American Whiskey: Distilling the Phenomenon
Liquor stores and bars are literally overflowing with great American whiskeys these days. Never has there been a time where so many local artisan distillers shared shelf space with national industrial heavyweights like Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam. Expanding palates have augmented traditional tastes, as the United States now boasts bourbon distilleries in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia). This didn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t mean that it’s all about one single type of whiskey.
However one’s preferences ultimately pan out, there’s a lot more going on in those bottles and shot glasses than one might think. Variations on everything from recipes to production methods ensure a vast wealth of the cultural and sensual experiences awaiting drinkers of all kinds. While most folks think of bourbon as the poster child for the nation’s officially recognized “distinct product,” the truth is that there’s a lot more to it than the bourbon we pour into our mint juleps. It’s time to take a deep dive into the fascinating and rewarding world of American whiskey.
Introduction of Whiskey Into America - Early Settlers
Almost immediately upon arriving on American shores, early settlers began producing their own booze. Quickly drinking down the supply of hard alcohol that they brought over on their ships, beer was most commonly the go-to adult beverage of choice for pioneering producers. This was due to the resources at hand — namely, lots and lots of grains. However, before pasteurization, beer tended to go bad pretty quickly.
One way colonists eventually got past this problem was through the popularity of rum, which almost never spoils. Robust importation of both the spirit and its main ingredient — sugar — led not only to consumption, but the early adoption of distilling rum across early America. This set up a distillation culture which would lend itself easily to the wave of Irish and Scottish migrants who flowed in during the middle of the 1700s. Bringing their centuries-long traditions of whiskey-making with them, a shift from rum’s popularity to the sprouting of early whiskey culture in America began.
Farmers especially could use their excess grains to produce the liquor for local consumption and trade. This population, however, was not the first to be recorded making the stuff. There are indications that as far back as 1640, Dutch settler Wilhelm Hendriksen made liquor from corn and rye in what is now Staten Island. But there is no doubt that the Irish and Scottish led the boom to the direct ancestor of modern American whiskeys. Contrary to popular belief, these earliest distillers were not in deep south Appalachia, but in places like Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. And it was one very famous Virginian, in fact, who really helped get whiskey go big in our nation.
Whiskey & George Washington
Many Americans might be surprised to find that George Washington was not only the father of their country but also played an important role in the early development of domestic commercial whiskey production. After retiring from his presidency in 1797, Washington returned to his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia to live out a pastoral life. It was James Anderson, Washington’s Scottish farm manager, who convinced him to distill whiskey using grains grown on his land. He was already manufacturing apple brandy and vinegar on the premises, so it wasn’t a big stretch.
The main ingredient was rye (65%), followed by corn and malted barley. Quickly, the two found success in the product both in quality and in sales. Being a shrewd businessman, the former president expanded the operation, becoming one of the largest registered distillers in Virginia within a year. Unfortunately, the former president passed away a mere two years later. His heirs were unsuccessful in duplicating Washington’s business acumen, and by 1814 when the distillery burned to the ground, it wasn’t deemed profitable enough to rebuild.
Regardless, the mark had been made. Having such a prestigious figure behind a portion of America’s whiskey legacy was certainly an inspiration to those who followed. And by the 2000s, the distillery itself was rebuilt, giving visitors to this day a taste of what may have been President Washington’s own whiskey.
The Whiskey Rebellion
Washington’s involvement with early America’s whiskey culture did not begin with his end-of-life ventures into the production of the spirit. In fact, during his presidency in 1791, he was involved with another huge historical event centering around the famous brown liquor.
With the fledgling nation facing serious debt incurred by the costs of the Revolutionary War, a tax was imposed on spirits. Because whiskey was by far the most popular liquor in the nation at the time, this levy came to be known as the Whiskey Tax, even though it affected everything from rum to brandy. Producers in the westernmost regions of the new country felt it was an unconstitutional case of taxation without representation.
By 1794, many of them rose up and violently resisted paying by intimidating and attacking tax inspectors. A peace envoy was sent to calm things down but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, President Washington rode into western Pennsylvania on a horse, backed by 13,000 infantrymen, to quell the rebellion. Fortunately, the rebels retreated before any bloodshed could occur. However, that was not the end of things. Resentment for this tax helped foment the formation of the Republican Party and by 1802, President Thomas Jefferson repealed the tax for good.
Spread of Whiskey
Even before the Whiskey Rebellion, the beverage had gained immense popularity due to an unusual confluence of factors. As mentioned, rum was the number one hard alcohol during the Colonial period, and the vigorous trade with the sugar-producing plantations in the Caribbean made it accessible. But once the War of Independence got into full swing, the British blockaded cargo ships, effectively cutting the Revolutionaries off from their favorite booze. This, along with the aforementioned influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants well-versed in whiskey distilling, allowed for a shift.
Now, not only was whiskey substituting rum, it became an almost patriotic point of pride. Here was a beverage made not from imported sugar, but locally sourced grains. Thusly, it became a symbol of self-sufficiency and nascent nationalism. So by the time the Whiskey Tax had been repealed, whiskey quickly became the most popular spirit. Frontier farmers were encouraged on more levels than ever to distill leftover grains and produce excess wheat, corn, and rye to serve an escalating demand. From here, all new traditions would emerge.
Whiskey Before Prohibition
With the Whiskey Tax gone, and the mythology of the liquor’s place solidified squarely in the American imagination, a new Golden Age of production was materializing. Eastern states with established traditions like Maryland were already in full swing. But more famously, a new tradition was beginning in the Western regions of the young nation, most notably Tennessee and Kentucky.
Kentucky, in particular, had some major advantages. Growing top-quality corn, with easily accessible limestone-filtered water, Kentucky became especially powerful because its rivers provided access to large markets in St. Louis and New Orleans. And with New Orleans’ port access, distillers could expand their sales to points overseas.
This period allowed for great innovation — and great competition. After all, America was now seeing a true flourishing of the industry, with 17 major manufacturersrecorded in pre-Prohibition Kentucky alone. Bourbons, ryes, wheat whiskeys, and blended whiskeys were consumed far and wide. Soon, however, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution would be ratified, prohibiting the use of recreational alcohol. But that didn’t mean that the party was necessarily over.
Whiskey During Prohibition
When the Temperance Movement finally succeeded in its century-plus effort to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting the recreational use of alcohol in 1919 (and the Volstead Act effectively enforcing it in 1920), the impact on the production and consumption habits for American whiskey drinkers was immeasurable. Calling it “The Noble Experiment,” the aim was to stem domestic violence, so-called “saloon-based” political corruption, and other ills of society.
Overnight, booze went from widely available at stores and taverns to the hidden underground. Some distilleries shifted the products they produced. Many wineries, for example, sold unfermented grape juice instead of Cabernets and Merlots. Beer breweries switched from alcoholic suds to selling yeast and “near-beer,” which is still produced for abstainers who enjoy the beer taste. When it came to whiskey, however, the illegal trade saw bootlegging from Canada, Ireland, and the Caribbean, as well as producers of so-called “bathtub booze,” dangerously unregulated liquors which could be poisonous and even cause blindness. However, there was still one way to legally distill and consume whiskey during Prohibition — a doctor’s prescription.
Already prescribed by doctors long before the Volstead Act criminalized alcohol, a special carve-out for physician-sanctioned whiskey remained intact during the 13 years the 18th Amendment was in place. Patients would be written scripts to imbibe the brown stuff to address maladies as diverse as toothaches and depression. Directions such as “take three ounces every hour for stimulant until stimulated” seem comical to us today, but they were legitimately filled at drug stores, making some folks perhaps wish they, too, could get sick enough to order themselves a shot!
In fact, the mega-pharmacy chain Walgreens capitalized greatly from such sales, enabling it to go from fairly successful to a national name. While the medical community today may question the wisdom of drinking a Manhattan when one is sick, there’s no denying whiskey’s unintended financial benefits that persist in America’s economy to this day.
Whiskey After Prohibition
By 1933, the United States was ready to move on from “the Noble Experiment,” as the country found drinking to be too embedded in its culture. Even worse, the side effects of black market booze — violent criminal gangsters like Al Capone — were too costly to society. And so the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing Prohibition. But what did this mean for American whiskey?
During Prohibition, tastes had changed. A Forbes article from that year openly speculated on the challenges a revived industry would need to follow, predicting much of it would need to be watered down. The producers who were licensed for medicinal whiskey could carry on in the once-again legal recreational trade. But many famous brands, such as Jack Daniel’s, would need to wait a little longer to come back from the dead, as Tennessee continued a local prohibition up to 1938.
Regardless, it was not long for distillers old and new to pick up where production had left off. Unfortunately, World War II would take another hit at whiskey’s availability. With America needing industrial-strength alcohol for the war effort, distilleries were diverted from making booze to providing an essential product for the Allies. Stocks of aged liquor diminished, and because of the years needed in the aging process, it would take some time to replenish. It took until the early 20th century for the massive explosion in American whiskey’s popularity to truly come into its own again.
Whiskey in America Today
As anybody who has spent time at bars, parties, or the local liquor store already knows, American whiskeys are truly having something of a renaissance. There is no shortage of artisanal distilleries popping up everywhere, from Brooklyn to Alaska. And there is certainly no shortage of customers out there. In 2017 alone, domestic whiskey sales in the United States jumped over eight percent.
Speculation as to the growing population of whiskey ranges from the advent of social media to the mythologization surrounding the liquor on shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. Tasting events, parlor games, and even specialized bars have helped transform whiskey into a status symbol as well as a badge of honor among connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. It’s a rewarding hobby, as never before has there been so wide a selection of American bourbons, ryes, and wheat whiskeys to satisfy just about any range of palates. Truly, this is the best time in history to enjoy a glass of pure distilled heaven.
A Guide to Whiskey Slang
Whiskey culture in America has always created its own niche for those in the know. There’s nothing terribly arcane about it, but for those keen on exploring the delicious and fascinating world that surrounds the liquor, a brief primer can go a long way when engaging with fellow fans. Such traditions go back so far, in fact, that none other than founding father Benjamin Franklin collected a list of whiskey terms, such as Rattle-Skull, Whistle Belly, and Flip. Those words won’t get you far these days, however. Here are a few whiskey-specific terms that can connect lovers of the spirit with the greater community.
First, there’s the lingo to identify flavor profiles and alcohol content. “Single malt,” for example, describes whiskey coming from 100% malted barley, while “blending” denotes the mixing of two or more casks to combine different desirable characteristics to the bottle.
“Peat” is a taste achieved by exposing grains to burning compressed vegetable matter during the malting process. “Cask strength” means the whiskey hasn’t been watered down from its high-alcohol content, as many commercial whiskeys are. Tasting terms like “nosing” encourage drinkers to first sniff the pleasant aroma of the liquor, while the “finish” talks about how it tastes after one has drunk it down.
Finally, “quaich,” which originally referred to a two-handed cup to drink your booze from, can now mean the communal drinking of whiskey. So get together with friends and get your quaich on!
American Whiskey Regions
With whiskey distillers in all 50 of America’s states, there’s no reason why any serious connoisseur shouldn’t travel to all of them to discover the wide variety of flavors awaiting them — if they have the time! While such a dream trip might take months if not years, there are more reasonable ways to explore whiskey tourism in the United States.
There are five regions where the traditions of fine domestic spirit-making go back a long way. From the well-storied Deep South to the perhaps less-expected Mid-Atlantic states, some of the classic distilleries with distinguished histories should be at the top of any whiskey pilgrimage for travelers seeking seminal tasting experiences.
Virginia: George Washington’s Distillery
We begin with what should be every American’s patriotic duty — to taste the whiskey from the Father of the country’s own distillery! Expanding on our earlier discussion, George Washington spent the last few years of his life having a go at producing the brown stuff — and did very well at it.
While the original site burned to the ground in the early 19th century, it has since been faithfully reconstructed. Not only that, but it’s open to visitors from April to October, and it still crafts small batches so fans can get their own taste of liberty! But the first American president was hardly the only operator. In his time, over a dozen major producers were already doing business, solidifying the Commonwealth as one of the nation’s oldest whiskey-making states.
Kentucky: Birthplace of Bourbon
Nobody knows for sure when exactly bourbon was born, but it is certain that it was born in Kentucky. Along with Tennessee, the land, water, and climate there are outstanding for making whiskey. While the oldest known surviving recipe for basic bourbon is said to belong to the Samuels family — who today produce the very popular Maker’s Mark brand — the first claim to bourbon as we know it comes from Baptist minister Elijah Craig, who opened his distillery in 1789. To this day, his name and process continue at the Heaven Hill Distillery.
While Craig does generally get the credit for being the first to age corn moonshine, it is likely that a slow evolution over time is more to thank for this wonderful invention. Regardless, Craig was living in Old Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1789, and it was then and there a legend was born. Ever since, the liquor holds the name of its “official” birthplace, with all the attendant rules surrounding it (more on that later). But it goes without saying that all of Kentucky is the ancestral home of bourbon, with uncounted scores of family traditions leaving their influence on fine liquors being distilled there ever since.
Tennessee: Coal Country Influence
Like its neighbor to the north, Tennessee has a long and storied whiskey tradition going back to the 18th century. Many of the same Irish and Scottish immigrants moved west to farm and distill, especially in the years of the Whiskey Rebellion. But the state developed a specific method of making whiskey known as the Lincoln County Process. Before casking the distillate for aging, the liquor is filtered through or steeped in charcoal. This helps sift out impurities and assists in smoothing out the final product. All but one whiskey manufacturer in Tennessee use the process, helping distinguish this region.
Another somewhat ironic peculiarity in the state is that it has many “dry counties” where liquor sales are prohibited. Ten years before Prohibition, Tennessee made it state law in 1910, despite already having hundreds of operating distilleries. After the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, it still took six extra years for the ban to be lifted within its borders.
Even today, many dry counties are still sticking to the prohibition, including Moore County, the home of none other than Jack Daniel’s. Yep, it’s true: you cannot legally buy a bottle of Jack in the very place where it’s made! But never fear: most of Tennessee has caught up with the times, and enthusiasts can even follow the so-called “Whiskey Trail” to taste dozens of wonderful spirits.
Pennsylvania: A Whiskey Keystone
Often cited as “the birthplace of American whiskey,” the state of Pennsylvania has no doubt played a crucial role in the evolution of the nation’s most important hard liquor. While more Southern states leaned heavily on corn to craft their fine elixirs, it was the heartier grain rye that first found purchase as the main ingredient at the higher latitudes. And when one considers migration patterns in the 18th century, it makes sense.
Back before railways and paved roads, western movement happened painfully slowly, often by foot, as even carriages were limited in what terrain they could traverse. So before many of the Irish and Scottish could claim a purchase in the further reaches of Kentucky and Tennessee, they had to make do with what grew easily in Pennsylvania.
The Keystone State was at the center of the patriotic movement that ditched rum for whiskey during the Revolutionary period and, as already discussed, was the hotbed for the subsequent Whiskey Rebellion itself. In recent years, the state has been reclaiming its rightful place as a serious destination for the brown stuff, even earning a “Best Whiskey of the Year” award in 2015 from the prestigious publication, Whiskey Advocate.
Maryland: Past as Prelude
Our last stop on America’s whiskey regions tour may be the most surprising. After all, modest Maryland is more famous for ocean-based mainstays such as Baltimore crab cakes and the Naval Academy at the state capital of Annapolis. As with Pennsylvania, The Old Line State’s history with whiskey goes back to Colonial times, also using rye as the main ingredient. Originally a leading manufacturer with scores of distilleries, Prohibition caused a decline from which it never fully recovered, while remote areas like Tennessee and Kentucky were able to maintain traditions as enforcement of the Volstead Act was more challenging.
Nowadays, Maryland rye whiskeys are enjoying a resurgence. While old recipes may have been lost, new traditions are defining the region’s spirits with a sweeter taste signature. A boom in small craft distilleries is on the rise, vying for a reclamation of the state’s old fame for being the epicenter of American rye whiskey. Can the Free State once again become as synonymous with its signature product as Kentucky has with bourbon? That’s up to individual taste buds to decide!
Key Ingredients: What Goes Into the Glass
We already established that when it comes to American whiskey, corn and rye are the chief components. Throughout history, these choices were born mostly out of the local availability of growable grains. After all, these traditions were born long before air travel, modern freight shipping, refrigeration, and other preservative technologies. Key ingredients were perishable and needed to be sourced relatively close to a distillery, often on the same farm where the stuff was produced. It would be centuries before exotic spices could be infused or other fancy elements would be introduced to domestic spirits.
The evolution of American whiskeys was afforded the time and space to allow it to become its own distinct product, defining a craft that has long since been recognized around the world as worthy a tradition as the finest of wines, brandies, or even Irish and Scotch whiskeys themselves.
One of the ingredients that really allowed American whiskey to come into its own was the native grain known as maize, or as we now call it, corn. Unknown to the early Irish and Scottish distillers honing their craft in the centuries before the Age of Exploration, corn was used in whiskey as early as 1620 in Virginia. As this grain grew far easier in North America than the traditional barley used in the British Isles, it was a choice born of necessity.
The results have become an institution in their own right, as maize has remained one of the most common ingredients in American whiskeys for generations. One of its main characteristics is a sweetness that other grains cannot achieve. This adds a very palatable quality that can make for “easy drinking” alongside many other “harsher” products.
Another hearty grain that grows far more easily in northern New World climes, rye has played a critical role in American whiskey since the very earliest days of its founding. Before corn got popular in the Southern states, places like Maryland and Virginia relied on this more abundant resource. Once the predominant type of American whiskey, Prohibition led to a decline in its popularity.
However, in this Modern Age of American distilling traditions, rye is seeing a huge resurgence. Where corn imparts a sweetness in the final product, rye offers a spicy or fruity character. When added to cocktails, it will also make them drier. In fact, the original recipes for cocktails such as Whiskey Sours and Manhattans called for rye. Corn-based bourbons became more popular as American palates drifted toward more sugary drinks. As new trends are seeing more folks shunning sweeter flavors for health reasons, rye is being explored as new tastes become sought after.
Blended whiskeys have been a mainstay in the oldest distillations, going back to Irish and Scottish progenitors of the practice. But the definition of “blended” in Scotland is very different from the American definition. In the case of Scotch, it means a mix of malt whiskey and grain whiskey. Both sources must also be aged for the same amount of years. Johnny Walker Red Label is a famous brand following these rules.
American blended whiskeys take a different angle. Here, the idea is that one portion of the blend must be either corn or rye, while the rest is to come from a neutral spirit — most commonly, vodka. This makes for a milder flavor, one that was preferred in the 1980s during the height of vodka’s domestic popularity. Connoisseurs often refer to American blended varieties as “vodka-flavored whiskey,” in fact. These concoctions make for a fine, drinkable alternative to some of the more pronounced “peaty” and “woodsy” options that are enjoying mass appeal in the 21st century.
Rules & Regulations
The key ingredients found in American whiskeys come with a set of rules and regulations when labeling products. As an example, you can’t sell a corn-based whiskey and call it rye! But the exact ratio of ingredients, types of grains used, geography, and even specific processes also follow strict codes. It is exactly like how in France, for example, champagne must be made in a specific region, using specific grapes and fermentation processes.
American whiskey distillers must take on just as serious and attitude when making the good stuff. Consumers need to be able to have standardized entryways into the vast amount of product on the market. And the traditions that gave us these marvelous liquors must be preserved. A few key terms help clarify some of these rules further.
Bottled in Bond
In an attempt to stem what was seen as the widespread adulteration of American whiskey, the United States passed in 1897 what was known as The Bottle in Bond Act. The idea was basically to create certain standards in the nation, aimed at ensuring the quality of bourbon. Through the years, quality had been losing consistency as distillers made all sorts of accommodations to traditional processes. To bear a bottled-in-bond label, a few rules must be followed:
- Must be produced in America during one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery
- Aging must occur in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse
- Must be aged at least four years and bottled at 50% ABV
- Labels must identify the distiller and bottling locations
It’s not a designation popularly used by the industry, and while it is meant to denote quality, it is also cannot guarantee that the liquor will be superior. That said, some modern craft distillers are seeking the label to distinguish themselves in the market as standing for more rigid standards that lead to a better bottle of whiskey.
When one orders a glass of whiskey “straight” at a bar, that means one is getting it in a glass with no mixers or ice. But labeling American straight whiskey in the bottle is a different matter. To earn this moniker, the whiskey in question — be it from corn, rye, or any other source — has to follow some key guidelines.
First, the initial distillate cannot be more than 80% ABV. Once ready for aging, the ABV cannot exceed 62.5% and must occur in charred new oak barrels for at least two years. From there, other elements may be introduced, such as mixing and filtering, but no water may be added until the final step of bottling. All of these rules are strict for domestic bottling in the American market, but they may not apply as rigorously in exported product.
This term is a little trickier. Many American whiskeys boast they are “small batch” on their labels. But what does this mean? As the name suggests, the product is sourced from a relatively small number of aging barrels. This presumably allows for quality control and consistency of specialized flavor. The truth, however, is that there are no federal standards for what constitutes a small batch whiskey in the United States.
Generally speaking, most brands would land on that number as being somewhere between 10–12 barrels. Knowing this, can consumers really taste a difference in these often premium products that command higher prices? The short answer is yes. Regardless of official status, modern traditions put great value in slapping a small batch proclamation on a label, and in virtually all cases, one can bet they are getting a whiskey that has been crafted with great care.
And now we go from the “small batch” category to the smallest possible batch tradition! Again, as the name implies, single barrel whiskeys are sourced from but one aging barrel. This ensures each bottle from the unique cask will be unaffected by blending. Unique characteristics will emerge, which serious connoisseurs will take great lengths in seeking out. As with specific wine vintages, professional tasters can enjoy seeing how one cask to the other produced its own character, making for an extremely special whiskey drinking experience.
A common complaint among whiskey consumers at a bar would be that the bartender is watering the stuff down to save money. But prepare to be shocked: most whiskey on the market already is watered down! The fact is, most whiskey comes out of the aging process at about 60–65% ABV. For most people, anything above 40% ABV is tough to swallow. That’s why water is typically used to tone down that harshness during the bottling process.
American whiskeys that are not watered down will be labeled “cask strength.” The undiluted product will be less mellow, boozier, and contain more “heat,” or that burning sensation sometimes associated with hard liquors. This is why most consumers of cask-strength whiskeys will actually dilute it with water or ice themselves, feeling that by handling the process on their own, they can directly affect the drinking experience. In any case, these are definitely spirits only the bold may be inclined to indulge with!
American Whiskey Types
The term “bourbon” has almost become synonymous with the whole idea of American whiskey. While we know this isn’t true, it’s important to appreciate what makes bourbon so distinctive and valued. For one thing, it’s the sweetest of the whiskeys. This makes it a natural agent in a whole treasury of cocktail recipes. It’s the corn that affords it this sugary character; by law, 51% of any whiskey calling itself bourbon must be made of corn. Additionally, the initial distillate must be no higher than 160 proof, meaning 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). The aging must occur in new charred oak barrels, and while bourbons can be aged as little as three months and still use the name, the more coveted term “straight bourbon” denotes an age of two or more years.
Many people believe all bourbon must be from Bourbon County, Kentucky, or within the borders of The Bluegrass State itself. In fact, so long as it’s made in the United States under all the other rules, it can be called bourbon. Regardless of all this, Kentucky remains the most voluminous region for this type of American whiskey, with approximately 95% of all domestic production happening in the state.
As ubiquitous as bourbon has become in the American whiskey lexicon, Tennessee whiskey proudly adheres to its own set of idiosyncrasies, largely rejecting the label “bourbon” from labels and marketing efforts. Under Tennessee law, for a product to bear this name, it must be made within the borders of The Volunteer State. Just like bourbon, the mash must be 51% corn. Finally, the so-called Lincoln County Process comes into play. Before aging the distillate in barrels, the whiskey must be steeped or filtered through charcoal. Different distillers will use different woods and methods to create their charcoal. Contrary to popular thought, this does not add flavor to the final product but is a reductive process, filtering out harsher elements, making for a smoother drink in the end.
All that said, because of Prohibition-era laws that remained unchanged until 2013, most Tennessee whiskeys have been made in places like Indiana (there’s no federal law about where Tennessee whiskey is made), but changes under recent legislation are encouraging a whole new culture of whiskey-making in the place of its birth.
In this era of gluten-free trends, all manner of spirits, such as sorghum beers, market themselves as safe for those with the allergy. Most people are not aware that buckwheat, despite its name, is not a grain at all. And now whiskey makers are taking advantage of that little niche. The production of buckwheat whiskey is comparable to the production of malt whiskey, except that all or most of the barley is replaced with buckwheat.
Some would say that since buckwheat is not technically a grain, then any liquor made from it can’t truly be a whiskey. But buckwheat whiskey has an established tradition in Brittany, France, and the rules aren’t as clear as one might think. In any case, these spirits boast a caramel-sweet flavor profile along with an intense grainy quality. Here again, is an American whiskey style to be on the lookout for.
Unlike its close cousin bourbon, an American corn whiskey must be made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn (as opposed to the 51% for bourbon). Unlike bourbon, it’s not aged at all. When it is aged, it’s in oak barrels and usually for under six months. And yet it is distinct from moonshine, as it does still require a mash process. It’s allowed to be up to 62.5% ABV. To be fair — it’s known to be a little rough around the edges compared to its mellower American cousins, but it’s sought after by bar professionals as a perfect mixer for highly aromatic drinks.
As already mentioned, rye whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51%, is one of the most important legacy liquors in the United States. The fruity and spicy flavor the grain affords to mixed drinks makes it one of the more sought-after ingredients in many a mixologist’s most elegant cocktail recipes.
A large percentage of rye is blended with corn whiskey or malted barley whiskey. But when the spirit has been aged for over two years and has not been mixed with another product, then it gains the designation “straight rye whiskey,” providing one of the boldest palate experiences in the American field.
Rye Malt Whiskey
Rye malt whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye, has a distinct flavor advantage over traditional rye. Because the malting process releases more sugars, these spirits tend to be a little sweeter and bring out a “piney” qualitythat is unmatched in any other well-known whiskey flavor profiles. Rye malt whiskey isn’t a huge player in the market yet — only a handful of producers are committed to making it — but as the popularity of “regular” rye continues to surge, this friskier cousin is sure to follow close behind.
Made from a mash that consists of at least 51% wheat, as the name clearly implies, here we find a wholly other quality distinct from other grains. Using this grain produces a lighter, less spicy experience, which still affords a special sweetness. The required specifications are the same as in bourbon (only it’s wheat instead of corn), and a “straight” wheat whiskey won’t be blended with any other grains. These fine spirits are also relative newcomers to the crowded American market, and interestingly, share traditions with Germany, the only other large whiskey wheat producing region in the world.
The most typical bourbon recipe contains corn, rye, and malt. Simply put, a wheated bourbon uses wheat in the place of the typical rye grains to add flavor to the mash. This results in a final product that sacrifices more full-bodied fruits and spices (thanks to the more typical rye blend) in favor of a softer, sweeter beverage.
And even though the public at large still doesn’t think of wheated whiskey as “a thing,” at least one huge name out there is already an extremely popular brand of this variation: Maker’s Mark. Smaller craft distilleries are looking at this style more and more, so it should come as no surprise should whiskey enthusiasts be encountering this style more regularly in coming years.
Much has been made about the famous single-malt whiskeys from both Ireland and Scotland. Legendary brands like The Macallan and Glenlivet are coveted the world over. But America is getting in on the action in its own style. Malt whiskey, made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley, provides one of the smoothest whiskey drinking experiences known while retaining a robust body.
A fledgling body called the American Single Malt Commission is pushing for the following rules to be instated for this designation:
- Must be made from 100% malted barley
- Distilled at one distillery
- Mashed, distilled, and matured in the US
- Matured in oak, not exceeding 700L
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof
- Bottled at 80 proof or higher
Producers are already out there trying to make this category gain popularity, so serious whiskey drinkers need to be on the lookout!
There is an extraordinary number of exacting professional steps that go into the manufacturing of a taste of the good stuff. And every decision made every step of the way will be ultimately expressed as the experience on the nose and palate of the drinker. While countless variations and secret recipes abound in the ever-growing community of industrial-scale producers and artisan craftsmen, the basics remain largely the same.
Understanding these fundamentals of whiskey-making can only reinforce the knowledge of the burgeoning enthusiast community as they chase down the aromatics and flavor profiles that make the senses revel with delight. Here are some of the basics of the production process for a good introduction to the wonderful and arcane bit of alchemy behind our favorite adult beverage.
All production obviously starts with the selection of grains. Whether one is using corn, rye, wheat, or anything else, the grains must be inspected and cleaned of foreign particles (dust, gravel, etc.).
Once that part is done, the grains are ground in a grist mill, then poured into water tanks and heated at boiling temperatures in open tanks, or even higher in pressure cookers. This process allows for cellulose walls to break down, releasing granules of starches which will be needed for the next steps.
Barley is an exception, however. As it needs to be malted, it is saturated with water rather than cooked. Over a period of weeks, sprouts emerge, creating an enzyme called amylase, which converts the grain’s starch into sugars. Then they are heated dry with air from a kiln (Scotch whiskey will use a peat furnace to add those distinct flavors to the final product). At that point, the grains are ground just like the others.
Once passed through the milling process, a byproduct called malt culms are separated and used for protein-rich livestock feed. The remaining materials are run through a grist hopper so that more coarse portions of the grind can be filtered out, leaving only the best part of the grains remaining for fermentation.
Now it’s time to take the prepared grains and mix them with the malts. Pouring all this into a tub known as a mash tun, the exposed amylase now converts the starches into sugars in a warm water environment. Before it goes through its transformation, this is known as the mash.
The resultant sugar-rich, opaque fluid that results from the mashing process is then filtered through a tank called an under back, resulting in a further refined product known as the wort. This is the stuff that will be going into fermentation, and as such, is an element that must be just right if any subsequent step is to prove to be fruitful.
And now, the moment of truth: turning all those yummy grains and their cultivated sugars into alcohol! The wort is added to washback tanks, usually made of steel or wood. Yeast is added to the wort so it can feed on those sugars and convert them into booze. What type of yeast is added will affect the final product. When new yeasts are employed, it’s known as the “sweet mash” process, which is hard to keep free of bacterial infection but can speed the fermentation process.
The more common “sour mash” method uses yeasts that have already been used in prior fermentations, and because they are naturally more acidic, less supervision is required to keep fresh. After a few days, the resulting liquid — called “distiller’s beer” — comes in at about 10% ABV.
The distiller’s beer is now ready for it to become distillate. This liquid is poured into what is known as a wash still. Here, it is heated high enough for the alcohol to evaporate, leaving the water, which boils at a higher temperature, behind. From there, the collected evaporated alcohol is condensed back into liquid form with steam added to help the process. At this point, the product is called the low wine.
To refine the flavor and boost the alcohol content, another distillation process occurs in the spirit still. The resulting distillate is then pushed through a feints receiver, where more undesirable characteristics are filtered out. All along this process, distillers can’t touch or taste the wine.
After the filtered second distillate (or third, if the producer is so inclined) moves on, the resultant high wine is inspected visually in a transparent and airtight box called the spirit safes. Once the distiller determines that the stuff is ready to proceed, it is piped to the spirits receiver, from which the wine can be safely shifted into the aging barrels.
And now, that most famous of steps: the aging of the whiskey. It is here, most often in oak maturation barrels, that the high wine will be mixed with water and slowly transform from a raw moonshine-type product into a refined and sophisticated liquor. Oak barrels are preferred, as they tend to be more watertight to limit leaking. The porous qualities of different oaks leave the liquid free to move around, allowing for greater acquisitions of the wood’s character into the final flavor.
A lot of other things go into aging, but nobody fully understands what happens in the process, other than a great deal of character emerges. Different barrel and environmental conditions can affect the ABV of a whiskey. In any case, distillers can expect to lose an angels share, which is the inevitable loss of about 2% of the whiskey during the maturation process. It is that same porousness that allows interaction with oxygen that also guarantees some of the good stuff will escape into the heavens. And of course — the longer the whiskey is aged, the more of the angel’s share will be lost. While it cuts into profits for producers, it controls the final taste of the whiskey.
The moment of truth is at hand. For all the history, for all the scientific knowledge and painstaking methodology that goes into crafting a fine bottle of whiskey, it all comes down to the experience of tasting it. Whether one does appreciate the generations of trial-and-error experimentation or not, it is the nose and the palate that ultimately are the benefactors of all the trouble that has gone into that glass.
And so, anyone serious about the privilege of sipping, shooting, or swilling some fine spirits may want to take just a little time in informing themselves in a few basics of whiskey tasting, lest the full potential of that sublime moment be diminished.
Select Your Glassware
The whole notion of “it matters what glass you drink your booze out of” seems ridiculous to many. After all, how can a glass change the basic flavor of the beverage you pour into it? The truth is, it can affect things quite a bit. That’s why bar-goers will see different vessels used for wine, beer, or brandies. When it comes to whiskey, there’s a glass for every type of experience.
Snifters are common go-tos, offering wider mouths so the aromatics of whiskey can dance in our noses before we taste. Highball glasses, on the other hand, are made for enjoying the cocktail experience.
Smell: The Nose
Over the many years of hard alcohol consumption, the idea of doing shots has been emphasized a little too often. Instantly quaffing down small quantities of liquor hardly gives one the opportunity to enjoy the full complement of the sensory adventure awaiting the drinker. Using a snifter, the enthusiast will first swirl the whiskey around in the glass. Then, with the nose hovering above the rim, the aromatics of the matured product will hit the olfactory centers, evoking both nostalgia and novel scents.
Don’t let others tell you what to expect! There’s an art to processing the delights of the effusive qualities of a finely-crafted spirit. Let the old schnoz get a good whiff for its own enjoyment, and to prepare the mouth for what comes next.
Taste: A Gentle Process
Not unlike a fine wine, the proper tasting of a whiskey can seem a little strange — but totally worth it! First, one should take a small amount into the mouth. Swish it gently, as nasal inhalation can augment the tasting experience with a perfuming element. If so inclined, one can then gargle the liquor a bit to spread flavor around the entirety of the mouth. Then slowly swallow it to savor the lovely qualities on the palate and beyond.
It’s important when doing a serious whiskey tasting to have plenty of water on hand, and be sure to avoid anything that can interfere with the tasting, like food, gum, or smoking. The water will buffer the stomach and esophagus from getting upset while cleansing the palate before tasting another delectable spirit.
Water or No Water?
Ah, the great debate! Many whiskey connoisseurs will ask if its even legitimate to taste a whiskey unless it’s served “neat” — meaning no water, ice, or mixers. It can be a point of contention among many rival drinkers but let us recall: the vast majority of whiskeys that make it to market have already been cut with water. So, if one’s personal palate requires a little more weakening, does it really matter?
In fact, when it comes to cask-strength whiskeys, it’s almost a given that at least a block of ice if not a splash of soda is in order to soften the harsh edges of such high ABV products. As with hot sauces, there does come a point where the more oppressive qualities of the product can impede the actual tasting of the whiskey itself. Or to put it another way, how are you going to concentrate on flavor when your mouth is on fire? In many cases, adding that bit of water proves to be a help and not a hindrance in enjoying everybody’s favorite brown liquor!
Are you ready to begin savoring the delectable delights of American whiskeys? If so, WhiskeyGlasses.ca offers an excellent selection of glasses catering to a variety of drinking needs. Browse our selection today to purchase the right type of glass for whatever experience you may be looking for.