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What’s in a name? Is it whisky or whiskey?

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding whether the term should be whisky or whiskey and for good reason; it’s both! The difference comes from the two translations of the Irish and Scottish Gaelic forms. Scotland, Canada and the rest of world use ‘whisky’, whereas Ireland and America prefer ‘whiskey’. Irish settlers took ’whiskey’ to America in the 1700’s, where the term has been used ever since.

What is whisky?

Unlike brandy which is distilled from fermented fruit, whisky (or whiskey) is a spirit distilled from fermented cereals and then aged in wooden casks. There are several sub-categories to get to know, all offering a slightly different take on the theme thanks to variations in geography, water, types of still, peat levels, cask types and ageing time. Here are the classic styles you need to know about:

Scotch whisky: often referred to simply as ‘Scotch’, whisky can only use the term ‘Scotch’ if it has been distilled in pots in Scotland and matured in Scotland for at least three years. Made using malted barley and typically bottled to at least 40% abv, Scotch whisky sets the benchmark for all other whisky styles around the world.

Irish whiskey is usually lighter than Scotch because it’s distilled three times instead of twice. It also tends to be softer and fruitier in style. Canadian whisky is also light and particularly dry as it’s made with rye rather than malt. Japanese whisky tends to be the most similar in style and method to Scotch, though their distilleries can also produce other styles.

American whiskey can be made using several different grains, so they are quite different in style to Scotch whisky. Corn whiskies such as Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon are often sweet and woody for example, whereas American rye whiskey, such as the Woodinville straight rye whiskey, is more powerful and spicy. Some can also be a blend of some or all of these grains, as can be seen in the Woodinville straight Bourbon whiskey, which uses rye, corn and malted barley. Another rather quirky style of whisky to watch however is Indian whisky: produced with the addition of molasses, this style has a similar flavour profile to rum!

Wild and wonderful: the whisky regions of Scotland

There are four key regions producing Scottish whisky: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Campbeltown and the Island. Myriad styles are made in the Highlands, from floral and grassy to rich and complex. To test this, try the golden, brioche tones of Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or next to the intense and brooding Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, both from the Highlands’ most famous distillery: Glenmorangie. Lowland whiskies tend to be light in character and body, Campbeltown produces distinctive whiskies that are oily and saline but the knockout whiskies that pack a peaty punch come from the Island (including Islay). These world class whiskies are famously strong flavoured and smoky. Try the Ardbeg Uigeadail Islay whisky to experience the dramatic power of peat!

Single malt, grain or blend? What’s the difference?

Malt whisky refers to whisky purely made with malted barley and like a single wine estate, a ‘single malt’ will only come from one distillery. Grain whisky uses any other cereal, such as wheat, rye or corn. The vast majority of whiskies are ‘blended whiskies’, which means a blend of largely grain spirit with some malt whisky. A ‘vatted’ or ‘blended malt whisky’ however is a blend of two or more single malts. This style is quite rare however, making up barely 1% of the entire production of Scotch!