What is whisky made from? It’s an important question because it’s more than an issue of taste alone; it can also be a legal issue (boo lawyers!).
The core ingredients of whisky are water, yeast and a cereal grain. Water often comes from a natural spring, but it doesn’t have to. The yeast can be a brewer’s or a distiller’s yeast. And sometimes both. There aren’t any rules about using specific strains of yeast. The grains are the exciting part.
The types of grains used impacts both the flavour and what you call the end product. All Scotch is whisky, but not all whisky is Scotch. All bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon. You get the idea.
There are loads of rules about whisky. For example, Scotch must mature in oak for at least three years, and bourbon has to age in new, charred oak barrels. For this blog, I want to focus on what whisky is made from, specifically the grains used. We have other blogs that go into more detail about the rules for whiskies in different countries. Check those out if you want to learn more.
For now, let’s focus on the grain.
Single malt is made from 100% malted barley. The barley doesn’t need to be from Scotland. Some of the distilleries that use Scottish barley make it a point of pride. Other distilleries might use a combination of Scottish and non-Scottish barley. Also, only a handful of distilleries still malt their own barley on site. Springbank, for example, does all their production on-site; from grain to glass.
Single malt whisky comes from malted barley made at a single distillery and made in a swan-neck pot still. It can come from different types of casks, even with different ages. When it comes to the grain in the whisky, what matters is that the whisky was made from malted barley and was all distilled at the same distillery.
Blended malt is made from 100% malted barley with whiskies from different distilleries (2 or more).
Like single malt, single grain comes from one distillery. While single malt whisky must be 100% malted barley, single grain whisky can be made from any cereal grain. In Scotland, this includes small amounts of malted barley in combination with another grain.
Blended grain is made from single grain whiskies from different distilleries (2 or more). Read more about how grain whisky is made here.
Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn. The rest of the bourbon typically contains only 2 other grains. These are usually any combination of rye, barley or wheat. These grains will be blended together before mashing, and a distillery’s recipe is called a mashbill.
You might be asking yourself: when can a bourbon become a corn whisky? That magic happens at 80% corn. A whisky that is 79% corn is still a bourbon.
Now, having read about bourbon, you can guess what I’m going to say about rye. Rye is at least 51% rye. Like bourbon, the other 49% is any combination of other grains.
Single pot still is made from both malted and un-malted barley. This is different from a single malt. The inclusion of some un-malted barley gives Irish whisky its spicy character. The un-malted barley also differentiates it from single malt scotch.
Canadian whisky is interesting, not only for the proportions of grains used, but how those grains are brought together. In other countries, they mix their grains before distillation. Not in Canada. In Canada, they distil pure whiskies, i.e. 100% rye, 100% corn, 100% malt. Then, they mix them together. This is external blending, and it’s common in Canada. Also, fun fact: Canadian whisky is often referred to simply as “rye”, but technically it doesn’t have to contain any rye grain at all, even if it says rye on the label!
Whisky is made from water, yeast and grains. The specific grains contribute to a whisky’s flavour. One of the best ways to experience what impact different grains have is to try lots of them. Luckily, we’ve got your covered. Every month, our members have whiskies delivered to their doors. If you want to try six different whiskies every month, you should join the team.
Warmest whisky wishes,
Chris (Founder, The Dram Team)
P.S. I write to our members a few times a month, and I try to make the emails interesting for any whisky fan. You can get those emails by signing up here.
P.P.S. Please don’t forget to confirm your registration to our email newsletter, and to whitelist my email, so it doesn’t get lost 🙂
Have you ever wondered why so many whiskies are called glen-something? It’s worth a read!