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Revisiting the five main types of whiskey

Mark Twain knew what he was talking about when he said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” As one of the most popular alcohols in recent years, it seems there are types of whiskey in every corner of the world. Not to mention, distillers keep popping up with more and more craft selections. Simply put, whiskey fans have never had it this good. 

As a brown spirit enthusiast, how well do you know whiskey? Do you know the difference between Scotch vs. whiskey? Would you know a good Canadian whisky from Irish whiskey? Why are there so many different kinds of whiskey? Are they really that different? Of course, for it to be whiskey in the first place, they’ve got to share some similarities. But, to differentiate between what makes a bourbon a bourbon requires a little bit of expertise. Here’s a look at the different types and styles of whiskey, and what makes them unique.

American Whiskey 

As you probably know, American whiskey is usually broken down into the subcategories of bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey. Have you tried them all?


Why is it unique?

  • Must be made with at least 51 percent corn. The remainder will either be malted barley, rye or wheat.
  • Can be made anywhere in the United States (not just Kentucky).
  • Must be aged in charred, new-oak barrels for at least two years to be called “straight bourbon.”
  • No coloring or flavoring additives allowed.

What does it taste like?

  • Sweet. Caramel and vanilla tones. 
  • Smoky flavor from the charred oak barrels.

Tennessee Whiskey

Why is it unique?

  • Must be made in Tennessee with 51-79 percent corn.
  • Uses a filtering step called the Lincoln County Process, which means it is filtered through charcoal chunks to remove impurities before aging.

What does it taste like?

  • Similar to bourbon. 
  • Often has a hint of smokiness due to the charcoal filtering.


Why is it unique?

  • Must be made with at least 51 percent rye. 
  • Must be aged in charred, new-oak barrels for at least two years.
  • No coloring or flavoring additives allowed.

What does it taste like?

  • Spicy, crisp mouthfeel.
  • Peppery.
  • Can have fruit notes. 

Irish Whiskey

Did you know that the very first whiskey was distilled in Ireland? The word whiskey actually comes from the Irish phrase uisce beatha, which means “water of life.” After Irish whiskey came on the scene, the rest of the types of whiskey followed.

Why is it unique?

  • Irish whiskey can only be made in Ireland or Northern Ireland.
  • Made using a mash of malt; distilled with water and caramel coloring. 
  • Aged at least three years in wooden casks.
  • Three main varieties include single pot still, single malt, and single grain whiskey.

What does it taste like?

  • Smooth (Irish whiskey is often created through a triple distillation process).
  • Light, grainy, sometimes grassy or fruity.


Like Irish whiskey, Scotch has been around since the Renaissance. A tax record from 1494 lists “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that kind of history, it’s no wonder that Scotch is some of the best! 

Why is it unique?

  • Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland.
  • Must be aged in an oak barrel for at least three years.
  • Primarily made of malted barley, which is often soaked and then dried over burning peat.
  • Can be either a single malt/grain whisky or a blended whisky.

What does it taste like?

  • Malty (from the malted barley).
  • Can have a strong, smoky flavor. 
  • May have notes of vanilla or fruit.
  • Flavor can be affected by region. (Whiskies distilled near the sea can absorb salty sea air; inland whiskies can take on a more floral taste.)

Japanese Whisky

Newer on the scene, Japanese whisky production started in earnest around 1920. But in just 100 years, it has developed a reputation for innovation, refinement and high quality.

Why is it unique?

  • Distillation process is very similar to Scotch whisky.
  • Unlike in Scotland, Japanese distilleries often have a variety of stills of different shapes and sizes, which allows for more customization. 
  • Wood-aged, but not limited to a specific type of tree. (Japanese whisky is aged in American oak barrels, Sherry casks, and Japanese Mizunara oak barrels, among others.)

What does it taste like?

  • Dry, smoky. 
  • Sometimes peaty (Japanese distillers often import peat from Scotland).
  • A wide range of other possible flavors include fruit, vanilla, herbs, spice, malt, nuts, honey. 

Canadian Whisky

Although some whisky enthusiasts look down on Canadian whisky’s lighter flavor, the industry boasts plenty of award-winning spirits and is expanding at a rapid pace. If you’re in Canada, speak like a local and call it “rye.”

Why is it unique?

  • Must be mashed, distilled, and aged at least three years in Canada.
  • May contain caramel and flavoring. 
  • High percentage of corn.

What does it taste like?

  • Light, smooth.
  • Often considered “easy-drinking” 

Whether you are ready to join the thousands of people experiencing whiskey in an entirely new way by collecting full barrels, or you just want to refresh your knowledge of the wild world of whiskey, we hope this cheat sheet on the various types of whiskey was a helpful resource. 

We’re on a mission to make whiskey barrel ownership accessible to collectors worldwide. As the first ever global marketplace for whiskey barrels, you can connect with distilleries and collectors around the world to build your own portfolio. For a whiskey experience unlike any other, request access today.

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