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5 of the most popular types of whisky and what makes them different from one another

Matt Hopkins

This article is sponsored by BWS in celebration of World Whisky Day. »

If you've ever been to a proper whisky bar, you'll know just how expansive the world of brown liquor can be. While most have probably heard of the main 'categories' of whiskey – particular variants, brands and batch combinations can make for an incredibly vast corpus of knowledge. For those new to the drink, getting started can seem daunting.

Before we delve into five popular types of whiskey, you should know the difference between the two spellings: whiskey and whisky. More than just its origin, the way whiskey is spelt can indicate the process that was used to distill it, along with the types of ingredients it contains.

Irish whiskey is traditionally spelt with an "e," which was also adopted by American whiskeys. Scottish whisky, however, drops the "e," which carries over to whiskies distilled in Japan, India and Canada. There are even theories about the deeper nature of these differences, many of which are quite complex.

If you're keen on getting started in the world of whisky/whiskey, here are five types you should know.

1. Scotch Whisky

Typically smokey and earthy in flavour, scotch whisky is made in Scotland using grain or malted barley, aged in oak casks for three years or more. There are even strict laws that dictate how the liquor must be distilled in the country, including its alcoholic content, minimum ageing requirements, labelling and more.

In other words, scotch can only be labelled as such if it's made in Scotland. The earliest ever evidence of whisky distillation dates back to Scotland in 1494.

2. Irish Whiskey

Made in Northern Ireland from yeast-fermented grain mash or a mash of malted cereals, Irish whiskey is often described as having a smooth finish when compared to scotch. It's distilled with water and caramel colouring and aged in wooden casks for at least three years.

While it's easy to sip neat (on its own) or on the rocks (with ice), Irish whiskey can be used in cocktails like the Irish Coffee, Irish Mule, Jameson Old Fashioned and more.

Ireland also holds the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery, Bushmills, which has been producing the liquor for over 400 years.

3. Rye Whiskey

With a spicier and slightly fruitier taste, rye whiskey is produced in North America with at least 51% rye — a grass which is part of the wheat family. Aged in charred barrels for two years or more, other ingredients involved in the process can include corn and barley.

Rye whiskey is often used in cocktails like Old Fashioneds.

4. Bourbon Whiskey

Another American whiskey, bourbon is made from at least 51% corn and aged in charred oak casks. Unlike many of its counterparts, bourbon does not require a minimum ageing period but must be bottled at 80 proof or more. In the US, the proof number is twice the alcoholic content of the product, so in this case, that's 40%.

Bourbon is sweeter than its counterparts, but also slightly smokey and reddish in colour thanks to the fermentation and charring of the casks.

5. Japanese Whisky

Japan came to the whisky game later than most regions, but that certainly doesn't detract from its product. In fact, Japanese distillers have made their mark with interesting takes on the western world's concept of what whisky is.

Japanese whisky is made using double malted or peated barley and aged in a wooden cask. It's described as drier and smokier than other whiskies but most similar to scotch as it uses similar distilling methods. It comes as single malts (made with one type of grain from a single distillery) or blends (mixed with other whiskies).

Where to start

If you're still not quite sure where to start, BWS has curated the Whisky Business pack, including four different 50ml bottles of whisky to celebrate World Whisky Day on Saturday May 16.

It includes Chivas Regal XV, a 15-year-old blended scotch whisky with notes of rich sultanas and just a touch of cinnamon. This one works well in a Gold Old Fashioned, enjoyed neat or over ice. The second bottle is Jim Beam Double Oak, twice-barrelled Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, featuring rich, woody flavours with a golden amber colour. It has notes of caramel and vanilla along with hints of toasted wood, giving it an intense toffee-like flavour punctuated with a spiced darkness. Best enjoyed neat or over ice.

Next up is The Glenlivet 12, a single malt scotch whisky aged for 12 years for a smooth, balanced and fruity finish. It's first matured in traditional oak before spending time in American oak casks, which is where its notes of vanilla are picked up. Lastly, there's Johnnie Walker Black, a blended scotch whisky aged for 12 years. Over a century of blending skills gives it a unique complexity and depth.

You can pick up the Whisky Business pack for $25 or $10 with any participating whisky. The perfect place to begin your journey.