The dichotomy of malt whiskey and grain whiskey can be confusing because the word malt alludes to grain, and grain whiskey can contain malted barley. But the terms are not interchangeable. This makes one wonder what grain whiskey is made from.

Whiskey is made primarily from malted barley, though other grains like wheat, rye, and corn are also used in certain whiskeys. Whiskey made from 100% malted barley is called malt whiskey, while combination whiskeys are grouped under the umbrella term “grain whiskey.”

In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about whiskey’s grain source alongside the different iterations of the spirit. You will find out what kinds of grains are used to make different types of whiskey alongside the proportions in which they are used.

By the end of this post, you’ll be able to confidently tell different whiskeys apart by their grain source and origins.

Grains Used In Whiskey

Grains Used In Whiskey

Any conversation about whiskey ties directly or indirectly to its grain source. Whiskey is made from a bill of grains (called mash bill), water, and yeast. The mash bill is responsible for the initial fermentation and the final flavor of the drink. That’s why almost all types of whiskey vary fundamentally in the grain composition of their respective bills.

Grains used in whiskey include malted barley, wheat, rye, or corn. Malted barley is present in all whiskeys but is not always the only grain in the bill. Still, it is considered the primary grain in whiskey, with other grain iterations being variations/derivatives of whiskey.

Malt whiskey is the most expensive whiskey type by grain. And whiskey made exclusively from malt in a single barrel results in the most expensive iteration of the drink. The reason malt whiskey can command a higher price than most whiskey types is that other whiskey variations don’t use as much barely.

9 Types of Whiskey and Their Grain Sources

Types of Whiskey

Since there are four grain sources for whiskey, it is reasonable to assume that there are likely to be four iterations of whiskey. There’s malt whiskey, so there must be rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, and corn whiskey as well. That’s only partially true.

Types of whiskey aren’t divided as uniformly between grains because all grains don’t have the same flavor appeal. So the mashbill of whiskeys, aside from pure malt whiskey, have varying proportions of other grains. You will not find 100% corn whiskey or 100% rye whiskey like you can find pure malt whiskey. Let’s examine the grain proportions of different types of whiskey.

1. Malt Whiskey

Malt whiskey is a whiskey that is made from 100% malted barley with no other grain source. This whiskey is considered to be the primary type of whiskey, and it can be made in different regions following different distillation and aging standards. That’s why malt whiskey can be a scotch, single malt or blended malt liquor, and rickhouse whiskey.

2. Scotch Whiskey

Scotch whiskey is a whiskey that is aged and bottled in Scotland. It is usually made from a grain bill featuring 100% malted barley, though corn and rye can be added to the grain column as well. This whiskey is double-distilled in a small-scale operation and aged for three years.

For a whiskey to be called Scotch, it must not only follow the specific distilling requirements but must also be barrelled, aged, and bottled in Scotland. Because of the 3-year aging average and the weather conditions in Scotland, Scotch has an earthy and complex flavor profile.

Scotch whiskey can be a blended malt, single grain, single malt, or blended whiskey drink, depending on its grain sources.

3. Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey is another whiskey type differentiated by the aging and bottling region instead of the actual grain content. Just like scotch, Irish whiskey can be made from malted barely alone or with other grains. It is triple-distilled with a roasting step added in its pre-distillation phase. As a result, Irish Whiskey is far smoother.

4. Bourbon

Bourbon is American-made whiskey with over 50% corn in its mash bill. It is the closest a whiskey can get to being “corn whiskey.” Bourbon contains a mix of corn and malted barley, with corn occupying at least half of the grain recipe. The drink is made with zero additives and has a history dating back to the 1700s.

Unlike Scotch and Irish whiskey, bourbon cannot be a malt-exclusive liquor. However, the corn content can be varied for flavor reasons.

5. Wheat Whiskey

Wheat whiskey is a whiskey in which wheat occupies similar proportions to corn in bourbon. With 50% or more wheat in its grain content, wheat whiskey also contains malted barley. It might even include rye and corn. 

Wheat whiskey is not considered a premium beverage and doesn’t have the popularity that bourbon enjoys in America. Wheat whiskey tastes lighter, creamier, and sweeter than the average whiskey.

6. Tennessee

Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon in some ways. Mainly, it contains a high corn content too, but it is set apart by the Lincoln county process. The process entails steeping the whiskey in maple charcoal chunks before barreling. 

The result is sweeter and smokier than bourbon. With 51% to 79% corn in its mash bill, Tennessee whiskey is close to bourbon in its ingredient categorization.

7. Rye

Rye is an American whiskey that is differentiated based on its grain content. It contains 51%+ rye alongside a generous portion of malted barley in its mashbill. 

Rye whiskey is also referred to as Rye and has a characteristic “kick” that is also described as a spicy aftertaste reminiscent of black pepper. Rye can be a single barrel, single source, blended, or rickhouse special like most distilled grain spirits.

8. Canadian Whisky

Canadian whiskey is differentiated by its barreling region and distilling process. It doesn’t have any grains foreign to American whiskeys. The proportions of these grains, however, are different. For starters, American grain whiskeys have more rye, while Canadian ones have more corn.

Canadian whiskey also features caramel and flavoring. It is mostly aged in virgin barrels and is produced into two distinct pre-blends. One cask contains the base whiskey, while the other one contains the flavoring whiskey. Both are combined according to the distiller’s recipe before being bottled.

This process, alongside the mashbill requirements, excludes Canadian whiskey from the single barrel and malt whiskey categories. Most often, Canadian whiskey is a blended whiskey with additives and a 3-to-5-year age range.

9. Japanese Whiskey

As the name suggests, this whiskey is made in Japan. However, it doesn’t just vary by the origin of its distillation. Among the things that are different in Japanese whiskey compared to western whiskeys are the still sizes, aging containers, and the malting process itself.

Most often, Japanese whiskey consists solely of malted barley mash. The barley is double malted, and the contents of the whiskey are aged in plum wine casks. Usually, Japanese whiskey is smokier than American iterations, and it is pretty clear that the spirit is modeled after scotch.

Whiskey Grain FAQs

Whiskey Grain FAQs

What is the most valuable grain in whiskey?

Malted barley, or malt, is the most valuable grain in whiskey distillation. In most cases, barley is needed to start the fermentation process, even in spirits that feature other grains for the most part.

That said, malt whiskeys aren’t always more expensive than grain whiskey. Market factors like rarity, demand and supply play into the overall pricing of the whiskey. Still, single barrel malt whiskey is usually considered a top-shelf liquor.

Is malt whiskey better?

Malt whiskey is considered to be better by some consumers. Since taste is subjective, one cannot definitively argue for or against malt whiskey. The fact is that malt whiskey is the primary whiskey, and other grain whiskeys are variations.

These variations, like bourbon, can be more valuable and expensive than the original whiskey simply because of the market conditions. That said, most people agree that malt whiskey is more flavorful than its grain counterparts.

Is bourbon a whiskey?

Bourbon is a whiskey with significant corn content. Its mashbill contains at least 50% corn, and the consequent taste has become synonymous with bourbon. It is an all-American spirit which has its own prestige labels, high-end and low-shelf products, and distilling practices.

Is there corn whiskey?

Whiskey that is made from a significant quantity of corn isn’t called corn whiskey. It is called bourbon or Tennessee whiskey based on its recipe and distillation method. So, there is whiskey made from corn but not whiskey that is titled “corn whiskey.”

However, there is rye whiskey and wheat whiskey. These whiskeys replace corn with rye and wheat, respectively, in a bourbon-like mashbill recipe.

Does grain whiskey have malt?

Grain whiskey has malt because malted barley is needed to initiate the fermentation process. The malt content might be minimal and may not even be noticeable in the final product, though. If you like the taste of malt, you should stick to malt whiskey, which is made from 100% malted barley.

The Grain Truth: Everything You Need to Know About the Grains Used in Whiskey Production

Final Thoughts

Whiskey is made from malted barley, which is the primary grain in whiskey fermentation.

Other grains act as flavoring agents in various iterations of whiskey, including bourbon, Tennessee, rye, and wheat whiskey. Even with malt-exclusive whiskey, there are various iterations that are set apart based on their distilling processes.