What Grains are Used to Make Whiskey (And Why?)
You might think that there’s not much to making whiskey: it’s just grain, right? Like beer, but distilled? But there’s actually more to it than that, and like gin, what goes into the whiskey can wildly change the taste of what you get in the bottle. It’s true that, at its simplest, whiskey is just distilled grain, but the word “grain” is an umbrella term and can mean several very different kinds of seeds, many of which are used in varying amounts to make whiskey of different quality and taste. So join us once again as we explore each of the major grains used to make whiskey, and we’ll see where each comes from, and what it does to what’s inside the bottle.
The most important of all grains used in the production of whiskey worldwide is barley, and most whiskies have at least some barley in them. Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and the Levant, sometime around 8500 BCE. These days it is grown all over the world. Malted barley is most famously used to make Scotch whiskies; as the name says, a single malt Scotch like Singleton is 100% malted barley, and blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker typically has a high barley content in it as well. Barley imparts a warm, roasted toffee taste to a spirit, and these whiskies are surprisingly versatile and can be enjoyed on their own, finished in specialty casks, or blended with other grains to make endless varieties of flavor.
Also called “maize,” as corn is a catchall term that means different things in different parts of the world. In this instance, the corn we’re referring to was first domesticated around 5000 BCE in Southern Mexico. It spread throughout the Americas before Columbus arrived, and throughout Europe after the Spanish conquest. Corn is the primary grain used to make most American whiskeys, particularly bourbon, which by law has to be made up of at least 51% corn. Moonshine is unaged white whiskey typically made entirely of corn (or corn and sugar). Aged corn whiskeys — made of 80% corn — and many bourbons tend to carry a clear popcorn note amidst the sweet vanilla that tends to dominate. Unaged corn whiskey, like moonshine, wears its corn influence on its sleeve, and the primary taste an imbiber will get is sweet, buttered popcorn.
Like barley, wheat was first thought to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 BCE. As the primary grain used to bake bread, the importance of wheat in human civilization cannot be overstated. Wheat is likewise sought after in whiskey: two of the most famous bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, use a high percentage of wheat in their mashbill (though as bourbons, they do still have to conform to the 51% corn rule). Wheat whiskeys — made of 51% wheat at least — are uncommon but offer a different spin on the bourbon recipe. Taking a sip of a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey and you’ll often find a flavor not unlike fresh honey-baked bread, which is delicious on its own but makes a wonderful complement to the sweetness of corn. If you’re not a big fan of whiskey and are curious to see what all the fuss is about, a wheated bourbon is a great place to start.
Compared to the venerable grains we’ve already discussed, rye is a baby: the first evidence of rye cultivation comes to us from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey from around 1600 BCE. Rye is most notable in American whiskey called, not surprisingly, rye whiskey, which have to have a rye content of at least 51%. Another rye-forward style of whisky is found in many Canadian whiskys, which tend to have a high rye content. If you’re a fan of Canadian whiskies like Pendleton, you already know what to expect from rye: more spice, less sweetness, compared to corn. Rye whiskey has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices that make it a great ingredient to use in an otherwise-sweet Manhattan. If you like rye, High West and WhistlePig make some critically-acclaimed bottles.
The vast majority of whiskies are made with a combination of the four aforementioned grains. Of course, you can make whiskey out of just about any grain, so there are plenty of distillers out there who try to make something unique out of lesser-used grains. Japanese whisky Kikori is made with rice, Chicago’s Koval makes whiskey out of oats and millet, and even Jim Beam has tried its hand at some oddball grains. Corsair has a plethora of craft whiskeys made from almost every grain under the sun. These are great treats for the whiskey aficionado, the one that thinks they’ve tried everything that whiskey has to offer, and each different grain will bring wholly unique tastes and textures to your glass.
As you can see, whiskey can vary wildly in taste, tone, color, and everything else, simply by changing the combination of grains used in the mashbill. There’s a whiskey out there for every palate, and the possibilities for something new are endless. Do you have a preferred grain in your dram? Let us know in the comments!