To start, it’s important to know the key features that define the category. Whiskies are always made from distilled fermented grain and must be aged in oak containers. Drilling down into specific categories and you’ll see that some whiskies are a blend of corn, rye and other grains, while others are made exclusively from barley. Furthermore, the type of aging vessel can vary from brand-new and freshly charred barrels that impart strong flavors to the spirits, to many-times-recycled used oak vessels that let the underlying flavors of the spirit shine through.
The main whiskey producing regions of the world are North America, Ireland, Scotland and Japan, but you can find whiskey from almost anywhere these days: Australia, Taiwan and even South Africa has an award-winning distillery. North American whiskies, in general, tend to be made predominantly from grains like corn, rye and wheat, while whiskies from Japan, Ireland and Scotland are mostly barley-based. A language note: Ireland and the United States use the spelling “whiskey,” while Japan, Scotland and Canada call it “whisky.” For the sake of simplicity, this article will use the spelling “whiskey” when referring to the overall category, while respecting the “e”-less spelling for those countries that have that tradition.
In addition to being diverse, whiskey is also an extremely versatile spirit. Whiskey is the base for iconic and primordial cocktails such as the whiskey sour, highball and old fashioned, but most whiskies can serve as a standalone beverage, served “neat” without any additions or with a splash of water or ice.