Everyone is drinking whiskey these days, but not everyone seems to know what it is. Most of us know that Scotch is, indeed, a whisky (note the spelling difference there). And some of us know that bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky. Beyond that, there’s confusion.

What used to be made by a few mist-wrapped distilleries in Scotland and Kentucky is now made all over the world, from Taiwan to San Diego. And what used to be distilled from a few familiar grains is now made with everything from amaranth to quinoa. But don’t let the diversity scare you: If you want to become a whiskey master, start with these basics.


Distilled from a mash of water, yeast, and malted barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years, it can be a blend of whiskies from different distilleries, or it can be a “single malt,” made by just one. Single malts can come from anywhere, but they have to come from Scotland to earn the name Scotch. There are some great blends—Johnnie Walker Blue Label, for one—but single malts are the rage. Prices are skyrocketing, but great, inexpensive drams remain. Try The Balvenie DoubleWood 12-Year-Old: nutty, creamy, and just around $50.


Made from mostly corn and aged in new oak barrels, most of it’s still made in Kentucky, but many of the newer, small-scale craft distilleries are located far beyond the Bluegrass State. Bourbon is still a great value: You can get Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old, a brisk, dry whiskey with hints of cola and toast, for about $40.


Like bourbon, except—as the name implies—it’s mostly rye, not corn. Rye was a staple drink in colonial days—George Washington owned one of the largest rye distilleries in America—but it almost died out after Prohibition. It’s making a comeback thanks to the notes. For a good rye, check out Sazerac, which is relatively mellow but packs a minty kick, for about $40.