American Whiskey - History, Regions and Production Techniques

An Introduction to American Whiskey

The History of American Whiskey

The history of American whiskey dates back to the 1700s when Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived in the United States (known as the British Colonies prior to 1776). Settlers made homes in Pennsylvania and the western parts of Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina.

German settlers in Pennsylvania also contributed to America’s whiskey industry.

A mass move to Kentucky was the catalyst that defined a uniquely American brand of spirits. Corn fields were abundant, which eventually led to the distillation of what would become bourbon.

Rye was another popular grain and was hardier than barley that had been imported from Europe. Both were used to make other types of American Whiskey.

In 1971, an excise tax was proposed and approved on liquor, in part to help pay off debts from the Revolutionary War. Distillers (primarily in western Pennsylvania) protested the tax during George Washington’s presidency, and in 1974, the Whiskey Rebellion peaked in violence with the burning of a tax inspector’s home. George Washington and an army of 13,000 were able to suppress protestors and effectively end the rebellion.

Regions of American Whiskey

American whiskey can be found across the country, but it is most famously distilled in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Types of American Whiskey

There are several types of American whiskey, which vary in taste and ingredients.

Bourbon, which originated in Kentucky, is typically sweeter in taste due to the high percentage of corn. Bourbon is produced from a mash that contains at least 51% corn and is aged for at least two years in a new, charred white-oak barrel after distillation.

Rye whiskey has spicier notes and is made from a mash with at least 51% rye.

Tennessee whiskey must be produced in Tennessee and is made using a mash of at least 51% corn. It is also aged in new charred-oak barrels.

There are also many craft distilleries in the States whose ingredients and aging process differ from the strict rules of the abovementioned spirits.

How American Whiskey Is Made

The specific process used to make the spirit will depend on the type of whiskey being produced. American whiskey typically starts as a mash, which is a mixture of corn, rye, wheat, and barley.

It goes through a distillation process which increases the alcohol level of the base. The fermentation process involves sugar and yeast which interact to create alcohol and CO2. The alcohol is then separated from the remaining liquid using evaporation and condensation. The vapors are collected and condensed back into the liquid to create a high Alcohol by Volume percentage (ABV).

The distilled spirit is then aged in an oak cask, which gives it its golden color and depth of flavor.  American whiskeys are aged in new oak barrels, typically for a minimum of two years.

Characteristics of American Whiskey

The characteristics of American whiskey vary by type, but some typical characteristics include spicy notes of cinnamon and vanilla, sweet toffee notes, and rich, earthy oak which comes from the barrel aging process.

Prolific Producers of American Whiskey

George Washington was not only the first president of the United States; at one point, he also operated the largest rye whiskey distilleries in the nation. The tradition continues in Mount Vernon at the historic distillery and Gristmill site, with small-batch spirits distilled under George Washington’s name.

Jack Daniel’s is an internationally recognized brand, whose story is over 150 years old. In 1864, Jack Daniel’s was introduced to the world by Jasper Newton Daniel, who was known to most as “Jack.” The Jack Daniel’s distillery was officially established in 1866 in Tennessee next to Cave Spring Hollow.

Maker’s Mark is another well-known producer of whiskey, specifically Kentucky bourbon. Bill Samuels, Sr. turned a 170-year-old secret family recipe into the renowned company in 1954. Maker’s Mark is easily recognizable by its hand-printed label and red wax seal on the cap.

Bulleit Frontier Whiskey is another famous Kentucky company. Augustus Bulleit made high-rye whiskey in the mid-18oos, a tradition that inspired his great-great-grandson Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr. to revive an old family bourbon recipe in 1987. The company specializes in bourbons and rye whiskeys.

Blended vs. Single Malt Whiskey

The debate on blended vs. single malt whiskey is rooted in Scottish spirits, whereby blended scotch whiskeys are a mix of malt liquors from different distilleries. This gives them a lighter, less smoky flavor that lends itself to easy drinkability.

Single malt whiskey refers to the product coming from a single distillery. Single malts tend to be more expensive and are often associated with single malt scotch from Scotland. However, single malts are also produced in other countries.  

In the U.S., blended whiskey has had a bad rap for being an inferior product. In the United States, producers of a blended whiskey can add a neutral grain spirit to their product that doesn’t actually doesn’t have to be a whiskey spirit.

Bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey (Jack Daniel’s, most notably), must adhere to strict production standards in order to claim their nomenclature. For example, the aforementioned spirits must be aged in unused oak barrels, which adds to the color, flavor, and overall depth of the product. Blended whiskey is not bound by the same restrictions, meaning it can be aged in a variety of ways.

This frees up distillers to experiment with different wooden vessels, which can provide new and unique tastes to a familiar spirit.

Famed bourbon distiller Jim Beam offers a blend that is comprised of various grain whiskeys and bourbon, providing a mellow substitute for its bolder, traditional spirits.

American distillers are playing around with various production methods to produce blended whiskeys, whether it be re-using barrels, adding new flavor elements, or combining different whiskeys from within their distillery or across the country.

Often these come out as batch whiskeys, adding a new craft element and elevating a once frowned-upon class of liquor.

What Makes a Whiskey Expensive

There are many factors that play into the price of whiskey—prices which range from affordable to unattainable.

On a basic level, the cost of raw ingredients can affect the price of the final product. Craft producers sourcing organic ingredients will pay more for those specialty items and do not benefit from buying large quantities of something like larger producers. Overhead costs also need to be factored in and can depend on things like the size of the labor force and location (is it a craft distillery located in a prime part of town?).

Location will also determine the taxes on the retail product, which could see the consumer paying more for a bottle from one state, province, or country to the next.

The single most important factor in the price of whiskey is age. Generally speaking, the older the whiskey, the more expensive it will be. Storing a product for a long time without being able to sell it to cover costs means consumers pay a premium. Because alcohol is flammable, it is also expensive to insure, so you can imagine that a room full of volatile goods has high costs associated with it.

Aging spirits are also subject to something called “the angel’s share.”  The angel’s share refers to the natural evaporation process that occurs during the maturation of whiskey in casks. Anywhere from 1 to 2 percent of the overall volume is lost per year, meaning there is less of that product to sell. This makes it rarer, which in turn makes it more valuable and expensive.

Branding and marketing also play a factor in cost, as with any packaged consumer good. Whiskeys that come from distilleries that have a great reputation have a unique brand voice. An overall great story will increase the demand for their products, which in turn drives up the price. Fine details that set the product apart, such as packaging, will also add to the bottom line.

Enhance your Whiskey Experience

If you’ve made it through our American Whiskey 101, then chances are you love whiskey as much as we do! To help enhance your consumption experience, here are a few suggestions to elevate your sips.

  • Choose a whiskey that appeals to your palette. Everyone has their own preference when it comes to whiskey, so if you really want to enjoy your drink, make sure you choose a product that you actually enjoy. Want something sweeter? Bourbon is the way to go. Are you into spicier notes? Give rye a try! If you want a lighter option, try blended batch whiskey from a craft distiller.
  • Add a drop of water. Again, this comes down to preference. Even those who prefer their whiskey neat (no ice) may add a single drop of water to help open up the flavor and give an overall smooth taste and mouthfeel to their whiskey.
  • Add ice. Proceed with caution on this one! Some purists look down on adding ice to their whiskey, feeling that it betrays the spirit and waters it down. Adding ice can be a good option if you’re looking to sip slowly, mellow out the flavor and intensity, and add a refreshing element to your drink. If you're looking to cool things down without lightening the flavor, try adding whiskey cubes, which will keep things cold.
  • Use your senses. Drinking whiskey can be a truly sensorial experience. Look at the color, inhale with your nose, and take a small sip and hold it in your mouth for a couple of seconds to really savor your whiskey.
  • Use the right glass. Just as you would use different glasses for different wines (and no, we don’t mean your mismatched set from college), choosing the right whiskey glass is important as well. Vega offers a wide selection of whiskey glasses to enhance your overall consumption experience. A shorter glass with a wider mouth will allow your whiskey to breathe and open up faster, while a tumbler with a tapered mouth will maintain a really bold taste in your glass. We also have glasses that range in density, which can actually affect the flavor of your whiskey when you hold it (thicker glass is great if you’re holding your glass for a long time, as there will be less heat transfer to the liquid inside).

Whichever spirit you choose and whatever method you use to enhance your experience, please make sure to consume responsibly.

For more information about other types of whiskey, head over to our blog.

Shop our gallery of glasses at www.WhiskeyGlasses.ca and pick the perfect pairing for your favorite American whiskey!