This whiskey 101 article is a complete guide to whiskey. This includes bourbon, whiskey and scotch. Learn about the history, how it is made, and brand recommendations to suit a range of budgets.
Distilled and consumed everywhere from Scotland to Japan, whiskey is the world’s most popular liquor. The dark spirit is made from a variety of grains like barley, wheat, and rye.
Whiskey is typically enjoyed on its own or mixed into iconic cocktails like the Manhattan and old-fashioned. Originally used as medicine, whiskey is now so popularly consumed that there are entire bars dedicated to the liquor.
So, how do you differentiate between the different types of whiskey? What’s the difference between whiskey, bourbon, and scotch?
In this guide, I’m going to discuss the origins of whiskey, then break down the three types of whiskey and provide recommendations on which brands to get.
By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll be well-equipped to impress your friends with your newfound knowledge of whiskey. Get ready to add a few new bottles to your home bar!
Origins of whiskey
Monks first brought distilling techniques to Scotland and Ireland between the years 1100 and 1300 with the intentions of the techniques being used for wine. However, wine was not easily obtained in these countries, so they wound up using the distilling techniques on barley beer instead, turning it into whiskey.
After gaining widespread popularity in the UK, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought whiskey with them to North America. In no time, whiskey spread all across the globe.
While different types of whiskey are produced in slightly different methods, they all follow the same general practice.
Whiskey starts out with grains that are mixed with water and yeast for fermentation. This converts starches to sugar, which then becomes alcohol. The whiskey is then run through a still that heats the liquor into a concentrated vapor and sends it out on the other end as a high-proof liquor. Once the process is complete, whiskey is typically aged in barrels for years before it’s sold.
Often referred to as the father of all whiskey, Irish whiskey is most often blended and is typically triple-distilled from unmalted barley and aged for a minimum of three years.
It must be distilled in Ireland, naturally, and is known for being very light, smooth, and pleasant to drink. The temperature is kept low during the distillation process to ensure the resulting liquor is sweet and toasty.
While Irish whiskey must be aged for at least three years, it can also be aged for much longer, which affects both the smoothness and the price tag.
- Jameson Irish Whiskey. Triple distilled and aged in oak casks for four years, Jameson is known for being pleasant and smooth in taste. With a nice balance of spicy, nutty, and sweet, this blended Irish whiskey can be enjoyed on its own or mixed into your favorite whiskey cocktail.
- Kavanagh Bordeaux Red Wine Cask Irish Whiskey. This is a simple blend with a sweet and fruity nose, pear and vanilla notes, and a smooth finish. Kavanagh can be found at stores like Total Wine and is an excellent budget Irish whiskey.
- Michter’s US1 American Whiskey. While this one isn’t technically an Irish whiskey, it definitely deserved a mention on the list. Made in Kentucky and aged in white oak barrels, this American whiskey has deep notes of butterscotch and vanilla, hints of caramel and dried fruit, with a crisp, fruity finish.
- Tullamore Dew 12 Yr. This robust blended Irish whiskey is triple cask-matured for depth and has notes of dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate. Aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, this spicy yet creamy blend is matured to perfection.
- Jameson Blender’s Dog. This premium Irish whiskey is rich and round with a creamy mouthfeel and a long, fruity finish. The nose carries notes of tropical fruits, citrus, vanilla, and toasted oak. The taste of sweet butterscotch, fruit, spice, and charred oak come together in perfect harmony. It’s delicious on its own, but works great in cocktails as well.
- Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. This is another American whiskey, but it’s absolutely fantastic and deserves a spot in our premium section. Distilled in the Rocky Mountains, this single malt whiskey is hand-crafted in small batches for the ultimate quality. It smells of caramel butterscotch and leather, and tastes like cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, warm caramel, and spiced pear. It’s smooth, exquisitely made, and seriously delicious.
Made only in America, bourbon has some of the strictest regulations of any type of whiskey. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years, distilled to no higher than 160 proof, barreled no higher than 125 proof, and made from at least 51 percent corn. Most bourbon is quite robust in flavor, with strong notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak. These pleasant notes are what make bourbon such a popular choice of whiskey to enjoy both on the rocks and in cocktails.
- Buffalo Trace. Made from corn, rye, and barley malt, this award-winning bourbon is complex in flavor with hints of toffee, vanilla, and candied fruit. Between the pleasant flavor and smooth finish, Buffalo Trace makes a fantastic bourbon for those on a budget.
- Evan Williams Single Barrel. After winning the “Whiskey of the Year” award five times, it’s safe to say this bourbon by Evan Williams is a good choice. Lush and spicy in flavor with notes of honey, orange, and apple and amber gold in color, you can’t go wrong with the classic taste of Evan Williams Single Barrel.
- Bulleit Bourbon 10 Yr Select. Aged in Bulleit barrels for 10 years, the 10 Year Select is deep in color with rich, oaky aromas. The flavor profile is smooth with notes of vanilla and dried fruit, followed by a long, smoky finish. This mid-tier bourbon provides a rich and smooth sipping experience.
- Knob Creek. Using the finest grains and white oak barrels, Knob Creek is meticulous in their process to achieve their signature rich, sweet taste. Deep in color and rich, sweet, and woody in flavor, this classic bourbon makes a fantastic choice for a home bar.
- Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Select. This sophisticated and complex bourbon is incredibly rich in flavor with notes of caramel, cinnamon, and toffee. It goes down smooth and leaves behind a robust finish of leather and tobacco, satisfying even the most picky whiskey snobs.
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. The purest form of Maker’s Mark bourbon, the Cask Strength ranges from 108 to 114 proof depending on the barrels used in the aging process. This bourbon is pleasantly smooth with notes of vanilla, oak, caramel, and spice.
Scotch whisky uses the ‘whisky’ spelling rather than the ‘whiskey’ spelling and can only be produced in Scotland. When it comes to scotch, you can either get a single malt made from malted barley or a blended whisky made with grain whiskey. Scotch is known for the smoky flavor it gets from drying the malt over a peat-fueled fire. Traditionally, single malt scotch is enjoyed neat or on the rocks, while blended scotch whisky is used in cocktails. Some of the world’s most expensive whiskeys fall into this category, but many of these ultra-premium brands offer more affordable options as well.
- Sheep Dip. This blended scotch whisky is made from 16 different whiskies aged from between 8 and 21 years. It starts off with a fragrant nose with notes of honey and toffee, tastes rich and warm, and finishes with a tangy punch. It’s surprisingly smooth for such an affordable scotch whisky and makes a great addition to any home bar.
- Monkey Shoulder. This blend of Speyside single malt scotch whiskies is rich and vibrant with fruity aromas and notes of vanilla. The brand advertises this scotch as the perfect blend for cocktails, which I would definitely agree with. It’s a great choice for a drink like a whiskey sour or an old-fashioned.
- Glenlivet 12 Year. This sophisticated whisky is one of the most popular single malts in the world, and for good reason. The nose is delicate and fruity, with a delicately balanced flavor profile that imparts notes of pineapple. This whisky finishes long, smooth, and creamy for a superior tasting experience.
- Auchentoshan 12 Year. Triple distilled and aged for over 12 years, this single malt whisky smells of toasted almonds and coffee and tastes sweet and delicate with notes of lime and tangerine. This whisky works great in cocktails but can also stand up on its own, making for a versatile scotch to have at home.
- Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask. This well-rounded single malt scotch whisky smells of toffee and tropical fruit. It’s finished in casks that once held Caribbean rum, giving it an extra sweetness. It has a sweet vanilla flavor with notes of apples, mangos, and orange for a deliciously balanced taste.
Shieldaig Speyside Single Malt 18 Year. This single malt scotch whisky is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 18 years, resulting in an elegant and rich flavor. The nose is deep and spiced, while the taste has notes of citrus and herbs. It’s got a more affordable price tag than most premium whiskies and tastes fantastic on the rocks or mixed into cocktails.
I hope you enjoyed this whiskey 101 guide. Check back for future guides to vodka, tequila, rum, and gin. Leave me a comment if you have questions or feedback about this post or to let me know your favorite whiskey brand!