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A Complete Guide to 7 Types of Whiskey: 4 Whiskey Cocktails

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Apr 29, 2020 • 4 min read

The world of whiskey may seem complex at first glance, but you don’t have to be a whiskey connoisseur to understand different types and blends.

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World-class bartenders Lynnette and Ryan (aka Mr Lyan) teach you how to make perfect cocktails at home for any mood or occasion.

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What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is a distilled spirit made out of fermented grain. Though the type of grain used in a whiskey can vary—rye, wheat, corn, and barley are common—most whiskeys are aged in wooden casks and have a minimum 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). There are many different whiskey types, usually distinguished by their place of origin, types of grain, blending process, and aging process.

Whiskey vs. Whisky: Why the Different Spellings?

Originally a way to differentiate Irish whiskey from Scotch whisky, the two spellings now apply to whiskeys made throughout the world. In Ireland and the United States, the preferred spelling is generally “whiskey.” In Scotland, Canada, and Japan, it’s “whisky.”

What’s the Difference Between Single Malt and Blended Scotch Whisky?

A grain whiskey is produced from any type of grain, while a malt whiskey's main ingredient is specifically malted barley—barley that germinates before fermentation. Here are the three main ways that grains and malts can be combined in a whiskey:

  1. Single malt whiskey: A single malt whiskey comes from a single distillery and only contains one type of malted grain. A bottle of single malt whiskey may include whiskey from several different casks—unless it’s a single cask whiskey.
  2. Blended whiskey: A blended whiskey is a mixture of different types of whiskeys, potentially produced by different distilleries.
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7 Types of Whiskey

In order to choose a style of whiskey you enjoy drinking the most, it's important to understand the differences between each type.

  1. Bourbon whiskey: Bourbon is American whiskey, often (though not exclusively) produced in Kentucky, that contains at least 51 percent corn in its mash bill, or grain makeup. Bourbon must be aged in newly charred oak barrels if produced in the United States, which makes for a typically nutty flavor profile and a mellow, caramelized sweetness.
  2. Tennessee whiskey: A subtype of Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before it is aged. This filtering method is the Lincoln County Process, and it is what gives Tennessee Whiskey its own unique flavor.
  3. Rye whiskey: Rye a whiskey containing at least 51 percent rye in its mash bill. Like bourbon, rye must be aged in newly charred oak barrels if produced in the United States. In general, rye is lighter-bodied than many other whiskeys; you can identify it by its tingly spiciness.
  4. Irish whiskey: To qualify as Irish whiskey, a spirit must be produced from malt, grain, and barley and distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland. Irish whiskey must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years. The more muted, malt character of Irish whiskey shines most when the spirit is aged in less conventional vessels like sherry casks or rum casks.
  5. Scotch whisky: Scotch must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland. Scottish law mandates that scotch be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Scotch malt whisky producers traditionally operate in five specific Scottish regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Speyside. Scotch receives its smoky character from peat, a dense moss that is lit on fire to dry out the malted barley used in distillation. Unless a recipe calls for a certain scotch by producer or style, a blended scotch will be your best bet for most cocktails. Use a single-malt scotch if you're drinking it neat or on the rocks.
  6. Canadian whisky: Canadian whisky must be produced and aged in Canada, have a minimum of 40 percent ABV, and be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels no larger than 700 liters. Canadian whisky can also contain caramel and other flavorings, leading to a diverse range of tastes between brands.
  7. Japanese whisky: Whisky is bottled in Japan but it isn’t necessarily distilled or aged there. Some Japanese whisky draws immediate comparisons to Scotch whisky, while other producers are constantly evolving, harnessing the unique qualities of indigenous Japanese oak.

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4 Classic Whiskey Cocktails

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World-class bartenders Lynnette and Ryan (aka Mr Lyan) teach you how to make perfect cocktails at home for any mood or occasion.

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Your choice of whiskey in any cocktail can have a significant effect on the drink’s flavor profile. Even within certain styles, individual expressions might feature characteristics of other styles or other spirits altogether. When shopping for a whiskey for cocktail use, pay close attention to how grain makeup, proof, and barrel aging might impact the outcome of your cocktails. If you prefer a stronger drink, try chilling with whiskey stones instead of ice cubes to avoid dilution. Feel free to experiment using different types of whiskey in these four classic whiskey cocktails.

  1. Old Fashioned: The original whiskey cocktail, the Old Fashioned was once considered a simple way to elevate spirits of poor quality into something palatable. Make it with bourbon or rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, and sugar. Garnish it with an orange twist or maraschino cherry.
  2. Manhattan: Named for the New York City borough of its birth, the Manhattan is a cocktail made of two parts whiskey (rye or bourbon), one part sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of aromatic bitters. Stir a Manhattan, and garnished it with a brandied cherry or two.
  3. Boulevardier: The Boulevardier cocktail is equal parts bourbon whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Serve a Boulevardier in a rocks glass over ice, and crown it with a fragrant twist of orange.
  4. Whiskey Sour: A reliably satisfying whiskey cocktail, the Whiskey Sour includes bourbon whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Garnish it with half an orange slice and a maraschino cherry. A popular variant, the Boston Sour, has egg white added into the mix.

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