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A rundown on the different types of whisky

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Whisky can come in many forms, all slightly different from its fellows.

These different types of whisky can be a tad confusing to both new whisky drinkers and seasoned whisky buffs alike. Scotch, rye, bourbon, single malt, blended… These terms may not sound like much, but they make a pretty big difference when it comes to the finished bottle.

If you want to brush up on your knowledge of types of whisky, you’re in the right place. Keep reading to impress your pals with your whisky wisdom over your next glass of scotch.

Let’s begin with some basics.

The brass tacks of whisky

Whisky (or whiskey) is an umbrella term for scotch, bourbon, rye whisky, single malt whisky etc.

The vast majority of different whiskies start their life in the same way. It may surprise you to find out that whisky begins as beer does: with grains, water and yeast, just without the hops. 

What sets the different types of whisky apart is the details in what grains are used, and the distillation and maturation processes.

We use malted barley for our whisky in Scotland, as do the Irish, whereas our American cousins tend to use rye and/or corn.

Malting, milling and mashing the grains produce a sugary liquid called wort, and next comes fermentation to turn it into alcohol. Not all grains are the same, and a higher sugar content will inevitably lead to a sweeter whisky. You can find out more about how whisky is made in our guide as well as the difference between scotch and whisky.

What about the difference between “whisky” and “whiskey”?

In general, we use the “whisky” spelling here in the UK – same for Canadian and Japanese whisky – but the term “whiskey” is more commonly used in the United States and over in Ireland.

An introduction to

scotch whisky

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It goes with saying that for whisky to be classed as scotch, it must be made in Scotland. 

Scotch is typically produced in Scotland’s main whisky regions, including Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, Lowlands and the Highlands & Islands. It’s often described as tasting woody, smokey and fruity, but this description differs from person to person.

At Ballantine’s, we use a variety of whiskies from Speyside, Islay, Highland and Lowland, which we blend and bottle in Dumbarton. Find out more about our process in our whisky FAQs.

There’s also different types of scotch. Ever heard of terms such as single malt, single grain and blended?

  • Single malt scotch whisky is scotch that’s been distilled at one distillery. It also must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks.
  • Single grain scotch whisky is the same as above, but it must also be made from cereal grains as opposed to only malted barley.
  • Blended scotch whisky is scotch that mixes one of more single malts with one or more single grains.

Our leading bottle, Ballantine’s Finest, is a blended scotch whisky. Blending means combining different whiskies to ensure a consistent final product with ultimate flavour.

Blending is a skilful job that takes a great deal of attention to detail, a fantastic knowledge of scotch, and an excellent palette. Our expert blenders at Ballantine’s are committed to staying true to our dedication to supreme scotch, and in ensuring each and every bottle we produce gets our unique seal of approval.

A note on Irish whiskey

Similarly to scotch, Irish whiskey must be distilled and aged in Ireland to be classed as such. 

Unlike scotch whisky however, the industry was in decline for many years, with only four distilleries left in Ireland by 2010. But we’re pleased to say that the Irish whiskey industry is now on the up, and today there are reportedly close to 40 Irish whiskey distilleries in operation.

What about American whiskey?

Now that you’ve got your facts right on scotch whisky, it’s time to head over to the United States.

The most common type of whisky from America is Bourbon, which uses corn as its grain of choice. To be classed as a bourbon, it must be made from a minimum of 51% corn, and for it to be “straight” bourbon, it must be aged in charred new-oak barrels for at least two years.

Bourbon tends to be sweet and caramelly, due to the high sugar content of corn. We took inspiration from the vanilla tones of bourbon with Ballantine’s 7 American Barrel. This scotch is finished in American barrels to give it a creamy caramel taste and a long, sweet finish.

A little about rye whisky

America is also the home of American rye whiskey, which, you guessed it, uses rye as its main grain.

Like with bourbon, rye whisky must be made with a minimum of 51% rye grain, and be aged in charred new-oak barrels for two years or more. The use of rye makes it less sweet than bourbon, and it’s often said to have a spicy edge.

Whisky made in Canada is often called rye whisky, even if it’s made with fewer than 51% rye grains today. The name stuck, even when other grains such as corn took over.

We could chat about the different types of whisky all day, but we reckon that’s plenty for you to mull over for the time being.

Why not crack open your favourite bottle of whisky and enjoy a delicious whisky cocktail while you do so? And remember to check out our whisky guide for even more inside scoop on the water of life including how best to drink Ballantine’s.

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