Whiskey 101

A “neat” introduction

December 27, 2022  |   by Justin Alford (@thewhiskeymcgee)

With so many producers out there, Whiskey can be a daunting category to jump into. As someone who has been drinking and collecting all types of whiskies for years now, I have partnered up with Metropolitan Market to share the world of Whiskey, starting with what we will call Whiskey 101, to help bring some of the basics to light, and help anyone out there become confident in their knowledge of this delicious spirit.

How it’s made

Let’s start with how whiskey is made. Generally, whiskey is distilled in either a Copper Pot still, as with most Scotch and Malt whiskies, or a Column still as with bourbon and other American whiskeys. Either way, whiskey can be made from Malt (mostly malted barley), or Grains (with corn, rye and wheat being the most popular). Once a particular mash, or recipe, is distilled, almost all whiskey will be aged in a wooden cask. We will talk cask types and their effect on the end product, but I wanted to point out that older whiskey does not always mean better whiskey. Many arguments in the distilling community have been made over the years as to the “perfect” amount of time for a whiskey to rest in a cask, but there is no gold standard. The proper length of time can depend on the location of the aging, the mash that was used, annual changes in weather, and all sorts of other factors. This is why distilleries rely so heavily on an expert Master Distiller who not only puts a good base product in the cask off the still, but also has the palate and experience to know when the time is right to bottle that brand’s particular release. This is probably the single biggest difference from brand to brand.

how whiskey is made photo by Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

Photo Credit: Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

During this aging time in the cask, whiskey will undergo six distinct processes: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration, and coloration. We could spend hours diving into each of these, but from a high-level perspective, extraction is probably the one of most interest as it the process by which the whiskey seeps in and out of the wooden cask, thus imparting chemical compounds and acids such as vanillin, imparting new flavors into the whiskey and contributing heavily to its finished flavor. Distillers will often use casks that have previously aged other spirits to further enhance the flavor of the finished whiskey.

corn photo by Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

Photo Credit: Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

Rules & Regulations

Although whiskey, especially American whiskey, has its roots in adventurous home distilling, there are indeed many rules and regulations in the whiskey world, mostly determined by where that product is made. Most of these rules must be met to even call a particular product whiskey at all for that matter. A few of the categories are:

American Whiskey

We will be doing a follow up called American Whiskey 101, but American Whiskey production is tightly regulated by the US Federal Government. Some of this you may have heard before, but directly from Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, Title 27 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 5.22, here are a few of the basic rules for each type:

  • Rye whiskey: made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye 
  • Wheat whiskey: made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat
  • Bourbon whiskey: made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize) and aged in new charred oak barrels.
  • Corn whiskey: made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn and is not aged, or, if aged, is aged in uncharred or used barrels.


These whiskeys must be aged in new charred-oak containers, except for corn whiskey, which does not have to be aged. A common myth that came from this set of rules is that bourbon must be made in Kentucky, and although most of it indeed is, there is no rule for a particular state except in the case of Tennessee Whiskey. It can all be a lot, and definitely confusing, but the main sticking point here is the new charred oak.


Another huge category which deserves its own write up. Whisky made in Scotland is known as Scotch whisky, or simply as “Scotch”. Anything that has the label “Scotch” on it must be distilled in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks. If there is an age statement on the bottle, that age must be of the youngest Scotch whisky used to produce that whisky, but Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old.

  • The basic types of Scotch are malt and grain, which are combined to create blends.
  • Five main regions: Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown – each with their own flavor profiles and styles.
  • Primarily aged in used oak barrels from all over the world.



Once the most popular spirit in the world, Irish whisky experienced a major decline in the 1900s. There has been a huge boom though since 1990. Irish Whisky is normally distilled three times, traditionally using pot stills, although the column still has become more popular, producing grain whiskey for blends.

  • By law, must be produced in Ireland, aged in wooden casks for no less than three years
  • Unpeated malt is almost always used
  • Types: single malt, single grain, blended whiskey, and single pot still whiskey.



Once only made for the domestic Japanese market, they are now some of the most sought-after whiskies in the world. They produce both single malt and blended whiskies from a base mash of malted barley, using a pot still, and most times, very little peat. Generally lighter tasting and incredibly well balanced, Japanese whiskies are often considered some of the best in the world.


Made popular in the United States during American Prohibition, Canadian whiskies must be produced and aged in Canada, be distilled from a fermented mash of cereal grain, be aged in wood barrels with a capacity limit of 700 liters, for not less than three years, and “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky”. Although mostly producing rye whisky Canadian whiskies can be made from any grain and are often a blend of grains. They may contain caramel and flavoring in addition to the distilled mash spirits. As there is no limit on the alcohol level in distillation, there are often very high proof single barrels available.


Most whiskey is by law aged in wooden barrels. The US requires that “straight whiskey” (except for corn whiskey) must be stored for at least two years in new, charred oak containers. In many other regions, whiskey is aged in used American whiskey barrels, often over and over. The “standard” size for these American Whiskey barrels is 53 US gallons (200 l; 44 imp gal) in size. Barrel Finishing, when whiskey is transferred into different barrels that house other spirits, imparts new flavors or other qualities into whiskey. Scotch has long been using Sherry finishes for example. This practice has exploded here in the US in recent years, especially with smaller, independent distillers. These secondary barrels can be small or incredibly large. Some distilleries are using smaller barrels to increase the amount of wood contact in a shorter period of time. Although this does not “speed up” the aging process, it often allows smaller distilleries to produce a younger whiskey with more pronounced wood flavor characteristics.

barrel photo by Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

Photo Credit: Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

whiskey photo

Photo Credit: Garrett Hanson/Woodinville Whiskey

How to Drink

First – there is no “right” way to drink whiskey. There are surely proper ways! Although you don’t need a special glass to enjoy a good dram, there are indeed purpose-made glasses for sipping whiskey. The Glencairn Whiskey Glass, with its tulip shaped bowl, concentrates the aroma of your whisky in a way that a standard ricks glass cannot. This often can help you taste specific characteristics in a particular whiskey and can lead to a better tasting experience. But a regular glass will often work just fine. I would suggest giving any pour a few minutes to breathe. A touch of water, and I mean a few drops, can often open new flavors in a whiskey, especially in high proof whiskey. When serving whiskey tastings to friends, I often suggest trying the whisky out of the bottle first, then adding a few drops of water about halfway through to explore these changes. While I prefer my whiskey “neat” (without ice), some people prefer their whiskey “on the rocks” (adding a few cubes of ice). I would suggest, if possible, to use a single large cube or sphere, to prevent over dilution of the spirit. If whiskey with a lot of melted ice is your thing, then have at it, but also, think about having a highball (which is another write-up all together)!

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