To the rest of the world, the traditions of American distilling bear a twang of the Old West; and they are not exactly wrong. We don’t go in much for so-called terroirs or product protection regulation, but we do lean toward traditions and recipes. Legends, even. That’s the whiskey-making that speaks to us and represents the “good stuff.”
That said, American whiskey is simply grain spirits made in America. And underneath that umbrella live wonderful bottles of many kinds. We find ourselves in agreement with the great hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler, who summed it all up: “There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskies that aren’t as good as others.”
Here’s a basic taxonomy.
To call a spirit bourbon, all that needs to happen is that you distill from a fermented mixture (or mashbill) of at least 51% corn at a maximum of 80% ABV, and age the distillate in new charred oak containers to a maximum of 62.5% ABV before bottling (most bourbons are bottled at 40% ABV or 80 proof). If aged more than two years, it can be called straight bourbon.
Some purists extend that definition of bourbon to spirits distilled and bottled as above—but only in the state of Kentucky. That battle has essentially been fought and lost. But Kentucky is where the heritage of bourbon began, and many avow that the Bluegrass State is also where it ends (although terrific bourbons are made across the U.S., from Tennessee (read on) to upstate New York, Texas, Colorado, and beyond). The areas around Lexington, Bardstown, and Louisville are home to the best-known and most artful bourbon makers, like Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Michter’s, Buffalo Trace, and many others. There are many exceptional newcomers, like Rabbit Hole, and brands resurrected from the past two centuries, like Chicken Cock.
Many major bourbon distillers also have craft bourbon sub-brands, overproof and single barrel iterations, and other variations of their core offerings. Many also distill rye whiskey, but more on that later. The rest of the grains used to make up the as-much-as 49% of the mashbill besides corn can vary, but most quality bourbon makers use barley, winter wheat, or rye to make up the difference. Rye typically dominates, but the precise mixture of non-corn grains is what creates a variety of flavor profiles. In some cases, all four grains are used. South Carolina’s Six & Twenty distillery makes a very nice FIVE-grain bourbon with some rice added to the mash, just for the heck of it (and for a kind of regional authenticity). Tastes and preferences of sweetness and smokiness vary like the rolling hills of Kentucky. Just enjoy your ride.
You can’t talk about American Whiskey without talking about Jack Daniels. Jack is made over the border in Tennessee, but uses the bourbon recipe. It is, essentially, a straight bourbon made in Tennessee, and as such is the best-selling bourbon in the world. However, while they can still legally call it bourbon, Jack Daniels and many other distillers in the state, like Dickel, refer to their brew as Tennessee Whiskey, because local traditions and regulations specific to Lincoln County, TN, require that spirits with that name use an additional filtering process through charred maple to produce a unique smoothness. Some distillers outside Lincoln County use the added process, as well. These Tennessee products do tout a smoothness to the tongue, by and large. But, personally, I’d be more likely to use a Tennessee whiskey in a cocktail than an exceptional bourbon.
You can take all of the above information, and if the fermented mash is as least 51% rye, you can call it such. Literally, you can have 51% rye and 49% corn, but you cannot call it bourbon. Historically Canadian whiskey-makers took a shine to rye, and the grain’s spicier, peppery smoothness, blended with traditional corn distillates, became a hallmark for that style of spirits (in Canada, rye and Canadian whisky are terms used interchangeably, even if the end product only has a minimal amount of rye in it). Rye whiskey was the dominant brown pour in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries
Rye whiskey was the dominant brown pour in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries
But make no mistake: Rye whiskey was the dominant brown pour in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Northeast was the population center for the country. U.S.-made rye nearly disappeared after Prohibition (with the excellent born-in-Pennsylvania product from Old Overholt and a few others surviving; Overholt’s rye is now made in Kentucky, BTW). As such, most classic American cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned were crafted to suit rye’s particular flavors; bourbon took over as that spirit’s popularity grew. But rye is back, big time, with many major bourbon distillers also making terrific executions of this age-old spirit. While not widely available, brands like Kentucky-made Bernheim Original are “wheat whiskies,” meaning their mash is at least 51% wheat. Germany is now the production home of wheat whiskies, but some bourbons use an abundance of wheat over rye and other grains in their mashbill. Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle Family Reserve, and Rebel Yell are examples of so-called “wheated” bourbons. Many cult favorites like Weller employ this approach.
MASH, SHINE, HOOCH
If you make your mash with at least 80% corn and do not barrel the distillate, you have corn whiskey, or corn liquor. Many states allow the production, bottling, and sale of this 80% ABV spirit, and often it is gimmick-marketed in a mason jar as it fits the profile of homemade moonshine. Other high-ABV clear non-aged spirits are sold as grain alcohol in many states. This stuff was once simply for spiking punch, and they are not for the faint of heart, taken straight.