A Quick Guide To American Whiskey

American Whiskey Styles

Bourbon is far and away the dominant style of American whiskey, in the U.S. and around the world. Jack Daniel’s, and the much smaller George Dickel, call themselves Tennessee Whiskey, but they are bourbons in all but name. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative defines “Tennessee Whiskey” as “Straight bourbon made in Tennessee.”

Rye whiskey sales are a tiny fraction of the market now, but rye’s popularity has been growing rapidly, in part because it is a close cousin of bourbon, and in part because it is called for in many pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes. Before Prohibition, rye was more popular than bourbon but it never recovered and almost stopped being made. Its revival is a recent phenomenon, so demand exceeds supply and many brands are hard to find, even close to where they are made.

Wheat whiskey is straight whiskey whose mash is more than 51 percent wheat. It doesn’t sell much in the U.S. and is rarely exported. Corn whiskey is made from a mash that is at least 80 percent corn and corn whiskey is the only type of American whiskey that can be sold without aging. It can be aged, but if it is it must be aged in used or uncharred new barrels. That’s because if you age corn whiskey in new, charred oak barrels, it’s bourbon. Like straight wheat whiskey, corn whiskey has a very small market share and is rarely exported.

In theory there are many other styles, but none are made by the major distilleries. Recently, America has experienced a boom in micro-distilleries. They are all very small, just getting started with whiskey, and generally not exporting, but they are something to look for in the future.

Bourbon is considered America’s “native spirit” because its signature grain, corn (maize), is native to the Americas. Not much of it was exported until about 25 years ago, but since then the international market has grown rapidly. Major brands such as Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s sell half of their volume outside the U.S.

Australia is one of the leading outposts for American whiskey abroad. More and more excellent examples are becoming available to Australian consumers every year and Australian whiskey enthusiasts are becoming more passionate about it as they become more knowledgeable.

The Uniqueness of American Whiskey

While much is made of Kentucky’s clean, iron-free, limestone water and robust wild yeasts, the most important ingredient in American whiskey is neither grain, nor water, nor yeast. It is the barrel. The alcohol, of course, comes from the grain, but most of the flavor comes from the wood. American whiskey-makers are required by law and tradition to use only new barrels.

Another distinction is that virtually all American whiskey is straight whiskey, while the industry in every other country is dominated by blends. Scotland and scotch fans, of course, prize single malts, but singles (which are roughly equivalent to American straights) represent a tiny percentage of all scotch sold. The same is true in Ireland, Japan, and the rest of the whiskey-making world. America makes blended whiskey too, but it is a minor part of the overall market, like Scotland in reverse.

Although most bourbon is made in Kentucky, it doesn’t have to be. Some is made just across the border in southern Indiana. Tennessee whiskey is what they call bourbon when it’s made in Tennessee.

 

The Flavors of 
American Whiskey

What bourbon whiskey is all about is the sweetness and body provided by corn, and the sweetness and rich flavors provided by the fresh, new barrel. The dominant flavors are vanilla, caramel, and tannin. Rye is the flavor grain in most bourbons and American rye whiskey is a style in its own right, made much like bourbon except with rye as the primary grain. Rye provides earthiness, spice, mint, fruit, flowers, and a satisfying heat at the back of the throat.

Young American straights can be grassy, oily, and tannic. Older ones conjure up pipe tobacco, old leather, anise, black tea, wintergreen, soot, and smoked meat. Although a bourbon or rye may be called ‘straight’ after just two years in wood, few bourbons or ryes are sold at less than four-years-old, the better ones are six- to eight years old, and the best (arguably) are ten- to twelve-years-old.

This is true even if the whiskey doesn’t reveal its age on the label. Label age statements are only required for whiskeys that are younger than 4 years. They aren’t required at all for export, but most producers adhere to the domestic standard. Whiskeys older than 10 years need age statements to justify their high prices. In the middle (4 to 9 years) there has been a trend away from age statements. This is justified by the fact that barrel aging characteristics vary by storage location; maturity not being a function strictly of age.

Some producers will use numbers on their labels to imply age, but don’t be fooled. “Old No. 8” on the label does not mean the whiskey is 8-years-old. In fact, it almost surely means it’s not even close.
Older American whiskeys are made and sold, up to about 25 years, but they can be a chancy proposition. Let’s just say you must like the flavor of wood, because at that age that’s about all you can taste. It’s fair to say that American whiskeys get reliably better up to about 12 years. After that they taste different, but not necessarily better, although some very-olds are outstanding.

 

Aging American Whiskey

To understand why Americans use a barrel only once, think of it as a tea bag. The comparison is more than just a metaphor. In both cases, heat and water are used to extract oils and other flavorful compounds from woody plant material. After one use, most of the desirable compounds have been extracted and the barrel (or tea bag) is largely depleted. Tea bags rarely get a second life, but used bourbon barrels do. In addition to most of the world’s whiskeys, they are used to age brandy, rum, and tequila. They are also used to make beer, hot sauce, soy sauce, and cigar tobacco.

After they lose their ability to hold liquids without leaking, they are used in furniture manufacture.

The barrels must be white oak, Quercus Alba (the North American species) or one of its close cousins. They typically hold 53 gallons (about 200 litres). Before the barrel can be made, the wood must be dried. The trees are roughly cut into staves close to the forest, then shipped to the cooperage, which is typically close to the distilleries. There the wood is stacked outdoors and allowed to dry naturally for between six months and two years. During drying, weather cycles and the action of micro-organisms begin to break down the wood, making flavor compounds more available. Rain washes away a lot of the harsh tannin. Sometimes the staves are kilned to finish the drying process.

After the body of the barrel is assembled, but before the ends are added, the inside is heated (‘toasted’) and then burned (‘charred’). The heat releases more flavors while the burned layer acts like a charcoal filter. The heat also partially caramelizes some of the wood sugars. Tannin gives the whiskey its color.

Whiskey ages because when it heats up (such as on a hot summer day), it soaks deep into the wood. Then when it gets cool (such as on a cool summer night), it contracts back into the center space, bringing with it the rich wood flavors.

Because the new, charred oak barrel is so important to bourbon and American rye, a case can be made that American whiskeys have as much in common with tea or coffee as they do with other whiskey styles, which rely less on extraction and more on oxidation and other chemical changes that occur over time.

Making American Whiskey.

Midwestern states, particularly Iowa and Illinois, are the biggest corn producers and also make most of the county’s grain neutral spirits (i.e., vodka). Indiana is also big and supplies most of the corn for whiskey producers, who are concentrated in Kentucky and Tennessee. Farmers in Kentucky and Tennessee also grow corn, but not enough.

Most bourbon mashes are 70 to 80 percent corn. Most rye mashes are 30 to 40 percent corn, and just the legal minimum of 51 percent rye. Rye is also used as the flavor grain in most bourbons and is typically 10 to 15 percent of the mash. Some bourbon mashes (most famously Maker’s Mark) contain wheat instead of rye, in similar proportions. All bourbon and rye mashes contain about 10 percent malted barley.

Most American whiskey distilleries get their malt from maltsters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is a major brewing center. Their rye comes from Nebraska, the Dakotas, or Canada. Their wheat typically comes from Kansas.

All of the grains arrive at the distillery whole and by the carload. When a distillery is mashing, corn arrives pretty much all day. The grains are ground separately, mixed with water, and cooked. Corn is always cooked first, for the longest time, and at the highest temperature. The temperature is reduced for the addition of rye or wheat, and reduced again for the malt. Some distilleries cook corn separately and combine grains in the fermenter.

During cooking, the mash is constantly agitated to keep grain solids from sticking to each other or to the cooker. The objective is to dissolve all of the starch.

After cooking, the mash is allowed to rest to allow the enzymes released by the malt to convert the starch into sugar.

Next, the mash is transferred from the cooker to a fermenter, where mash from a previous distillation is added. This ‘spent’ mash is slightly more acidic than the fresh mash and is used to adjust the pH to make it hospitable to yeast. Since the spent mash makes the new mash taste slightly sour, mash treated in this way is called ‘sour mash.’ All major American whiskey distilleries use the sour mash process. All add spent mash to their fermenters, usually making up about 20 to 25 percent of the volume. Some also add it at the cooking stage.

Although the spent mash, by definition, contains no sugar, alcohol, or live yeast, it does contain other nutrients yeast needs to be healthy and productive.

Finally, yeast is added. Fermentation takes four to seven days, which can be controlled to make sure there is always enough finished mash – known as ‘distillers beer’ – for the voracious stills.

American whiskey is typically double-distilled, first in a column still that strips out all of the alcohol and provides some rectification of the spirit, then in a pot still that polishes the spirit. By law, it must leave the stills at less than 80 percent alcohol and most producers distill out at closer to 70 percent. It must be barreled at less than 62.5 percent, so water is usually added.

From delivery of the grain to barreling the new make, known colloquially as ‘white dog,’ takes about a week, but it will take years for it to become good whiskey.

Tasting Tips for Beginners

Newcomers to the category who think they are buying the best when they spend a lot of money on the oldest bourbon they can find are frequently disappointed. There is nothing wrong with starting at a level above Jim Beam white label or Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, but don’t jump immediately to some 20-year-old Van Winkle.

Some suggestions for novices who want to get straight into ‘the good stuff’ are Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Bulleit, and Elijah Craig.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with starting with Jim Beam white label, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, Wild Turkey, or Cougar. They are all perfectly good representatives of the type and it only gets better from there.

There is nothing wrong with drinking whiskey, even good whiskey, however you like it; over ice, with cola or dry. You paid for it, do what makes you happy. But if you really want to taste the whiskey, have it either neat (i.e., nothing added) or diluted with a little room temperature water. Dilution, up to a 1:1 ratio, is a very good idea for tasting, because knocking down the alcohol prevents it from numbing your taste buds.

Remember that tasting is mostly smelling. Spend some time contemplating the whiskey’s aroma. Swish a little around in your mouth, then inhale (carefully) through your mouth to pull the aroma into your nasal passages from the inside.

Don’t worry about diluting it too much. American whiskey has plenty of flavor, you won’t wash it away. If you want to taste it neat, start that way, then add a little water. Or start with a diluted pour, followed by a neat pour.

One doesn’t usually associate drinking with thinking but if you want to fully appreciate any whiskey, contemplate it as you drink. What do you taste? What do you like best? What do you like least? How does this whiskey differ from the last one you had? Some people like to take notes. You’re not writing a book, just jot down some impressions.

Most of all, have fun. If learning about whiskey ever becomes a chore, you’re doing it wrong.

 

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