Over 30 years ago Weil and Shubin proposed a re-classification of shock states and identified hypovolemic, cardiogenic, obstructive and distributive shock. The first three categories have in common that they are associated with a fall in cardiac output. Distributive shock, such as occurs during sepsis and septic shock, however, is associated with an abnormal distribution of microvascular blood flow and metabolic distress in the presence of normal or even supranormal levels of cardiac output. This Bench-to-bedside review looks at the recent insights that have been gained into the nature of distributive shock. Its pathophysiology can best be described as a microcirculatory and mitochondrial distress syndrome, where time and therapy form an integral part of the definition. The clinical introduction of new microcirculatory imaging techniques, such as orthogonal polarization spectral and side-stream dark-field imaging, have allowed direct observation of the microcirculation at the bedside. Images of the sublingual microcirculation during septic shock and resuscitation have revealed that the distributive defect of blood flow occurs at the capillary level. In this paper, we classify the different types of heterogeneous flow patterns of microcirculatory abnormalities found during different types of distributive shock. Analysis of these patterns gave a five class classification system to define the types of microcirculatory abnormalities found in different types of distributive shock and indicated that distributive shock occurs in many other clinical conditions than just sepsis and septic shock. It is likely that different mechanisms defined by pathology and treatment underlie these abnormalities observed in the different classes. Functionally, however, they all cause a distributive defect resulting in microcirculatory shunting and regional dysoxia. It is hoped that this classification system will help in the identification of mechanisms underlying these abnormalities and indicate optimal therapies for resuscitating septic and other types of distributive shock.