As part of our “World Whisky” series on the blog, today’s post is an introduction to American whiskey. There are quite a few persistent myths around bourbon, rye, and other American whiskey styles, which I think contributes to a lot of Scotch-heads dismissing the category.
Craft distilling has seen an enormous boom in the US recently, in fact, according to the American Distillers Institute, as of February this year there are 1950 distilleries across the United States. That’s around 15 times as many as in Scotland! It’s no wonder that American whiskey as a category can be overwhelming to get into, never mind the sheer variety of styles, tastes, and brands that are out there.
Thanks to the prolific use of American oak (common myth, bourbon simply has to be aged in oak – from anywhere), most American whiskeys err on the side of sweetness, with typical flavours of vanilla, coconut, and caramel. Historically, grains like corn and rye grew better than barley, so most traditional American whiskeys are made with these. Corn is much sweeter and gives fruitiness, body and texture to the whiskey, while rye adds a peppery spice, often with flavours of dark chocolate and coffee. There are now some excellent single malts on the market as well, which are usually very different in character to Scotch single malts, thanks to variations in stills used, the strains of barley and ageing climates.
For this introduction to American whiskey, I’ve decided to break down five of my favourite American whiskeys by flavour category, or the main characteristic of the dram. Some of these have featured in past tasting boxes, and others are ones we hope to get on board in the future!
Ageing whisky in Waco, Texas is no easy feat, as due to the cold nights and hot days, whiskey ages incredibly quickly there. As such, Balcones has focused on creating flavour well before the unaged spirit even enters the barrel. They use grains with lots of natural flavours, such as the blue corn used in this release. Creamy, vibrant, and sweet, you wouldn’t be far off describing this as liquid creme brulee or toasted marshmallow. Delicious!
Four Roses’ standard bourbon offering is a solid choice for an entry-level whiskey, and their Small Batch equally so, but we think the Single Barrel is where it’s at. This Kentucky bourbon is silky smooth and sweet but full of woody, herbaceous notes, cherry, vanilla, and cocoa to back it up.
Restored historic brand James E. Pepper has been pumping out some heavy-hitting releases, experimenting with different cask finishes and even brewing beer. Look out for some independent bottlings of oloroso and ale finished rye whiskey if you’re into very interesting whiskeys. Their 1776 range harks back to the brand’s 18th-century origins, and the rye is full of tropical fruit notes, citrus, spice and light oak, with a creamy mouthfeel.
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While more known for wine production, since 2010 Sonoma, California has also been home to a pioneering whiskey distillery. Made predominantly from Californian corn and wheat, this bourbon has a unique flavour profile consisting of soft brioche, almond, toffee and gingery spice.
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This single barrel, cask strength release from revered Kentucky bourbon brand Blanton’s won Jim Murray’s Single Cask Whisky of the Year in 2019, along with many other awards. For a good reason. It’s oak-y, floral and spicy, with undertones of rich dried fruit, stone fruit, and toffee. With a long finish, this is definitely one to savour.
In this post, I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the rules and regulations around whiskey from the US, as to be honest – there are a lot! I just wanted to give an introduction to American Whisky. If you’d like some further reading about the differences between bourbon and rye, what woods you’re allowed to use, minimum age, and other technical geekery, there are some great resources out there. Otherwise, I hope you’ve found some new American whiskeys to try here today, and do let me know if there’s one you’d like to see us include in a future Dram Team box!
Warmest whisky wishes,
Chris (Founder, The Dram Team)
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