What Is Whiskey? A Beginner’s Guide

What is whiskey, anyway? Here, we dive deep into what makes whiskey unique, the various types of whiskey available and how the spirit is best enjoyed.

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The story of whiskey isn’t quite as old as time, but it’s a legendary distilled spirit that’s been produced for hundreds of years. It’s made in a variety of regions around the world, and each supplies its own special something—the smooth sweetness of bourbon, the briny smoke of Scotch and everything in between.

There’s a lot to it, though, and it’s not always easy to know where to start if you’re just getting into whiskey. Or where to go next if you consider yourself a seasoned whiskey fan, for that matter. That’s why we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide on whiskey basics, covering everything from what makes whiskey whiskey to the best way to drink your favorite whiskey style. When you’re ready to order a bottle, check out Gopuff’s whiskey selection.

What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is a spirit that can be distilled from a variety of grains, including barley, corn, rye and wheat. It’s usually aged in wood barrels (sometimes called casks, and often made of oak) and generally has an ABV of at least 40%. The spirit is produced in a wide variety of styles (popular examples include Irish whiskey, Scotch and bourbon), so there’s no single flavor associated with whiskey as a whole.

Different regions regulate whiskey production differently, so the legal definition of whiskey can change depending on where you are (more on this later). Specific styles produced within larger regions—like Tennessee whiskey—are often held to specific standards, too.

Origins of Whiskey

It’s not precisely clear where or when the production of whiskey began, but most experts agree that it kicked off many centuries ago in either Scotland or Ireland. The spirit has been mentioned in historical records dating as far back as the 15th century, which referred to the spirit as aqua vitae—Latin for “water of life.”  In fact, the term “whiskey” is derived from “uisge beatha,” a Gaelic phrase with the same translation.

How is whiskey made Gopuff infographic with steps for prep, mashing, fermentation, distillation, aging & bottling

How Is Whiskey Made?

While there are several styles of whiskey, most stick to the same basic production process. There are quite a few little changes that can impact the finished product, however, which explains why the global whiskey industry is so diverse.

Malting

Whiskey begins with plain old grain—which, as mentioned earlier, may be barley, corn, rye or wheat, depending on the whiskey style.

With malt whiskey, production starts with the malting of the grain. Malting involves soaking the grain in water in order to cause germination, which means the grain starts to sprout. Once germination begins, the grain is then dried with heat before it’s ground up. Not all whiskeys are malt whiskeys, however, so in those cases, the grain is ground up right off the bat.

Mashing

Once it’s ground, the grain is mixed with hot water and stirred in order to extract its sugars, which will eventually be converted to alcohol. This creates a thick material known as wort.

Fermentation

Next, yeast is added to the wort, which is what actually converts the sugars produced during the mashing process into alcohol. This leads to the creation of yet another new substance, known as wash or distiller’s beer.

Distillation

Distillation is essentially a purification process that separates the alcohol from the other materials in the wash. This is done using stills (large metal containers outfitted with heating devices), which heat the wash until the alcohol evaporates. That alcohol is collected and then boiled over again until it reaches the appropriate purity and alcohol content.

Aging

After distillation, whiskey is ready for maturation. Certain types of whiskey must be aged longer than others, and some governing bodies require whiskies to be aged in specific types of casks, which can directly impact flavor (bourbon, for example, must be aged in charred oak barrels, which supply smooth notes of brown sugar and toffee).

More time spent aging generally results in a more expensive and less sweet finished product. 

Bottling

After it’s finished aging, whiskey is bottled with an ABV of at least 40%. Most big-name whiskies are bottled using a combination of several barrels, though some (typically smaller-batch whiskies labeled as single cask or single barrel whiskies) come from just one. 

Another common bottling term, single malt, refers to whiskies produced entirely at a single distillery. Whiskies that aren’t labeled “single malt” may blend whiskies produced at a variety of distilleries, even if they’re branded under a single distillery’s name.

Types of Whiskey

To better understand what type of whiskey you like, it helps to learn about whiskey types by region, as the industry often categorizes the spirit this way. Take American whiskey for example—grain type or specific regions define this diverse whiskey market. Distillers in Tennessee are the only producers of Tennessee whiskey, while bourbon whiskey is typically attributed to Kentucky distillers. Some whiskey types are stricter about production than others too, which helps characterize the different whiskey styles. Irish whiskey, one of the original whiskey producers, has strict requirements about aging, grains and additives, while Japanese whisky is diverse but doesn’t have the same short-list of requirements as Irish whiskey.

The types of whiskey include: 

  • American whiskey—which includes the following 6 types;
    • Bourbon whiskey
    • Corn whiskey
    • Malt whiskey
    • Rye whiskey
    • Tennessee whiskey
    • Wheat whiskey
  • Canadian whisky
  • Irish whiskey
  • Japanese whisky
  • Scotch whisky

How to Drink Whiskey

Think you’ve discovered a whiskey that might strike your fancy? Great work! Now you have to decide how you’re going to drink it (we dig even deeper on how to taste whiskey here).

You have several options, and the route you go will probably depend on your tolerance of typical whiskey flavors (which can be too much for some people, especially when served neat) and the type of whiskey you’re drinking. 

  • Neat: Just the alcohol; no ice or water. Drinking neat is typically considered the right way to go when it comes to higher-quality whiskey, since you’re getting only the whiskey’s intended flavor. 
  • With water: Adding a few drops of water is a great way to make whiskey a bit less intimidating while preserving more original flavor than you’d get if you added ice.
  • On the rocks: Though many whiskey enthusiasts consider drinking whiskey on the rocks blasphemous, it’s a useful route if you’re still new to the scene. Just keep in mind that it will dull the flavor of the alcohol quite a bit.
  • In a cocktail: Some whisky styles (like bourbon) mix better than others (like Scotch), but whichever your preference, there’s likely a whiskey cocktail or two that’ll strike your fancy. Popular examples include the whiskey sour, the Manhattan and the old fashioned—we’ll discuss these further in a moment.

Popular Whiskey Cocktails

Prefer to experience whiskey while its flavors are tempered by mixers? Try a delicious whiskey cocktail instead. Most of these mixed drinks incorporate enough additional ingredients that the harshest parts of the whiskey are masked without smothering its flavor completely.

Though certain types of whiskey—like Scotch whisky—mix less well than others, there’s an impressive variety of cocktails that can help this harsh spirit go down a lot easier.

  • Whiskey sour: Bourbon, lemon juice and simple syrup garnished with an orange wheel and a cherry.
  • Old fashioned: Muddle sugar with bitters and water. Add whiskey, then garnish with an orange wheel and a cherry.
  • Sazerac: Sazerac rye whiskey with bitters and a sugar cube in an absinthe-coated glass.
  • Manhattan: Bourbon, vermouth and bitters, garnished with a cherry.
  • Rob Roy: Like a Manhattan, but made with Scotch.
  • Rusty nail: Scotch, Drambuie, ice. That’s it.
  • Hot toddy: Hot water with whiskey, honey and lemon juice. Because some like it hot.
  • Lynchburg Lemonade: Jack Daniel’s whiskey with lemon juice (or sour mix) and lemon-lime soda. Garnish with a lemon wedge.
  • Whiskey highball: Ice, whiskey, club soda. Easy peasy.
  • Mint julep: Bourbon with mint leaves and simple syrup, garnished with more mint. Kentucky Derby wager optional.

Get Whiskey Delivered to Your Door

If you think you’re ready to jump into the world of whiskey, Gopuff is here to help. We’re fully stocked with the whiskies you love—including Scotch, bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and more, all ready for delivery in minutes. 

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