stage. Check out our guides to American whiskey, starting with the best brands and moving through the top craft releases.
- Best American Craft Whiskeys
- Best American Whiskies (TBC)
- Best American Single malt
Learn more about American whisky
With a focus on floral notes and smoky textures, Japanese whisky is an acquired taste, however, the category is growing rapidly. Taking the foundations of Scotch whisky and adding a local flair to the mix, the best Japanese whiskies are brimming with bold notes and a rich palate-friendly mouthfeel. The most popular Japanese whisky brands include Nikka, Hibiki and Suntory, which produces a swathe of decadent releases at a variety of price points.
Learn more about Japanese whisky
Despite only being a fledgling industry by global standards, Australian whisky is fast becoming one of the category’s heavy hitters. Through the late 20th century, the region produced a number of respectable releases but everything changed in 2014 when Tasmanian distillery Sullivan’s Cove took on the Scots and won. The label’s French Oak cask was crowned the best single malt whisky in the world at the World Whisky Awards, kickstarting a trend towards premium, home-grown releases. Nowadays, labels such as Lark Distilling Co., Starward Whisky and Archie Rose are leading the pack, with a number of boutique brands popping up seemingly every other week. Check out our complete guide to the best Australian whisky brands, along with a host of other specialist releases to explore.
- Best Australian Whisky Brands
- Best Australian Single Malts
- Best Tasmanian Whisky Distilleries
Our Guide to Australian Whisky
Fresh off a recent world’s-best ranking for its Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye, the popularity of Canadian whisky has never been stronger. The region’s balance mix of rye and cereal has helped distinguish the spirit from its cross-the-border rival, with a number of key brands making inroads globally. Keep an eye out for names such as Lot No. 40, Pike Creek and Masterson’s if you are looking for the best Canadian whiskies. Otherwise, just use our handy guide.
Once a formidable force in the world stakes, New Zealand whisky all but disappeared from view in the 20th century, however, it’s coming back strong. With organisations such as The New Zealand Whisky Collection and distilleries like Thomson leading the charge, the area is building a burgeoning new market for you to explore. Here, we’ve pulled together the labels you need to know and a guide to the drams worth your time.
Our Guide to New Zealand Whisky
Despite Scotland, Ireland and America claiming to be powerhouses in the industry, it may surprise you to learn that India is the most lucrative whisky market in the world. The region was worth a whopping USD$18.8bn in 2021 and that was set to grow again in 2022, according to data from Statista. Over the past few years, producers such as Paul John have helped raised the profile of the domestic market, snagging a series of international awards. Here’s everything you need to know about Indian whisky.
- Best Indian Whisky Brands
Whisky by Price
While it may feel like you need to spend a fortune to purchase a great bottle of whisky, there is a myriad of less-expensive and affordable releases waiting to be discovered. Here, we’ve organised our favourite whiskies from around the world by price point. Don’t want to spend $200 on a single malt? We’ve got you covered. Need a bourbon for under $100? Look no further. Don’t have a budget at all? Take it easy, high-roller – maybe one of the most expensive whiskies in the world might fit you. Check out our guides to whisky at every price point.
- Best Bourbons Under $100
- Best Single Malt Under $100
- Best Scotch Under $100
- Best Rye Whisky Under $100
- Best Peated Whisky Under $100
- Best Bourbons Under $150
- Best Single Malt Under $150
- Best Scotch Under $150
- Best Rye Whisky Under $150
- Best Peated Whisky Under $150
- Most Expensive Whiskies Ever Sold at Auction
- Most Expensive Japanese Whisky
- Most Expensive Scotch
- Most Expensive Bourbon
If you are just starting your whisky journey, there’s a lot to take in. Thankfully, we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting. For everything you need to know, take a look at this handy collection of whisky how-tos, tackling the key information, guides and data surrounding the global industry.
- How to develop your palate
- How Different Casks Change a Whisky
- Beginner Whiskies to Start Your Collection
- Whisky Subscription Services in Australia
- A Guide to Food Pairing
- Whisky Clubs in Australia
- Biggest Scotch Whisky Export Markets Revealed
- Best Australian Whisky Blogs
- How to Make an Ice Ball
Not sure what to get the whisky lover in your life? To help you make sure your next birthday, Christmas or Father’s Day treat is a special one, we’ve collated all our favourite whisky gifts. Take a look and turn your next surprise into something worth cherishing.
View our complete guide to Whisky Gifts
Try making our favourite whisky cocktails with these easy and fun recipes. We’ve got classics like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, along with some more beginner-friendly flavours like the Highball and Whisky Sour.
- Old Fashioned
- Whisky Sour
- Whisky Highball
- Mint Julep
- Australia’s Best Bartenders Share Whisky Cocktail Recipes
View our complete guide to Whisky Cocktails
Is it whiskey or whisky?
While there is much conjecture around whether it is whisky or whiskey, the simplest explanation refers to a region. Whiskey (with an e) relates to grain spirits distilled in Ireland and the United States. Whisky (with no e) refers to Scottish, Japanese and Australian spirits. To make a long explanation short, whiskey (with an 'e') refers to grain spirits distilled in Ireland and the United States. Whisky (with no 'e') refers to Scottish, Canadian, or Japanese grain spirits.
What is the best-selling whisky in the world?
The best-selling whisky in the world is Jim Beam. The Beam Suntory-owned release sold over 17 million cases last year, topping the best-sellers list for the fifth consecutive year.
What is the difference whisky and scotch?
There is no difference between whisky and Scotch. Whisky is a broad term that refers to any distilled grain that has been aged in casks, whereas Scotch is a type of whisky that follows the regulations laid down by the Scottish government.