The terms whisky and whiskey refer to a broad range of alcoholic beverages, distilled from fermented grain mash and then aged in wooden, usually oak, casks. The different varieties of whiskey depend upon which cereal grain is used; barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat and corn. (*In the malting process, the grain is soaked in water and allowed to sprout. The sprouting process is halted by kiln drying the grain. The purpose of malting is to convert some of the grain's starches into sugars.)

Both spellings are acceptable but generally refer to the beverage's country of origin. Whisky is used in Scotland, Canada and Japan, whereas whiskey is used in Ireland and America. At one time all whiskies were spelled without the "e". But around 1870 the reputation of Scottish whisky was plummeting. Irish and American distilleries decided to add the "e" to distinguish their higher end product.

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1. vatted malt - This is a blend of whiskeys from different distilleries. If the label says "pure malt" or "malt", it is probably a vatted malt type, sometimes labeled as "blended".

2. single malt - This is malt whiskey from a single distillery and from a single type of grain, usually barley or rye. The best known of the single malts come from Ireland, Scotland or Japan. The name of the whiskey is the name of the distillery (Glenlivet, Bushmills, Yoichi).

3. blended whiskeys - This type of whiskey is made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskeys. The blend is usually from different distilleries so the focus is on a particular flavor profile. It is sold under the brand name (Chivas Regal, Canadian Club) and does not normally have the name of the distillery printed on the label.

Once a mash of grain (or grapes for that matter) has been allowed to ferment, the product is a dilute solution of alcoholic compounds and flavor mixed in water. Distillation is used to boil off the alcohol which is then captured and condensed into a more potent solution. Just as fermented and distilled grapes will become brandy, and fermented and distilled grain will become spirits. The process was invented in the Far East. It was brought to Spain by the Moors and introduced into the rest of Europe by Irish missionaries in the 6th and 7th centuries. The name whiskey comes from the Irish Gaelic "usquebaugh" literally meaning water of life.
Unlike wine, whiskeys do not age in the bottle, only in the cask. This means that the age of a whiskey is the time between distillation and bottling. In other words, the cask time. Like wine the oak cask will affect the flavor and the texture of the whiskey. Two whiskeys that have been aged an equal amount of time in casks will taste similar regardless of how old the bottles are. The alcoholic strength of most whiskeys is 40%.
Most Irish whiskeys are distilled three times. And by law they must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for no less than three years, although it is more likely to be between 9 and 12 years. The best Irish whiskey has the designation "pure pot still". It is made of 100% barley, mixed malted and unmalted. The green unmalted barley gives Irish whiskey its unique spicy quality.
Often referred to as "Scotch", this style of whisky is usually distilled twice and by law must be distilled in Scotland. Law also requires that the beverage be aged in casks for a minimum of three years and one day. Like Irish whiskey, the basic types are malt and grain which are combined to make blends. The most highly prized are single malt Scotches.
The blueprint for Japanese whisky is the single malt Scotch. The market for Japanese whiskies has been almost entirely domestic. But recently Japanese whiskies by Yoichi and Yamazaki have scored higher in blind tastings that their Scotch counterparts.
Generally Canadian whisky is lighter and smoother than other styles. These types also use malted rye which provides a fuller and richer product.
The most famous of the American whiskeys is Bourbon, which is made from a mash that is at least 51% corn. It is named for Bourbon County, Kentucky.