Whiskey is the spirit that other spirits envy. It’s so ubiquitous that you can find versions of it among every major liquor-producing nation. It’s got a burnt smoothness that nearly shouts with the weight of its own history. It’s sippable, it’s shot-able, it’s mixable, it’s pair-able.
In short, whiskey is just plain kickass.
Below is a journey through 10 of the world’s most treasured whiskey-producing nations.
Let’s start with the oldest whiskey producer of all: Ireland. This small north Atlantic island has been cranking out delicious whiskeys for over a millennium.
Irish whiskey, in the strictest sense, is made using unmalted or malted barley and aged in oak barrels in Ireland for at least three years. Irish whiskeys tend to have a lighter taste, though you’ll also find plenty with lovely darker notes like coffee and chocolate.
Jameson is the obvious example here, but you should explore other Irish whiskeys too. Opt for those made in a single pot still, and enjoy the huge diversity of different flavors and aging techniques out there.
The U.S. is a huge country and has a correspondingly huge number of whiskeys. The two main categories are bourbon and rye:
The strict definition of bourbon is a whiskey that’s 51% corn that gets aged in new oak barrels. This naturally makes it a bit pricier because those barrels get retired or resold after a single use.
Interestingly, this trading of barrels often imparts a bit of the bourbon flavor to the next liquors they’re used for. Bourbon does not, as many believe, have to come from Kentucky, though the lion’s share of it still does.
Rye is made of 51% rye grains and predates bourbon (in America, at least). It’s got a spicier, drier taste than bourbon and works great in cocktails.
America’s neighbor to the north has historically produced some utterly fantastic whiskey. There was a day when Canadian whiskey was the talk of the town, but after Prohibition, it failed to recover its former glory. Today, it’s a treasure trove for those in the know.
You’ll find plenty of variety in Canadian whiskeys, which to be called such must be aged for at least three years and distilled in Canada. There are the rye varieties, which are fruity and have a delicious burn to them. Then there are corn-based varieties that offer that sweet, toffee-infused goodness you’d expect from bourbon.
Scotland is synonymous with great whiskey. The country has some of the world’s best distilleries located in regions including Islay, the Islands, the Lowlands, the Highlands, and Speyside.
Islay is known for its bold, peat-rich single malts like Laphroaig. Peat is popular among the other regions with the exception of Speyside, which does not use peat and instead features a fruity, sweet flavor.
Scotch must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years in Scotland. The best sellers include blended grain and barley scotch whiskeys like the Famous Grouse. You’ll also likely be familiar with the headline-grabbing single malts.
France has more to offer the world than wine, friends. French whiskey is a sweet, spicy, historically rich experience with notes of wood, leather, and fruit.
The French use certain distilling techniques that make clear the country’s history with producing fine wines. Take the whiskey Bastille 1789, for example. This whiskey maker employs the same stills used in the making of Cognac. Additionally, their whiskey gets aged in barrels previously used to age Cognac and wine — a beautiful holistic meeting of French alcohol.
Brenne is another brand that adopts this method. Their whiskey is light, delicate, lovely to sip, and perfect when enjoyed neat.
Japan has not appeared at the whiskey party so much as it kicked down the door to the riotous applause of the partygoers.
Japanese whiskey is amazing stuff. It’s trendy, it’s pricey, but by Jove, it lives up to both. Its closest analog is perhaps Scottish whiskey — both have a wide selection of fruity, light, flavorful whiskeys with peated options as well. In fact, Japan’s earliest whiskey producers learned their trade by traveling to Scotland.
The country’s biggest distilleries are Suntory and Nikka, which control most of the country’s whiskey production. There are few tight legalities around whiskey in Japan, with the only requirement being that it has to be produced in the country.
Tequila has long dominated the output of Mexico’s liquor sector, but there’s a new player on the scene, and its name is whiskey. Whiskey distilleries are popping up around Mexico and producing some super lovable products. Sierra Norte is the most notable example of these and blends several types of corn from Oaxaca with malted barley (in an 85% to 15% ratio, respectively).
You’ll notice that there are different colored labels on Mexican whiskey, each corresponding to the type of corn used. Sweeter whiskeys have a yellow or white label; deeper flavors are black-labeled.
Who knew that the world’s largest democracy would also be the biggest consumer of whiskey? Well, that’s the case. Indian whiskeys are popular (seven out of 10 of the world’s most popular whiskeys are Indian), delicious, and abundant.
India has a warm climate, which ages the whiskeys faster and perhaps allows a greater output. There’s a huge variety, from peaty flavors (like Paul John) to spicy, dark types like Rampur.
Taiwan is a small island nation that packs a punch when it comes to whiskey. The country’s pride and joy is its much-celebrated Kavalan, which despite competing against the world’s mega-giants, has come out on top with many awards and gold medals.
Kavalan brings some inspiration from scotch whiskeys, though its warm tropical climate ages the whiskeys much faster than in Scotland. The fruity flavor is complemented by the fact that it is a relatively young whiskey that packs the same punch as its older colleagues.
Another cool thing about Taiwanese whiskey is that it isn’t bound by strict regulations. This opens up the door for experimentation and lots of cool varieties.
Finally, we travel to Australia, where domestic whiskey is scarcely three decades old. In the last 20 years, the country has put out some truly astounding whiskeys, though. In 2014 Sullivans Cove won the Best Single Malt prize at the worldwide competition.
Interestingly, whiskey production is largely centered in Tasmania, the southern island not known for being the center of many things. Peat and local barley give this whiskey a smokey, cozy flavor. Australian whiskeys may be a bit tough to get your hands on, but they’re worth the effort.