Whiskey Basics

In the wide world of whisky, there are many names, styles and classifications—and these categories can be hard to grasp, especially for those who are just beginning to dabble. Below is a beginner’s guide to understanding whisky classifications:


Scotch whisky comes from Scotland and is aged there for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. Scotch is typically distilled twice, and the spirit falls into several strict classifications:


  • Single Malt: Single malt Scotch whisky refers to whisky that is made solely from malted barley, and is produced at a single distillery.
    Examples: McCallan, Highland Park, Bowmore, Glenlivet.
  • Single Grain: Single grain whisky is made at a single distillery, but incorporates additional grains beyond malted barley. Single grain whisky is a rare commodity on its own since most is used in blends.
    Example: Haig Club.
  • Blended Malt: Blended malt whisky is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
    Example: Compass Box Peat Monster.
  • Blended Grain: A blend of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries. As with single grain whisky, this too is a very small category for Scotch.

    Example: Compass Box Hedonism.

  • Blended Scotch: A blend of one or more single malts with one or more single grains. The vast majority of Scotch sold around the world is blended.
    Example: Ballantines, Chivas, Johnnie Walker.

Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey must come from Ireland and, like Scotch, must be aged a minimum of three years. Unlike scotch, though, most Irish whiskey is triple distilled. Ireland’s classifications are less rigid than Scotland’s, but “blended” will always include two or more separately distilled whiskeys, representing the bulk of the market.

Single Malt Examples: Knappogue, Tullamore Dew
Blended Examples: Jameson’s, Bushmill’s

American Whisky

American whiskey can be classified a few different ways:

  • Bourbon: Bourbon is an American whiskey which contains a minimum of 51 percent corn, and is aged in charred, new oak barrels. The sweetness of the corn used makes for a sweeter, more full-bodied flavour.
    Example: Bulleit Bourbon
  • Rye: American rye whiskey must be made with a minimum of 51 percent rye, creating a spicier, drier taste. Like bourbon, it has to be aged in charred, new oak barrels.
    Examples: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey
  • Tennessee Whiskey: An offshoot of bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is actually its own category. Laws require that is be produced in Tennessee, and meet the requirements of a bourbon. Prior to aging, it undergoes an extra charcoal filtering process known as the “Lincoln County Process”, creating a smoother tasting end product.
    Example: Jack Daniels

Canadian Whiskey

Canadian whiskey is often called “rye whiskey,” even though it often contains very little rye. Instead, the spirit is based on the tradition of Canadian whiskey, which has long been known for its dry rye style. Most Canadian whiskey incorporates a much higher percentage of corn than rye and is typically made by blending a small percentage of an all rye whiskey to flavor a blend of other grain whiskies. Canadian whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years in 700-liter wooden barrels.

Examples: Canadian Club, Wisers, Forty Creek

Japanese & World Whisky

It’s no secret that Japanese whisky has been gaining quite a reputation over the past few years. Japanese whisky is largely made in the fashion of Scotch, with single malts and blends are both available, often offering light but deceptively nuanced whisky.

Example: Hibiki Japanese Harmony

Elsewhere, whisky is being made all over the world, from Sweden to South Africa; England to Taiwan; and India to Australia, along with many other stops in between.