Take a tour of the world’s top whisky destinations and find out how whisky from Australia, Japan, Scotland, Ireland and the United States compare.
From the rich, peaty Scotch whisky of Scotland, to the maple sweetness of American bourbon or the experimental barrel flavours of Australia, whisky – or whiskey, depending on its origin – is truly having a moment. And the golden dram has progressed well beyond its traditional slippers-and-Chesterfields reputation, with expert mixologists in whisky bars all over the world creating cocktail masterpieces that demonstrate that whisky is just as versatile as vodka, tequila or gin.
Unsure about where to begin? Here’s everything you need to know about the world’s top whisky producing regions.
Irish whiskey (here, it’s usually spelt with an ‘e’) is the oldest known documented whiskey in the world, first recorded in 1405. Today there are basically four types: Irish Blend (made from malted and unmalted barley), Single Malt Irish, Single Grain Irish (which uses other grains such as maize or wheat) and pot still Irish, distilled in – that’s right – a pot still, which is heated from the bottom. “Irish whiskey tends to be on the sweeter side, not sickly sweet but quite approachable,” says James Murphy, whisky aficionado and co-owner of St LuJa whisky bar in Melbourne. “They’re known for their nice, full-bodied smoothness.” They’re also an essential ingredient in an Irish coffee – no other whisky will do.
Did you know? Irish whiskeys are traditionally triple distilled, unlike Scotch whisky, which is generally distilled twice.
Must visit: The Jameson distillery in Dublin for its Black Barrel Blending Class.
The short answer? Peat. Most – though not all – Scotch whiskies are known for their earthy, smoky peatiness, infused into the barley as its dried over burning peat, found widely in Scottish bogs. Scotch whiskies are defined by region: Highland (which includes the Scottish islands), Lowland, Campbeltown, Islay and Speyside (home to some of the most famous distillers in the world such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich). They each have different characteristics – from brininess to floral notes to that famous ashy peatiness.
Did you know? In Scotland, Scottish whisky must be matured in casks made of oak (in contrast to Ireland, where there are no laws about what barrels can be used to make Scotch).
Must visit: The Whisky Makers’ Cellar Tour at Johnnie Walker in Edinburgh, where you’ll taste this iconic whisky straight from the barrel.
\Whiskey from the United States comes in quite a number of styles and Americans have strict rules around their whiskey production: bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, while rye is at least 51% grain. Tennessee whiskey – Jack Daniel’s is the big name – must be made in the state of Tennessee from at least 51% corn and filtered through maple charcoal chunks, that gives it, according to bar owner James Murphy, “a sweet, banana lolly flavour”. Rye on the other hand has a more challenging, complex, black pepper flavour, a “spicy pepperiness”, says James. “I loved bourbon for a very long time but then I really started to love rye – it has a wonderful complexity,” he adds.
Did you know? By law, bourbon must be aged in brand new oak barrels, unlike in other countries where barrels can be used several times, or even reused from other distilleries or winemakers.
Must visit: The Maker’s Mark tour at the historic Star Hill Farm in Loretto, Kentucky.
Unbound by rules or traditions, the Australian whisky distillery landscape is one of creativity and exploration. Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia are the country’s whisky hubs (though there are also distilleries in NSW, Queensland and South Australia). Aussie whisky triumphs include Tasmania’s Lark Distillery, whose whiskies collect awards all over the world, and Sullivans Cove, whose French Oak Single Cask was awarded the title of best whisky in the world in 2019. Australians borrow from the world’s great whisky styles, with many resembling classic Scotch single malt, and others relying on American sour mash techniques, while the grains, mostly grown locally, give Australian whisky its unique flavour.
Did you know? Australian distilleries have a reputation for experimenting with casks and barrels, such as Hellyers Road Single Malt Pinot Noir Finish (aged in pinot noir wine barrels) and Starward’s Ginger Beer Cask Single Malt (its barrels were previously used for – you guessed it – ginger beer).
Must visit: The Archie Rose Distillery in Sydney, where you can try your hand at blending your own whisky.
Best buys: Ned Australian Whisky, Starward Two Fold Whisky.
“Japan is making whiskies that appeal to everyone,” says James, who recommends whiskies from this region if you’re interested in something universally appealing and not too challenging. Most Japanese whiskies are made in a similar style to Scotch whisky, both single malt and blended, and some even import Scottish peat to add that distinctive smoky, earthiness. But Japanese whisky has gained its worldwide renown for its skilful blends.The industry is dominated by two big players – Suntory and Nikka – but other small scale distillers are also making waves.
Did you know? The most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold was The Yamazaki 55, which fetched more than $1 million at an auction in Hong Kong in 2020.
Must visit: The Suntory Yamazaki distillery in Osaka is considered the birthplace of Japanese whisky, and conducts regular tours (current Covid restrictions pending).