Whiskey or whisky is a distilled liquor made from fermented grain, rye or barley.
While distillation was known in Medieval Europe, Imperial China and the Islamic Golden Age, the beverage as we know it has its origin in Scotland (where it is spelled whisky) and Ireland (where it is spelled whiskey). The beverage is called uisce beatha in Irish and uisge-beatha in Scottish Gaelic, translated as "water of life".
Whiskey-making has spread around the world with the Scottish and Irish diasporas. Today, many countries around the world have some whisky production at different quality levels, with the United States of America in particular having developed its own unique and celebrated styles.
|“||Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.||”|
—Attributed to Mark Twain
There are two spellings used for different varieties for the drink; the spelling "whisky" is used in Scotland, while the spelling "whiskey" is used on the island of Ireland. The choice of spelling in other countries is generally, though not always, dependent on whether their variant of the drink is derived from Scotch or Irish whiskey, so the spelling "whisky" is predominant in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, England and Wales, while the spelling "whiskey" is predominant in the United States. This is however not universal, and outside Scotland and Ireland, you'll often see both spellings being used interchangeably.
Whiskey can be made from several ingredients, and is named for the largest or sole ingredient.
- Malt whiskey is made from 100% malted barley, and distilled in a pot still (as opposed to a Coffey still). Scotch whiskies are usually malt whiskies. A "single malt" has only malt whisky from one distillery, while a "blended malt" mixes malt whiskies from different distilleries.
- Pot still whiskey is made from a blend of at least 30% malted and at least 30% unmalted barley, and distilled in a pot still. Most Irish whiskeys are pot still whiskeys.
- Whiskey made from less than 100% barley (but more than 50%) is grain whiskey. Scottish blended whiskies contain a mixture of grain and malt whisky.
- Rye is made from rye. In "rye malt whiskey" the rye is malted before brewing. In Canada, "rye whisky" often contains little to no rye; it is named such because historically, Canadian distilleries had added a small amount of rye to their corn whiskies in order to enhance the flavour.
- Corn can be used to make unaged "corn whiskey", but most whiskey made from corn is aged to meet the requirements of becoming bourbon.
- Wheat can also be used to make wheat whiskey, which is common in German whiskies.
The names of the type of whiskey often indicates the location where it is produced, and this geographic indication is often protected by law.
- Scotch whisky is required to be made in Scotland, and aged in oak barrels for at least three years.
- Irish whiskey is required to be made in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, and aged in wooden barrels for at least three years.
- Bourbon whiskey must be made in the United States of America (most famously in Kentucky, though this is not a legal requirement), use at least 51% corn mash, and be aged in new charred oak barrels. Anything labelled straight bourbon has to be aged for at least two years, and any bourbon that has been aged for less than four years is required to have an age statement on its bottle.
- Tennessee whiskey meets the legal requirements for bourbon whiskey, but can only be made in the state of Tennessee, and must go through a filtration process through maple charcoal.
Ireland (which for the purposes of this article encompasses both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) has a long tradition of whiskey and had 18 distilleries in 2017, and some distilleries offer tours. Irish Whiskey 360° is a web-site run by the Irish Whiskey Association with a list of distilleries you can visit.
- 1 Jameson Distillery Bow St., Dublin. The original distillery for Jameson, perhaps the most famous brand of Irish whiskey internationally, which closed down in 1971. The buildings have been preserved by the company as a tourist attraction, with a visitors' centre and tutored whiskey tastings for visitors
- 2 Jameson Distillery Midleton, Midleton, County Cork. The current distillery for Jameson, as well as several other brands of Irish whiskeys. One of the most modern distilleries in the world.
- 3 Old Bushmills Distillery, Bushmills, County Antrim. Flagship distillery for Bushmills, the most famous brand of whiskey from Northern Ireland.
Scotland has a long tradition of distilling whisky. In 2017 there were 126 whisky distilleries. Most of these produce malt whisky, but there are a few larger distilleries producing grain whisky which is used to make blended whisky. Nearly half of the malt distilleries offer tours for a fee which usually includes a sample or two. See The Land of Whisky, a free e-book published by Scottish tourism organisation, for a list of all distilleries in Scotland.
- The Isle of 4 Islay in the Inner Hebrides has 9 distilleries. Islay whiskies have a distinctive peat smoke taste, which is most pronounced in Laphroaig. Neighbouring Isle of Jura has one distillery.
- The Malt Whisky Trail is an itinerary encompassing nine malt whisky distilleries in Speyside, including the 5 Cardhu Distillery, which makes one of the key components of the famed Johnnie Walker blend, and 6 Strathisla Distillery, which makes one of the key components of the famed Chivas Regal blend. Both of these distilleries also produce their own single malt whiskies that you can buy at the distillery.
- 1 Dallas Dhu distillery museum, Forres. Museum in a distillery which operated between 1899 and 1983. The Benromach Distillery is nearby, producing a classic Speyside whisky.
- 7 Campbeltown. A small west coast town which at one time had 30 distilleries, of which 3 remain, all offering tours: Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia.
- 8 Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain. This distillery produces 6 million litres of Scotch whisky per year, sold as single malt and not blended. This is a smooth highland malt.
Whisky is an important part of the Burns Night (25 Jan) supper, as it is traditionally the drink used to toast the haggis at the end of the "Address to a Haggis" recital and before the main course. Numerous other toasts follow dessert: to the "lassies", to the "laddies", and to the "immortal memory of Robert Burns".
There are around a dozen distilleries producing whisky in England. All of these started production in the 21st century after about a century of no production in England.
Similar to England, Wales was historically a whisky-producing country, but the industry was long dead by the time 9 Penderyn set up shop in a village on the edge of the Brecon Beacons in 2004. Their range of Welsh-themed single-malts has taken the international scene by storm, bagging dozens of awards. The distillery offers tours and tasting masterclasses.
The most common distilled drinks in the Nordic countries have been brännvin, plain or seasoned vodka. Whisky production has taken off only in the 21st century, with a few high-end brands.
- 10 Mackmyra Whiskyby (Whiskey Village) (Valbo, Gävle). Mackmyra is a distillery that introduced the first Swedish whiskey in 1999, now with branches across the country. The distillery offers weekly tours with tasting sessions, book via email. Also a restaurant.
- See also: Kentucky bourbon distilleries tours
The United States is famous for bourbon whiskey, which is most famously produced in the state of Kentucky. The other famous style of American whiskey is Tennessee whiskey, which while not usually called bourbon, meets the legal requirements for bourbon whiskey, albeit with the additional requirements that it be filtered through maple charcoal after distillation but prior to aging, and that it be made in the state of Tennessee. There are also excellent ryes distilled in the U.S., often by the same companies that make bourbon, but not all of the famous ryes are produced in Kentucky (for example, Templeton Reserve rye is produced in Iowa, and there are a number of fine ryes from New York State). See Bourbon Country and Tennessee Whiskey Trail for suggested itineraries of distilleries you can visit.
- 11 Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky. One of the oldest continuously running distilleries in the USA. Besides their flagship Buffalo Trace whiskey, the site also distills and bottles other famous brands such as Blanton's, W. L. Weller, Old Rip Van Winkle and the rare and highly sought after Pappy Van Winkle.
- 12 Jim Beam American Stillhouse, Clermont, Kentucky. Main distillery of Jim Beam, one of the most famous and best selling brands of bourbon whiskey internationally.
- 13 Jack Daniels distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee. Main distillery of Jack Daniel's, the most famous brand of Tennessee whiskey internationally, and the top selling brand of American whiskey in the world.
- 14 George Dickel distillery, Cascade Hollow, Tennessee. Main distillery of George Dickel, the second most famous brand of Tennessee whiskey internationally after Jack Daniel's.
Canadian whiskies were traditionally considered to be cheap knockoffs of American whiskeys, but this has begun to change in the 21st century, with numerous boutique distilleries producing good quality whiskies having sprung up. Commercial whisky production in Canada is concentrated in the provinces of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec, though you can also find some boutique distilleries in the other provinces. Like American whiskeys, Canadian whiskies are primarily made from corn, though a small amount of rye is often added to the mash to enhance the flavour; Canadian whiskies are thus often called "rye whiskies", even though they typically contain little to no rye.
- 15 Forty Creek Distillery, Grimsby, Ontario. One of Canada's best known whisky brands.
- 16 Hiram Walker Distillery, Windsor, Ontario. Owned by Canadian whisky giant Corby, it is here that the award-winning Northern Border Collection is made. Canadian Club, perhaps the most famous Canadian whisky brand, is also made here.
Australian whiskies were traditionally overpriced knockoffs of poor quality Scotch whiskies, but this has changed in the 21st century, with the country now producing several high-quality single malt whiskies, some of which have won prestigious international awards. Due to it having a similar climate to Scotland, the Australian whisky distilling industry is concentrated in the state of Tasmania, though there is also significant production in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, and much smaller-scale production elsewhere. Australia does not have any large-scale commercial whisky distilleries, the last ones having closed by 1980, so the production of Australian whisky is done exclusively by small boutique distilleries. See The Tasmanian Whisky Trail for a suggested itineraries and a list of all distilleries in Tasmania.
- 17 Sullivans Cove Distillery, Cambridge, Tasmania. The distillery that put Australian whisky on the world map by winning the prestigious Best Single Malt Whisky title at the World Whiskies Awards in 2014, making it the first distillery outside Scotland or Japan to do so.
- 18 Lark Distillery, Hobart, Tasmania. Distillery founded in 1992 by Bill Lark, who is widely regarded as the father of Australian single malt craft whisky, having successful lobbied the Tasmanian state government to repeal a law banning whisky distillation that had been in place since 1838. His distillery has since gone on to win prestigious international awards, and Bill Lark himself was inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame in 2015, making him the first person from the southern hemisphere, and only the seventh person not from Scotland or Ireland, to be bestowed this honour.
Whisky was first imported to Japan from the West in 1870 following the Meiji Restoration. The art of whisky distillation would be introduced to Japan by Masataka Taketsuru, who had spent several years in Scotland as an apprentice learning it, in the 1920s. As a result, Japanese whiskies are generally based on Scotch whiskies, but over the years have evolved in their own unique directions.
- 19 Yamazaki distillery, Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture. Japan's first commercial whisky distillery, opened in 1927, and owned by one of Japan's two whisky-producing giants Suntory.
- 20 Yoichi distillery, Yoichi, Hokkaido. Owned by Nikka, the second of Japan's two whisky-producing giants. Nikka was founded by Mastaka Taketsuru in 1934 after he left Kotobukiya (today known as Suntory) to set up his own company.
Taiwan is a relative newcomer to the whisky scene, having only opened its first distilleries in 2002, but its reputation has grown explosively, with several Taiwanese whiskies having picked up prestigious international awards. Taiwanese whiskies are primarily based on Scotch whiskies, due to the popularity of Scotch in Taiwan, but because they are not constrained by tradition like Scotch, Irish and Bourbon whiskies, Taiwanese distilleries have been able to push the boundaries in innovation.
- 21 Kavalan distillery, Yuanshan, Yilan County. Taiwan's largest whisky distillery. It has won several prestigious international awards, including the Best Single Malt Whisky award at the World Whiskies Awards in 2015, making it only the second distillery outside Scotland or Japan to do so. Due to Taiwan's subtropical climate, whisky matures more quickly in Taiwan than in Scotland, Ireland or Japan, thus giving Taiwanese whisky a unique character with tropical notes.
As a former British colony, New Zealand has a long history of whisky production, but this came to an end in 1997 with the closure of the Willowbank Distillery, and its stills were dismantled and shipped to Fiji for rum distillation in 2000. However, the industry was revived in the 2010s, and New Zealand is now home to two active distilleries.
- 22 Cardrona Distillery, Wanaka. Located in New Zealand's Southern Alps, its whiskies have won numerous awards, including "New Zealand best single malt".