What Whiskey Tastes Like: An Introduction

A whisky decanter and an ice cube


Whiskey remains one of the world’s most popular alcoholic drinks.  Its distinctive flavour and aroma work well when consumed neat or as a part of a cocktail.

There are many varieties of whiskey to enjoy, from sweet Tennessee Bourbon whiskeys through to the robust Scotch whiskies.

On top of that, there are hundreds of whiskey brands producing whiskies that emphasise different flavours and aromas.

If you are new to the world of whiskey and wondering what the different whiskeys taste like, this is the article for you.

We will explain the key differences between different types of whiskey and what their most common flavour characteristics are.

What is whiskey/whisky?

Whiskey/whisky is a term used to describe a range of alcoholic beverages that come from different varieties of fermented grain.

The most common grains used to make whiskey include barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, rye, and malted rye.

Whiskies that are only made using water and malted barley are called Malt Whiskies, while whiskies that use a combination of grains are called Grain Whiskies.

Sometimes, different types of whiskey will be blended together to add certain flavours to the spirit (called a blended whiskey).

Whiskies are further categorised according to where they are made and how they are made.

Different types of whiskey can have dramatically different flavours and aromas, which is why sampling whiskey has become such a popular hobby.

Types of whiskey

So what does whiskey taste like?  Here are the most common flavours found in different types of whiskey.

Scotch WhiskyBottles of Johnnie Walker whisky

What is it?

Scotch whisky is made in Scotland using water and masted barley, but they can also contain other grains. If the whisky is 100% water and malted barley, it will be called a malt Scotch whisky.

If the mash contains additional grains, like corn or wheat, it will be called a grain Scotch whisky.

Scotch whiskies can also be:

  • Single malt — 100% malt whisky with malt from one distillery
  • Blended malt — 100% malt whisky which has malt from multiple distilleries
  • Blended — a combination of malt and grain whiskies
  • Cask strength — bottled from the cask undiluted, at a very high strength
  • Single cask — the bottle was poured from one cask

All Scotch whiskies must be aged in oak casks no bigger than 700 litres in size for at least 3 years.

The end product must have an Alcohol by Volume (ABV) content of at least 40%.

Most Scotch whiskies will be made in pot stills and distilled twice.

What does Scotch whisky taste like?

Scotch whisky exposes the barley grain to peat smoke during the drying process.  This process, along with the time spent ageing in the oak barrel, will impart some very distinctive aromas and flavours in the whisky.

These flavours include:

  • alcohol
  • smoke
  • leather
  • vanilla
  • peat
  • graininess
  • wood/oak
  • cedar
  • malt
  • fruit
  • nuts
  • tobacco

The presence of each flavour varies based on the techniques used by the distillery where it was produced, the grain mix, and the type of scotch (eg. single malt or grain Scotch).

Scotch whisky reviews: https://whiskeybon.com/scotch/

Irish WhiskeyTullamore Dew Irish whiskey bottle

What is it?

As the name suggests, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland.

Irish whiskey uses kiln-dried barley which does not involve peat, so it has a less smokey flavour than Scotch whisky.

It is also triple distilled using column stills, which gives it an even cleaner flavour, which often makes it the preferred choice for cocktails.

What does Irish whiskey taste like?

The dominant flavours include alcohol, malt, vanilla cream, orchard fruits (oranges, lime, mandarin), marmalade, and wood.

Bourbon WhiskeyBottles of Jim Beam bourbon

What is it?

A bourbon whiskey is made from a mash that is at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.

Other grains used in the mash include barley, wheat and rye. Certain types of bourbon whiskey must be produced in specific locations.

For example, Kentucky whiskey must always be made and aged in Kentucky.  Some bourbons will also filter the bourbon through chunks of maple charcoal before ageing (the Lincoln Country Process).

What does bourbon whiskey taste like?

Bourbon is a very sweet whiskey with hints of vanilla, caramel, honey, and oak. It might have a slightly smokey flavour due to the use of charcoal and charred oak barrels.

Bourbon reviews: https://whiskeybon.com/bourbon/

Malt Whiskey

What is it?

A malt whiskey has a mash bill that contains at least 51% malted barley. While this is also one of the requirements for Scotch whisky, a malt whisky may use other types of barrels, may not use peat, and may be distilled differently.

What does Malt whiskey taste like?

The most common flavours in malt whisky include alcohol, leather, vanilla, wood/oak, cedar, malt, fruity, nuts, and tobacco.

It may or may not be smokey, depending on the production method used.

Rye Whiskey

A bottle of Sazerac Rye whiskey

What is it?

A rye whiskey has a mash bill that contains at least 51% rye. However, Canadian rye whiskeys may be labeled “rye whiskey” for historical reasons and actually have less than 51% rye.

What does Rye whiskey taste like?

Rye whiskey is similar to bourbon, but not as sweet.  It has less body than bourbon, while being spicier and drier. Some of the flavours it exhibits include oak, spices, caramel, vanilla, charcoal, and alcohol.

Rye whisky reviews: https://whiskeybon.com/rye/

Wheat Whiskey

What is it?

A wheat whiskey has a mash bill that contains at least 51% wheat.

What does wheat whiskey taste like?

The dominant flavours in wheat whiskey include honey, wheat bread, cedar, cherries, and oak. It is quite light on the palate and less sweet than bourbon whiskey.

Other varieties of whiskey

In addition to the whiskeys mentioned above, there are many unique blended and single malt whiskies produced by distilleries in Japan, Australia, England and other countries.

These whiskies use a wide variety of whiskey production techniques, resulting in many interesting and delicious whiskies worth trying.

At the end of the day — the best way to learn what whiskey tastes like is to drink more whiskey!

You will have a lot of fun exploring the world of whiskey and discovering new products that you enjoy.