Different Types of Whisky
Nerdiness tends to be more fun when there are profound differences to be found between the things discussed. If that’s what you’re into, whisk(e)y offers a treasure trove of discovery.
Apples and Oranges
Much like people, animals or plants, whisky comes in many different types and flavours. You can read this as you like, and whatever your takeaway, that’s how we meant it. Naturally, different entities would taste different - after all, they are of differing quality, whether in origin or composition. There’s a handful of approaches to get to the bottom of the matter, we’ll start with geography.
Rules That Were Made to be Broken
Scotland remains one of the most important whisky regions, which is in and of itself home to numerous distinctive regions: Lowland, Highland, Speyside and island whiskies, with one island playing a particularly important role, namely the Western Hebridean island of Islay. The peat mecca is known around the world, whiskies such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Ardbeg are produced here. “Peated” refers to the barley, which Scotch whisky is usually made from. After the grain is germinated, on its way to becoming Malt, it’s not dried over an ordinary flame but over a peat fire - a fire made from dried briquettes of Scottish coastal mud. Namely, peat. The malted barley which is kilned over peat fires lends the whiskey its phenolic, smoky, often downright fatty, bacon flavor.
Whiskies from the Speyside region, i.e. the western coastal region of Scotland, are known for their very refined and elegant aroma. Not only geographically but also in terms of taste, they find themselves between the rather mild and floral Lowlands and the spicy, full-bodied Highland whiskies. Meanwhile, regions no longer adhere to their traditional flavor profiles, because brands love to confuse consumers. Peat flavors from Speyside? No problem with a Tomintoul Peaty Tang. Tropical fruit notes from Islay? Nothing easier with the Bunnahabhain distillery. The categorical classification of regional aroma spectrums are therefore to be understood as a set of rules that are repeatedly and passionately broken. But that's what rules are for.
Whisky: Boiled in the Barrel
When it comes to Irish whiskeys - note the "e" - there’s one thing in particular to remember. Apart from Connemara, virtually no distillery here peats, which is why the whiskeys are decidedly mild. Another reason for this is the multiple distillation process, which usually takes away the very strong edges of the whiskey. For the most part, the rest is the same as with Scotch whiskey: whiskeys are aged in oak barrels for three years and one day before they’re allowed to call themselves as such. The raw materials alone occasionally differ from those used in Scotland - and this brings us to a supra-regional classification: the single malt whisky. Worldwide, it enjoys the highest reputation and finds its home in Scotland, which is why the term Single Malt Scotch Whisky is often used. It means that the whisky is distilled in Scotland and comes from only one distillery.
Otherwise, it would be a blended whiskey, which are whiskies from different distilleries that a blend master of a brand has blended together. However, strictly speaking, every whisky is a blend if it is not a single cask bottling. This is because the year indicated on a bottle indicates the youngest liquid that it includes, and how long that was cask aged. For example: Glengoyne labeled as 12-year-old: this is blended, of course, from various barrels with 12-year-old whiskeys, but also with older whiskeys.
Whiskey is a natural product and develops differently over the years, depending on weather, humidity, and thousands of other factors, which we can’t even begin to name. Much like cooking: ingredients don’t always taste the same and so the chef must adjust accordingly. To a degree, most whiskies are blended, but if it happens within one distillery, it remains a single malt, if not, it becomes a blended whiskey.
Whisky in the Jar
Oh, but wait. Of course, it is only single malt if it also contains malt, which is usually malted barley, as is mostly used in Scotland. The so-called grain whiskeys are much more common in Ireland. In addition to malted barley, other grains such as wheat, unmalted barley or corn are also used in the pots .
But different countries would not have different customs if they did not also have different ingredients for products with the same name. So let's move on to American whiskey, which is usually a bourbon or a rye whisky. In the former case, it must be distilled with a minimum of 51% corn, and in the latter corn is replaced by rye. As any person who’s enjoyed a spoonful of corn straight from the tin knows, corn is significantly sweeter than most other grains, which is why bourbon is one of the more mild, sweet types of whisky. In addition, the Americans store their barrels for a much shorter time, often only around two years; this eliminates that corresponding wood aroma which often gives Scotch whiskeys their characteristic edge.
Ironically, the Scots like to use barrels in which bourbon was previously stored, which gives their whiskeys vanilla and caramel aromas. The USA is large and so is the variety of high-proof whiskeys - whose strongholds lay in Kentucky and Tennessee. An American straight whisky, which - as the equivalent of a single malt Scotch whiskey - must come from one and the same American distillery, is different from an American blended whiskey and a blended straight whiskey. The former is a blend of corn and rye whiskeys with grain spirit and is not widely available, the latter is a blend of different straight whiskeys. Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar!
Catcher in the Rye
It's a broad spectrum and don't we know it. What ultimately looks like a large ramification of categorical exceptions is in practice very simple: In the U.S., Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Evan Williams, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, and Wild Turkey are some of the big players. In Canada, those include Canadian Club, Crown Royal, and Black Velvet. Originally, Canadian whiskey consisted mainly of rye, but this was not checked for a long time, which is why mixtures of corn, rye, barley, and wheat malt, and sometimes even fruit wine have emerged. In the meantime, this can also be done differently, as shown by Lot No. 40, for example, with a whiskey distilled from one hundred percent rye.
Speaking of rye: in addition to all other manufacturing countries of whiskey, such as Japan, Germany, France, Sweden, Taiwan and the rest of the world, here’s a whiskey that is made from 100% rye. Spoiler: It’s from Finland.
And now we’ll see if we’ve managed to explain this correctly: because that whisky, Kyrö Malt Rye, is a combination of characteristics from quite different categories of whisky production. It’s spelled without an "e", because Scotland is clearly closer than the USA. And because rye is grown regionally, regionalities should be adhered to as well. However, rye is an American tradition, which is why our whisky has the nutty, resinous caramel notes that many American whiskeys do. Then it goes through a double pot distillation, much like in Scotland. And, of course, it's a malt rye because we use only malted rye. Doesn't exist, you say? And you’d be right. Kyrö has drawn from whisky traditions around the world, we found what we liked and what made sense to us. Let’s add another category of whisky to the canon: those who were founded and dreamed of in a sauna.