There are two basic sorts of American whiskies: straight and blended. Since they are the most popular, especially on-premise, let’s focus on straight whiskies. There’s the most famous, of course; bourbon whiskey, a straight whiskey whose production rules are controlled by law. Other American whiskies compete, like rye whiskey and blended whiskey, both formerly more popular than bourbon, but today, bourbon gets the most attention.
Since 1964, American law has established that bourbon can only be made in the US, but its production isn’t limited to Kentucky. In fact, very good bourbons come from Virginia and Tennessee, (arguably the most famous American whiskey is a Tennessee whiskey, Jack Daniel’s.) But what makes these “straight” whiskeys?
STRAIGHT TO THE POINT
Straight whiskey in America is the name given to a spirit made from 100% grain, distilled at less than 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof), aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak casks, with only water added. For example, for a whiskey to be a straight corn whiskey or a straight bourbon, it must be made with at least 51% corn. To be called a straight rye whiskey, at least 51% of the mash bill – the whiskey-making term for the mix of grains that create a brand’s distinctive flavors and aromas – must be rye. (Usually, the percentage is much higher; most Kentucky and Tennessee whiskeys include as much as 80% corn.)
To be called Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, the spirit must also be distilled and aged in Kentucky for at least one year and then aged at least one other year anywhere. The major difference between Kentucky and other bourbons and Tennessee whiskies, besides location of production, is that in Tennessee, distillers filter their spirit through sugar maple charcoal after distillation and before aging, something called the Lincoln County process.
In making bourbon whiskey, rye, wheat and barley malt are also used, in any combination. Rye is usually the second grain, and high rye bourbons, like Wild Turkey, are known for their spiciness, while wheated bourbons, like Maker’s Mark, are considered softer and mellower.
Before aging, bourbon’s proof must be lowered to no higher than 125 proof using distilled water. But no colorings or flavorings can be tossed in to otherwise alter the appearance, flavor or aroma of the spirit. Before bottling, the proof can be lowered to 80, but no lower. After aging, barrels of various ages are usually blended to achieve the brand’s flavor profile, but the age statement on the bottle reflects the age of the youngest whiskey used.
As mentioned before, bourbon making is controlled by federal laws that, among other things, dictate new, charred oak barrels for every aging whiskey (pushed through, it’s been hinted, by legislators from timber rich states). While the mash bill strongly influences the resulting spirit’s flavor, so does the length of aging and the level of char in the barrels; there are four levels of char.
DOUBLE BARREL SINGLE-BARREL
To make single-barrel whiskies, distillers comb the multi-story warehouses where the bourbons rest, looking for specific flavor characteristics. Barrels stored on the upper floors in the unheated and uncooled warehouses mature more quickly, and the effect of light, heat and cold on other barrels significantly alters how each barrel ages; that’s why many distillers say their real work is in blending rather than distilling, combining barrels to reach the proper flavor profile. Single barrel whiskies are made from just that, whiskey from one particular barrel, or a series of barrels, with the same characteristics which distillers believe are superior without being blended. They’re released as single-barrel whiskies, an increasingly popular trend among aficionados. Blanton’s was the first single barrel bourbon on the market.
Pioneered by Jim Beam Brands with their small batch collection (Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s and Knob Creek), small batch bourbons are the result of the marriage of selected barrels to create a specific flavor and proofage profile in limited production. In the case of Beam’s series, the spirits are crafted at different proofs, from Basil Hayden at 80 to Booker’s at 126.
CATCHER IN THE RYE
Few major distillers push rye whiskies, but the style is now being micro-distilled by people like Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam Brewing and is making a bit of a comeback. Sazerac offers an 18-Year-Old Sazerac Rye, which has garnered great praise for its limited product and also the Van Winkle line from Julian Van Winkle.
Other important American whiskey information: Sour mash refers to the use of at least 25% of the previous distillation’s spent mash in the new fermentation to provide consistency from batch to batch. Most American straight whiskies are sour mash. As for blended whiskey, it must contain at least 20% straight whiskey in combination with neutral grain spirits, colors and flavors.