An Interactive Visual Guide to Whiskey

Flavor Profile: Smoky

Known for smokiness, Islay whiskies have a pungent medicinal tang stemming from sea salt infused peat moss employed to dry the barley malt.

Common Islay Scotches

common islay scotches

Flavor Profile: Sweet

Known for a smooth, fruity finish due to the fresh water used for distillation. Considered by some to be the most elegant of the country’s whiskies, the Speyside has more distilleries than any of the other regions.

Common Speyside Scotches

speyside scotches

Flavor Profile:
Relative sweetness & simplicity

Only three true distilleries remain in the region, but they produce whiskies with a light body, relative sweetness, and a dash of flavor.

Common Lowland Scotches

common lowland scotches

Flavor Profile: Medium-bodied

Highland Scotches vary in character, and can include the peaty smoke of an Islay or the smoothness of a Speyside. Generally they’re considered to be medium-bodied and aromatic, with a range of tasting notes from complex to delicate.

Common Highland Scotches

common highland scotches

Flavor Profile: Complex

Scotch may be the largest category of whisky in terms of variations based on process, ingredients, and region. Scotland has more distilleries than any other country. While a common assumption is that Scotch is ‘smoky’, only a handful are. This is a remnant of the malting process, where smoke from burning peat is used to dry the barley, today it’s an optional flavor enhancer.

“Single malts” must be matured in Scotland for at least 3 years in oak barrels, and are produced at a single distillery, using only malted barley as grain, distilled in copper pot stills. This causes them to be more expensive and individualistic. “Blended scotches” are more mellow, easier to drink, but more difficult to make. Blend masters receive whisky from all over Scotland and must create a mixture that tastes consistent with what was produced the year before, even though the ingredients have changed. The blending smoothes out the rough edges and fills in gaps that are present in a single malt. Both varieties can be delicious for different reasons.

Common Blended Scotches

common blended scotch whiskies

Flavor Profile: Woody & Sweet

Bourbon was invented by Elijah Craig from Bourbon County, Kentucky around 1789. By law, it must be made in the US (though 99% of it is made in Kentucky), be 51% from corn (most are 70-80%) and the remaining ingredients are rye and malted barley. The corn in bourbon makes it sweeter than rye. The inclusion of rye is what gives bourbon its spiced flavor.

Recommended Starters

common bourbon whiskey

Flavor Profile: Light

A lighter, sweeter style, Canadian Whisky (no ‘e’) is easy to drink even in the warmer months. Because of this, Canadian Whisky blends well with mixers. One aspect to the whisky of the north: Consistency. A decades old bottle should taste the same as a new one.

As far as liquors go, Canadian whisky is pretty unrestricted. Canadian law allows Canadian whisky to be called Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky, or Rye Whisky, even though there is a greater percentage of corn in the mixture and only a small bit of rye.

Common Canadian Whiskies

common canadian whisky brands

Flavor Profile: Sweet & Smoky

Tennessee whiskey is made just like bourbon, but with one extra key step known as the “Lincoln County Process”. Before being put in charred oak barrels for aging, it is poured over sugar maple charcoal. The result is mellower, gently sweeter, and smoky. Due to a state institued prohibition that outlasted the national prohibition, only a small number of distilleries have survived.

Common Tennesee Whiskies

common types of tennessee whiskey

Flavor Profile: Dry & Fruity

It is believed that missionary monks began distilling an aqueous ethanol solution for medical compounds when arriving in Ireland in the 7th century. Likely fruit-based in the beginning, by the mid-1500′s the use of barley was common and whiskey was born. From there, the spirit made its way to Scotland and around the world.

While the malt used in producing scotch was dried with burning peat, the malt in Irish whiskey was dried in kilns, resulting in a smooth, light spirit that’s easy on the palate. Once the most common whiskey in the world, now only 3 distilleries remain.

Common Irish Whiskies

common irish whiskies

Flavor Profile: Mellow & Nutty

In a wheated bourbon, rye is replaced by wheat. The result is a sweeter whiskey. Maker’s Mark is the most ubiquitous of this variety.

wheated bourbon

Flavor Profile: Spice & Smoky

American rye can be made anywhere in the US. It is made of a 51% rye mash mixture, versus corn for bourbon or wheat for wheated bourbons, and is noticeably spicier than bourbon. George Washington produced rye at Mount Vernon, and it was the most common whiskey of the northeastern states, but died out after prohibition. It’s seen a revival in recent years. When used in a cocktail instead of bourbon, the result is drier.

Recommended Ryes

recommended rye whisky

Andrew is the founder and editor of Primer. He's a graduate of American University and currently lives in Los Angeles. Read more about Primer on our About page.

  • Brandon

    Good article,

  • Brandon

    Ugh, as I was saying: Good article, I just started getting in to Whiskey/ Whisky. Bought my first bottle of scotch, Glenmorangie 10 year which I kept reading is a good beginner scotch. It is still a little tough to get past the taste. I add a few drops of water to try and dilute it but I am still not getting a taste for it. However I have been recently drinking Bourban which I think I like more than Scotch at the moment. You should also do an article on sipping rums (I.E. not Captain Morgans or Sailor Jerry that you mix with coke). I just got some Pyrat (made by the guys who make Patron) and it is awesome to sip on straight and is perfect for the summer.

    • Kory Leach

      Mount Gay and Appleton Estate are nice sipping rums too. But as big names, they should be.

    • Adam Klein

      If you’re enjoying bourbon more than Glenmorangie 10 (which I feel is a pretty bad scotch to start with), I’d definitely recommend trying Old Pulteney 12 next time you’re ready to buy a bottle of scotch. It’s on the cheaper side of single malts, and is a lot more appealing to me than the harsh alcohol taste of Glenmorangie 10.

  • Houston

    Step 4 isn’t entirely accurate. Bourbon doesn’t have a minimum aging requirement.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Yeah, you’re right. I was attempting to average the various styles, but bourbon can be sold after just 3 months. “Straight bourbon” does have to be aged for a minimum of 2 years.

  • Jack

    This is an awesome article

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Thanks, glad you liked it!

  • Jim

    Very good article, though I would add one thing of note. While distilleries tend to have a certain style that they try to maintain throughout, almost all them have a varied selection of whiskies each with their own unique flavor. Laphroaig is known for smokiness and peat, and has bottles ranging from smoked like smoked salmon to smokier than the Great Chicago Fire. Some may only have a couple, whereas others may have dozens of different bottlings each year, and in fact some distilleries make whiskies for several brands and may try to offer even more variety as a result. The Old Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Ireland, for example, makes whiskey for Jameson, Powers, Midleton, Red Breast, Paddy, Green Spot, and Tullamore Dew which all have their own very distinct styles.

  • Butch_Zee

    What about Japan?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Had to limit it somewhere, plenty of others too, Indian (they consumer more whisky than the rest of the world combined), Finnish, German, etc.

  • Perry

    As a bourbon and scotch drinker, Buffalo Trace is a great starter bourbon. The palette is mostly corn with some rye spice, particularly in the finish. A great bourbon to use as a baseline comparison. Scotch is trickier as the regions can vary so greatly. Check out ralfy on YouTube.

    Remember to sip and enjoy. A little filtered water is okay, even recommended as it unbinds some of the flavor from the alcohol. Ice dulls flavor. And there will always be a bite. It takes time, practice, and patience to taste through it.

    Also, just a heads up, the process isn’t aging, it’s maturation. Age is a unit of measurement.

  • GLR

    Good guide, but the title made me expect something more like your guide to Port or cigars (with kinds of whiskey and why are the different).
    I bet a lot of your reader would like such a guide :) Get around to it when you can, will you?

  • John
  • Jay

    Brandon,

    Try the Macallan 12. I am sort of new to scotch too and I love it; it’s my favorite thus far. Maker’s mark for a little bit more bite.

  • Joe C

    Great article! I switched over from vodka to whiskey a few months ago, and this article seems like it could help out a lot. Thanks !

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  • Drew

    what is the best whiskey for beginners? I have never really enjoyed it in the past but would like to in the future. i assume this is possible kind of like coffee and dark beers?

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