What is Whisky?

Whisky or whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains are used for different varieties, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat.

Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak. Whisky is a spirit that has been around for over 600 years. Made all over the world—the variations in flavor and blend represent the unique regional distilling processes. Whisky is one of the most popular spirits—with so many variations there is something for everyone. Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wooden barrels.

Brief History

It is possible that distillation was practiced by the Babylonians in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BC, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled, but this is subject to uncertain and disputed interpretation of evidence.

The earliest certain chemical distillations were by Greeks in Alexandria in the 1st century AD, but these were not distillations of alcohol. The medieval Arabs adopted the distillation technique of the Alexandrian Greeks, and written records in Arabic begin in the 9th century, but again these were not distillations of alcohol. Distilling technology passed from the medieval Arabs to the medieval Latins, with the earliest records in Latin in the early 12th century. The earliest records of the distillation of alcohol are in Italy in the 13th century, where alcohol was distilled from wine. An early description of the technique was given by Ramon Llull (1232–1315). Its use spread through medieval monasteries, largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic and smallpox.

The art of distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century, as did the common European practice of distilling ‘Aqua Vitae’ or spirit alcohol primarily for medicinal purposes.

The practice of medicinal distillation eventually passed from a monastic setting to the secular via professional medical practitioners of the time, The Guild of Surgeon Barbers. The first confirmed written record of whisky in Ireland comes from 1405, in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae”, enough to make about 500 bottles.

Where Whisky Comes From

Whisky is made all over the world with significant distilleries in more than 20 countries.

Whisky comes from all over the world, including but not limited to regions in Scotland; Ireland; Canada; and in the US – Kentucky and Tennessee. Each region has its own distillation method. Elements like peat smoke, barrel type, aging length, climate and grain all combine to create unique flavor elements.


There are three main ingredients: grain, yeast, and water.

There could also be many additions—including peat smoke. The ingredients are simple but the various regional distillation processes gives each variety a signature flavor.

Types of Whisky

Whisky is one of the most popular spirits – with all the flavor choices and unique blends there is something for everyone.

American Whiskey

American Whiskey is made in the United States from a fermented mash of cereal grains. There are many variations in flavor due to the ingredients and distillation processes—for example, American corn whiskey does not have to be aged at all.

Here are some key differences

  • Flavor Notes Wide range but usually light and sweet
  • Region United States
  • Ingredients Cereal grain mash
  • Process Process varies but most are aged in charred new oak barrels

  • Flavor Notes Oak, vanilla and spice
  • Region United States
  • Ingredients Mash made from at least 51% corn
  • Process Matured in a new charred oak barrel

  • Flavor Notes Vanilla, pepper and coconut
  • Region United States
  • Ingredients Mash made from at least 51% rye in the U.S.
  • Process Matured in a new charred oak barrel

  • Flavor Notes Wide range but usually light and sweet
  • Region Canada
  • Ingredients Corn and grain
  • Process Minimum of 3 years maturation

  • Flavor Notes Wide range from maple to chocolate
  • Region Varies
  • Ingredients Dependent on the flavor
  • Process The process greatly varies

  • Flavor Notes Fruits, spice and vanilla
  • Region Scotland
  • Ingredients Malted barley
  • Process Minimum of 3 years maturation