5 World Whisky Categories you need to try (2020)
5 World Whisky Categories you need to try (2020)
Whisky is made out of three simple ingredients: water, yeast and cereals, which are then mashed, fermented, distilled and matured. However, history and developments across the industry have produced marked differences in styles across the main producing countries, where techniques and flavours reflect the local gastronomy, geography and culture.
Although nowadays the landscape of whisky flavours is ever so diverse and each distillery almost constitutes a world on its own, we can find some guidelines to orientate across 5 world whisky categories you need to try.
Whisky is Scotland’s flagship drink and the country is the main producer in the world, with over 130 distilleries on its territory.
Legally, Scotch whisky has to be produced from malted barley (with the optional addition of other grains) and matured in Scotland, aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years, with a minimum ABV of 40% and with no additives allowed other than water and caramel colouring.
Among the main categories of whisky, we can find Single Malt, made out of 100% malted barley from one single distillery (each of them producing a distinct and individual character). Mostly double distillation in copper pot stills is used, with few exceptions. We then have Single Grain, which allows the addition of other grains and unmalted barley and is generally distilled in column stills, adding a sweet and spicier character to the spirit. Then we have Blends such as Johnnie Walker, which are made with malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries, and are generally smoother and combined to be more palatable.
A flavour distinction can also be found between the different whisky regions in Scotland, although these have to be considered mainly as guidelines as each distillery has its peculiar character.
First, we have the Lowland whiskies, which are renowned for their light character and citrusy notes, whereas the spirit produced in the Highlands is quite variegated and normally range from dry and heathery to sweet and fruity, with occasional smoky hints. Within this region, whiskies from Speyside are a category on their own and tend to be mellow, fruity and malty. The peatiest whiskies are to be found on Islay, with a strong coastal influence. Last but not least is Campbeltown, which produces full-bodied, briney whiskies with vanilla hints.
The Emerald Isle is thought to be the birthplace of whiskey and it was one of the main producers on the scene until the late 19th century when the competitions against Scotch producers (who introduced the more palatable blends and started buying and closing the distilleries) left the country with only two operative distilleries: Old Bushmills in Northern Ireland and Midleton distillery (Home of Jameson).
However, since the late 80s, the Irish industry has been going from strength to strength and new distilleries have popped up and brought new life to traditional styles as well as embarking in new experimental techniques.
Generally, Irish whiskey is famous for its smooth, light and creamy character, which is mainly attributed to the use of triple distillation, but which has been made famous by brands such as Jameson and Tullamore Dew, (two popular blends).
However, another traditional Irish style is the Single Pot Still, which brings bolder flavours into play. Derivating its character from the use of unmalted barley (at least 30%) in the mash, this style has a spicier kick and an oily texture, of which Redbreast and Green Spot are good examples.
Finally, the new players on the scene, such as Teeling, are bringing new flavours to the Irish palette, with cask experimentations (wine, stout beer and wood variations), with attention to small-batch, grain and single malt production.
The second biggest whisky producer after Scotland, the United States is home to some of the most iconic brands in the industry.
Not unlike Irish whiskey, American drams are regarded as smooth and approachable tipples.
Although the flavour palette is very diverse and the local industry is lively with producers using a variety of techniques and experimentations, there are a few main styles that dominate the scene.
One of the biggest stars on the flag is undoubtedly Bourbon. This type of whiskey can be made anywhere in the country, but its origins are in Kentucky, which is still home to 95% of the total bourbon production. Its sweetness comes from the fact that it has to be made from a mash of at least 51% corn and has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels, giving it the characteristic creamy, vanilla notes and subtle spiciness. No additives are allowed. Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are among the most popular examples.
A cousin to bourbon is Tennessee Whiskey, such as Jack Daniel’s, which differs only in the state in which it’s produced and in the use of the Lincoln County Process, namely filtering the new make spirit through a thick layer of maple charcoal to get rid of unwanted flavour compounds and making it a clearer tipple.
Another popular style is Rye Whiskey, where the grain has to make at least 51% of the mash, giving the spirit a rich, full-bodied character with a spicy kick. A 51% wheat-based spirit is the base for Wheat Whiskey, a much softer and gentle tipple.
Stricter rules apply to whiskeys labelled as Straight: they have to spend at least two years in new charred oak casks and if less than four years old, the age must be displayed on the label. A variety of blends are also very popular among whiskey drinkers.
Canada has just recently made its comeback on the flourishing global whisky scene, but has a history of popularity dating back to prohibition and is now advancing with its local answers to the small batch movement.
Despite being commonly referred to as “rye”, the predominant grain used is corn. However, other grains such as rye, wheat and sometimes barley are often employed in the production.
The Canadian scene is unique in which it creates whisky through a method of building “blocks”: the vast majority of the local expressions are single distillery blends, where each grain variety is distilled and aged separately to be blended only at the end of the process.
A variety of stills and cask types are used, however, the more popular use of triple distillation, makes it a generally smooth spirit.
One of the most interesting peculiarities, however, is that the addition of “flavouring” is allowed, which usually consists of a small part (maximum 9%) of wine, sherry and spirits other than whisky.
Similarly to Scotch, and probably due to the more rigid climate, Canadian whisky has to be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years.
Despite being born less than a century ago, the whisky industry in Japan is now one of the most highly regarded in the world.
A story which started thanks to pioneers like Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii, who brought the knowledge of distilling from Scotland to Japan and established two of the biggest whisky companies in the country, respectively Nikka and Suntory.
For this reason, Japanese whisky has a lot in common with Scotch, however, its unique cultural background and the demand for fast pace production have shaped the industry and developed a specific character.
One major aspect is that each distillery has to rely on its own production as, unlike in Scotland, Japanese companies don’t trade in stock among each other. Because of this, distilleries in Japan are a chameleonic breed, and each one is equipped to produce a wide range of styles, from grains to malt, smoky to unpeated, using a variety of fermentation and distillation techniques.
The common thread in the flavour profiles of Japanese whisky can be found in a clear, light character, often presenting fragrant hints of incense, green grass and the peculiar spiciness from the mizunara casks (Japanese Oak), but distilleries such as Yoichi have a smoky, heavier and oily character, and high-quality blends such as Hibiki and Nikka from the barrel are highly praised.
These tasting notes lend themselves to make great mizuwari, a simple highball made mixing whisky with ice and water, which is one of the most popular ways of enjoying whisky in Japan.
Typical brands are Yamazaki, Yoichi, Chichibu.
Other corners of the world…
Especially in the last two decades, the industry has experienced a huge revival which has seen countries all over the world taking over the whisky scene and making their name known alongside the “traditional” whisky-making ones.
One of the most notable examples is Indian whisky. The biggest consumer of whisky worldwide, the country’s production has been traditionally dominated by spirit distilled from molasses but has seen its reputation as producer relaunched thanks to premium quality brands such as Amrut and Paul John.
In the Far East, one of the most exciting whisky scenes has to be found in Taiwan, where Kavalan Distillery has grown to be one of the most renowned names at whisky awards.
Another country experiencing a true boom on their whisky scene, is Australia, with distilleries taking over in the south and particularly in Tasmania. The whisky here is strong in vanilla, apple and woody flavours. Lark and Sullivans Cove lead the revolution.
Going back North, honourable mention has to go to Sweden, where distilleries such as Mackmyra, Hven and Box are bringing the northern flavours (such as whisky matured in ex-lingonberry wine casks) to the world of whisky.
This list is far from exhaustive, as incredible projects are being developed in all corners of this planet (South Africa, France, Argentina, and many more) and as the whisky world expands, new productions are surging in climates and latitudes that are very different from the historical lands of whisky, hence bringing their unique flavours to the game. One thing is sure: these thriving developments make it an exciting time to travel around the world of whisky.
Finally, fancy learning more about whisky and explore this fascinating industry even further? Check out our blog post about How to taste whisky at home? We believe it is an educational experiment you would love to put into practice.
Author Federica Stefani Whisky Writer & Jornalist