Field of grains used to make whiskey

What Grains Are Whiskey Made From?

Master blenders do not make whiskey; they craft it to perfection with meticulous care and attention. In the words of Rudyard Kipling: whisky is not a drink; it’s a philosophy of life. Whiskey’s flavor comes from three main components: grains, yeast, and water. Barrel wood, barrel aging, and peat also contribute to whiskey’s flavor.

Over the past two centuries, the distillation process has changed little. It still follows the same five steps—malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. But it’s all about the ingredients. It’s interesting knowing what goes into your bottle of whiskey, whether you are a whiskey connoisseur or a novice. Knowing what you’re drinking increases your ability to identify, appreciate, and savor it.

How do you know what whiskey grain your palate prefers? Find out below.

Barley

It is one of the oldest and most widely cultivated grains globally, and it belongs to the grass family. Besides beer, it is also a key ingredient in distilled beverages like whisky. Scottish and Irish distillers use barley as their primary grain, while Canadians and Americans use corn, rye, and wheat.

Only a tiny portion of the 5,500 varieties of barley grown around the world makes whiskey. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling in Scotland approves only ten strains—the Hordeum distichon—for Scotch whisky production. England and Scotland’s eastern coasts are the leading producers of Scotch barley, grown in sandy soil and low rainfall (the ideal climate). Australia, Canada and are also major barley suppliers. These strains are among the most popular:

  • Quench and Shuffle
  • Chronicle 
  • Belgravia
  • Concerto
  • Optic
  • Propino
  • Moonshine
  • Odyssey
  • Overture

Most single malt Scotches come from the spring barley. The goal of testing new barley varieties is to boost production. Many types of barley are no longer used for whisky production, including;

  • Chariot
  • Golden Promise
  • Oxbridge
  • Prisma
  • Triumph

Many Malt whisky producers prefer two-row and six-row barley, mainly if it contains low nitrogen levels and larger grain size. The grains germinate quickly, so they are best for malting. Single malts from the United States only require 51% barley. 

If you compare unpeated, light single malts from Scotland and Japan, such as Nikka Miyagikyo and Knappogue Castle, you’ll find that they all have a nutty, toasty flavor. Their respective processes and environments strongly influence other aspects of flavor and texture. However, they share the same defining taste.

Wheat

What’s so great about Pappy Van Winkle? It tastes a bit like whole wheat bread with honey. History suggests wheat to have originated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 B.C. We can’t deny the importance of wheat. What would life be like without bread? Now imagine no wheat whiskey? See what we mean—several of the world’s most famous bourbons, such as W. L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle use a large percentage of wheat in their mash bills. 

Despite being uncommon, wheat whiskeys – made with at least 51% wheat – give bourbon a twist. When you sip a wheat whiskey, you’ll often discover a flavor similar to honey-baked bread, which makes an excellent complement to corn’s sweetness. It’s the perfect starting point for whiskey beginners. 

A charred oak barrel-aged bourbon accumulates many flavors, from vanilla to caramel to citrus, while remaining velvety smooth. For wheat lovers, Rebel Yell is the whiskey to try.

Rye

Rye whiskey is a classic American spirit that has been increasingly popular among cocktail lovers and whiskey lovers alike. The U.S. was historically a rye-centric culture before corn, and barley malt became the predominant ingredients in distilling. It was harder to grow rye, and it had a stronger taste than sweet corn. 

A popular grain between the 1940s and 1950s, rye went out of favor until its popularity re-emerged in the early 2010s. Today, you can find a variety of rye whiskeys on the market. Some are best for straight drinking, while others are excellent in cocktail menus. The issue goes beyond the aromatics and the flavor but to the body and heat with rye whiskey.

For consumers who want a little more sweet and peppery spice and less sweetness in their drinks, rye fills the gap. Spicier whiskeys have higher rye content. Rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye and usually contains malted barley and other grains in its mash bill. Try Wild Turkey, Old Overholt, and Pikesville for classic rye flavors. For true rye heads, some distillers use 100% rye in their mash bills. In their opinion, whiskey should be dry, sharp, and spicy. 

Examples include

  • Sonoma Rye 
  • Whistle Pig 
  • High West Rendezvous
  • Redemption releases

Corn

In the mid-1700s, American distillers began using corn when making whiskey. Bourbon is famous for its sweet flavors. Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn and must age in new, charred oak barrels to qualify as bourbon under United States regulations.

But corn is not the source of sugar because sugar doesn’t go through distillation. To enhance corn’s bland flavor, distillers add other grains. The wood sugars in the charred barrels the bourbon ages in provide the sweet, caramel flavor.

Almost all whiskeys are a blend of these grains. You can make whiskey from any grain, and there are many distillers out there who take great pride in creating unique spirits from less-used grains. Among the strange grains used by whiskey makers are:

  • Jim Beam uses oats and millet in its whiskey. 
  • The Japanese whisky Kikori comes from rice. 
  • In their Craft Whiskey collection, Corsair uses every grain you can imagine. Whiskey lovers will love these, and each grain will bring its unique taste and texture to your glass.

Worldwide, there are different types and classes of whiskey, and regulations differ depending on the country. However, the fermentation of grains, distillation, and the aging process in wooden barrels distinguish these classes and types. To learn more about whiskey, click here