What Does Whiskey Taste Like?

Whiskey sometimes seems like a drink that other people drink. More sophisticated people who have their lives together. However, whiskey doesn’t need to be intimidating.

There are multiple types of whiskey. Each has a somewhat different flavor and texture, based on what it’s made from and how it’s aged.

Different types of whiskey are so different, it’s hard to generalize them to even a handful of common flavors. Whiskey flavors could be sweet, spicy, fruity, smoky, floral, or briny. Or they could taste like vanilla, almonds, grassy, ginger, nutty, or a myriad of other flavors.

If whiskey can taste like almost anything, how are you going to figure out what any one whiskey tastes like? The flavor of whiskey is dependent on what it’s made with and what it’s aged in. We’re going to go through all of these to see how each type of whiskey tastes.

Grains

Whiskey is made from a variety of grains. Each type of grain will affect the flavor of the whiskey. These are some of the more common types used to make whiskey.

Rye

When whiskey is made from rye, it has a spicier flavor with notes of pepper and cinnamon.

Barley

Barley gives the whiskey a sweet, chocolatey, nutty flavor. It tastes fairly heavily of caramel, toffee, and brown sugar. Often, it also has a smoky flavor as well.

Corn

Using corn also gives the whiskey a sweet flavor. However, whiskey made with corn has notes of vanilla and maple syrup as opposed to chocolate or caramel.

Wheat

Perhaps unsurprisingly, wheat will give the whiskey a bread-like flavor. It also has notes of honey.

Aging Process

Whiskey is aged in oak barrels. The type of barrel it’s aged in will affect the taste of the whiskey as well. It is generally aged in two types of barrels, American Oak or European Oak.

Whether the barrels are new or old contributes to the flavor. In addition, the length of time the whiskey has been stored in them also affects the taste. The longer the whiskey ages, the more flavor gets infused.

American Oak Barrels

These barrels infuse the whiskey with vanilla and caramel flavors.

European Oak Barrels

The European Oak barrels give the whiskey a much spicier, bitter flavor.

New vs Old Barrels

When new barrels are used, the only flavor that will impart into the whiskey is the flavor of the oak.

However, you can also age whiskey in a barrel that has been used before. When you do this, you not only infuse the flavor of the wood but also what has previously been inside. 

This is part of the reason why scotch and whiskey taste differently. Often scotch has been aged in barrels that previously held bourbon. Doing so tends to impart a sweeter flavor with hints of caramel.

Types of Whiskey

Let’s talk about the different types of whiskey and see how they differ from each other in taste and perhaps, texture.

Scotch

Scotch whiskey is typically exposed to smoke during the process. This helps to impart a smoky, tobacco, leathery flavor into the scotch. In addition, scotch often has notes of vanilla, wood, and nuts.

All scotch, to be officially referred to as scotch, must be made in Scotland. If your scotch claims to have been made elsewhere, it’s something else masquerading as scotch.

Irish Whiskey

Unlike the smoky flavors of scotch, Irish whiskey is lighter, somewhat fruity, and fresh. It has flavors of vanilla, cream, oranges, and limes. There isn’t much sweetness to Irish whiskey.

Irish whiskey is smoother than scotch because it gets distilled three times. Scotch only goes through the process twice.

Similar to scotch, you cannot make Irish whiskey outside of Ireland.

American Whiskey

There are several types of American whiskey, but let’s just talk about a few of the most common ones.

Bourbon

Bourbon is much sweeter than any of the whiskies we’ve talked about so far. It has flavors of vanilla, caramel, honey, and oak.

Similar to scotch, it can also have a somewhat smoky flavor. The barrels that it’s aged in are charred with charcoal to help impart more flavor.

Tennessee

Tennessee whiskey is a bourbon that has been made in Tennessee. The only difference is that the whiskey is filtered through a sugar maple charcoal before being aged. This can make it somewhat sweeter than regular bourbon.

Rye

American whisky that is made from rye has a spicier, sharper flavor than bourbon. It’s not as sweet as bourbon but has some hints of vanilla, caramel. In addition, you can taste oak, spices, and charcoal.

What Else Affects the Taste of Whiskey

In addition to how it is made, other factors can affect how your whiskey tastes.

Glasses

While it may seem silly, serious whiskey drinkers make sure to drink their whiskey out of certain glasses. 

The shape of the glass is important for the aroma of the whiskey, which is a big part of the taste. It helps to direct the smell into your nose as you’re drinking which enhances your drinking experience.

Adding Ice

Adding ice to your whiskey has both pros and cons. It helps to chill the whiskey which many people find more palatable. However, once the ice melts, it can also dilute the whiskey. Using water to change the flavor of the whiskey is common, but melting ice cubes just gives you watery whiskey.

If you want to sip your whiskey over ice, it’s better to use large ice cubes that take longer to melt. 

Adding Water

As alluded to above, adding water to whiskey is a way to change the flavor. 

It’s a common enough practice that droppers are sold to get the precise water amounts into your glass of whiskey. The water helps to pull the compound that’s responsible for the taste and smell of whiskey to the surface. When the whiskey is poured, that compound tends to settle at the bottom.

However, it’s common to add small drops to the whiskey, not entire ice cubes. Try just a few drops at a time and see how the flavor changes. Just make sure you keep notes for the next time.

Whiskey Cocktails

This is probably one of the most common ways to change the flavor of the whiskey. 

Whiskey cocktails are popular and it’s easy to find one that you’ll enjoy. If you find the taste of whiskey a little too harsh, putting in some mixers is a quick solution.

Most of the popular whiskey cocktails are fairly sweet. So if you are looking for something a little sweeter, maybe try one. Here are some well-liked whiskey cocktails.

  • Whiskey Sour
  • Irish Coffee
  • Old Fashioned
  • Manhattan
  • Mint Julep
  • Scotch and Soda
  • Hot Toddy
  • Spiked Eggnog

Final Thoughts

Different types of whiskey differ widely. Common types include scotch, Irish Whiskey, and bourbon. They have vastly different flavors that include: smoky, caramel, fruity, citrus, honey, nutty, and others.

If you want a drink that’s smoky, woody, and tastes like tobacco, try scotch. However, if you want something that’s lighter, fruity, and somewhat citrusy grab an Irish whiskey.

Bourbons are sweeter and generally have notes of vanilla, caramel, and honey. However, if you’re looking for something much sweeter, it might be best to reach for a whiskey cocktail.