A brand new customer walks up to your bar and asks for a Manhattan. Great, but what kind of whiskey do you pour? What are the different types of whiskey that I need to know?
Or, should I assume that they want bourbon? Should I simply grab the house whiskey and make the drink according to my rules? Should I offer him Maker’s Mark or Jack Daniels?
So, what are the different types of whiskey that I need to know? It can be a bit confusing when it comes to whiskey – but don’t sweat it. I’ll give you the basics here, and you’ll acquire the confidence to know exactly what to say and do in any situation.
Knowing your whiskey goes a long way in pulling off that ‘professional bartender’ persona. Most of your customers will tell you exactly which type or brand of whiskey they prefer, but it helps to have a working knowledge of this tasty liquor in order to make the appropriate suggestion.
Aspiring bartenders need not be a walking encyclopedia on the topic of whiskey. It is, however, beneficial to know the basics. If you would like to dig deeper, whiskey.com will provide you with a wealth of information.
In this article, we’ll discuss the different types of whiskey that are common in most bars, where they come from, and what type of drinks are made with each brand.
Keep in mind that most bars will stock only a certain number – and types – of whiskey, and each bar is different. It all depends on what their customers are asking for on a regular basis.
Whiskey: The Big Picture
Generally speaking, whiskey is 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof), and made from fermented grain mash. Rye, barley, corn, and wheat are the most common grains used. It can be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof.
It’s usually aged in wooden casks made of oak. It’s important to remember that whiskey does not mature once it’s in the bottle – therefore it has to happen in the wooden casks.
When it comes to whiskey, a long period of aging time does not necessarily make it a ‘better’ whiskey. It may be rarer, of course, but the quality could be the same as whiskey aged for the normal process of three years. For a deeper dive on whiskey, check out my additional article on whiskey here.
I’ve broken down whiskey into ten categories. Most bars will carry at least one type of the below-listed whiskeys and brands. Don’t worry, once you land that job you’ll probably get a list of all types of liquor that the bar carries which you can memorize before your first shift.
If they don’t supply this list, simply take a seat at the bar and write down what you see on the back-bar shelves. Maybe take a quick photo. Ask the bartender what they’re carrying in the ‘well.’ Now, let’s take a look at whiskey:
Made in Scotland, Scotch whiskey must be made from malted barley and aged at least three years. They say that Scotch is an acquired taste, and most people savor the flavor. Smokey. I have never acquired a taste.
Popular drinks made with Scotch include the Roy Roy, Rusty Nail, and Scotch Sour. Most Scotch drinkers prefer it on the rocks, ‘neat,’ or with soda or water. You won’t get many calls for Scotch and Coke.
Most bars will carry at least five brands of Scotch along with the house Scotch. A couple of top-shelf single-malts and a few blends. Maybe Glenlivet and Glenfiddich as their single-malts, and then Dewars, Chivas Regal, the ‘Johnnie Walkers,’ and Ballantines. Probably J & B and Cutty Sark.
Like Scotch, Irish Whiskey will be blended or single malt, and can be made with grain – like corn. A bit ‘lighter’ than Scotch, Irish Whiskey has a taste all its own. Blended Irish Whiskey is the most popular, and makes up over 85% of all Irish Whiskey’s made. They leave the ‘single-malt’ to the Scotch makers.
Irish whiskey is made in Ireland. The Irish usually don’t make their whiskey with peat, so it has a much less ‘smokey’ flavor than Scotch. Good stuff.
Popular drinks include the infamous ‘Irish Coffee’ and the ‘Irish Sour.’ Most people simply drink it on the rocks or ‘neat.’ You won’t get many calls for ‘Irish whiskey and coke’ or an ‘Irish Manhattan.’
Most bars will carry no more than two brands of Irish whiskey. Unless they’re an Irish pub, of course. Usually Jameson and Bushmills, but, again, it all depends on the type of bar.
Made in America and usually distilled from at least 51% corn. 80 proof, but it seems that the alcohol content is creeping upward – stronger. Probably brought to present-day Kentucky by the Scots in the 18th century. Aged in oak barrels.
Some bourbons are sold within three months of distillation as there is no minimum requirement for aging. Approximately 95% of the bourbon made in America is from Kentucky – but it doesn’t have to come from Kentucky to be called bourbon.
Accomplished by blending two or more types of whiskeys and adding coloring and flavorings. Most distillers do this by taking a high quality straight or single-malt whiskey and mixing it with a lower-quality whiskey. Pretty simple.
Blended cocktail drinks and other mixed whiskey drinks are usually made with this type of whiskey. It’s cheaper. Most bars will carry a very generic type of whiskey in their ‘well’ to use for all cheaper drinks.
Usually associated with Scotch whiskey. Made from a single distillery using a single malted grain. Lots of regulations here – depending on the country. Barley, yeast, and water are the typical ingredients.
Single-malts can be made from a blend of malt whiskeys – as long as it’s produced at a single distillery. But don’t confuse this with blended whiskeys. I found a great article about the difference between American malt whiskey and single malt whiskey that is quite interesting.
Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal are made from a number of malted barley whiskeys and grain whiskeys from multiple distilleries. This makes them NOT a single-malt. Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are examples of higher quality Scotch single-malts.
Produced in Canada, and usually blended multi-grain whiskeys made from corn- but many times rye is added in small amounts. One of your smoother whiskeys, and typically 80 proof. ‘Rye’ whiskey and Canadian Whiskey are terms used interchangeably in Canada.
Crown Royal and Canadian Club are two popular brands of Canadian whiskey. As with all other types of whiskey, different countries have strict laws on what whiskey can be designated “Canadian.”
Produced in Japan, of course, and gaining popularity in the United States. Japanese whiskey can be blended or single-malt. A newcomer to the whiskey business, Japan first produced it commercially in the 1920’s.
Modeled after Scotch whiskeys and produced in the same way. Many distilleries even import barley from Scotland. Recently, Japanese whiskey has been taking top awards in the international whiskey category competitions.
Produced in Tennessee. Legally defined as bourbon straight whiskey, but distillers claim that it doesn’t have to be straight bourbon. A huge export of the state of Tennessee.
Jack Daniels is probably the best known Tennessee whiskey. Much like bourbon, at least 51% corn, but it gets charcoal filtered.
Like Tennessee Whiskey, but produced in Kentucky and commonly known as bourbon whiskey. 51% corn, and usually aged for at least four years in oak barrels.
Distilled from 51% rye with corn and barley added. Very similar to bourbon whiskey – but different from Canadian whiskey. It cannot be any more than 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof).
Not a very popular whiskey in most areas of the United States, as bourbon and other types of blended whiskeys seem to be all the rage.
Final Thoughts About Whiskey
The different types of whiskey are not hard to memorize. The key is finding out which types of whiskey the bar carries and then do a little more research on the internet. Simple.
For brand-new bartenders – don’t sweat it. Just learn the basics that I have discussed above and you’ll do just fine. There is no need to know the complete history of whiskey. You’ll learn a lot from your customers as you gain more experience.
There’s a lot of skills that new bartenders need to acquire. Simply knowing a few things about whiskey isn’t going to help that much if you’re trying to land your first job. Read about how to get your first bartending job here.
Additional Bartending Topics
Can you make a Rob Roy with American whiskey? Of course, you can – but then you would call it a ‘Manhattan.’ Rob Roy’s are made with Scotch. Bartenders will find that their customers sometimes get mixed up – or are unsure of exactly what they’re ordering. This where bartending experience and a good working knowledge of the types of whiskey will come in handy.
If a customer orders a whiskey and Coke, should I pour Jack Daniels? Good question, and this is one of those situations where you should ask the customer exactly which brand he would like. A “suggesting selling” technique. Or, an “Upsell.”
Don’t assume, and always suggest a ‘call’ or top-shelf whiskey. And, be sure to ask them if they would like a straight whiskey (bourbon) or blended whiskey.