Grain Varietals and Whisky Production

Picture of Grain Varietals and Whisky Production

All over the world the same 3 raw materials are used for the production of whiskies, whether for whisky, whisky or bourbon the base is the same, grain, water, and yeast. With these 3 ingredients a mash is created, brewed, distilled and matured creating every variation of whisky on the planet. Every whisky consists of one, or more different types of grain. The distilleries that use several varieties have their secret mixing ratio (the Mash Bill).


Barley is the best known and one of the most widely used types of grain for whisky production. This is mainly because it is easy to malt and contains the necessary enzymes for alcohol production. With the help of these enzymes, the starch of the grain is broken down and converted into sugar to be consumed by the yeast later in the production process. Barley is also essential for the production of single malt as by law, these must be made using 100% malted barley.

Currently Concerto is the dominant barley varietal in use, though this is likely to shift to Laureate over the next few years. More and more different types of barley are being bred with the aim of producing a varietal which is:

  • Robust against various diseases
  • High yielding (delivering as much sugar as possible).

With these new high-performance varieties, up to 500 liters of alcohol can be obtained per ton.


Corn is mainly used in America for bourbon production as by law the mash bill (grain mix ) must consist of at least 51% corn. Rye, and wheat are also common as in malted barley (because of the enzymes, if barley is ommited artificial enzymes must be used. Corn production is also common among Canadian spirits and within the production of grain whisky.


For a time rye was the dominant grain used in whisky production during the the settlement of America. It is a relatively undemanding cereal which needs less water and thrives on poor soils. American rye whiskies (which by law must contain at least 51% rye) are becoming increasingly popular again. Rye whisky production is uncommon outside of North America though small volume production has begun to take place in Scotland, England and across Europe in recent years. Rye whiskies are known for their nutty, spicy flavour.


Wheat is the most commonly used grain for the production of grain whisky, especially in Scotland. The distilleries generally prefer to use winter wheat which, although it takes longer to be harvested, has a significantly higher starch content. Wheat whiskies are among the least flavourful even when used within pot distillation and so are generally used for the smooth, rounding influence they have in blends.

There are other types of grain that are used in whisky production, however, these are far less common. Some distilleries are quite experimental however so it is possible to find whiskies made using the following types of grain on occasion:

  • Oats
  • Buckwheat
  • Triticale (a rye and wheat hybrid more commonly used for beer)
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Spelt
  • Rice


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