Bourbon, rye, Tennessee and others.
American Whiskey refers to all whiskey made in the United States. It is the go-to whiskey for cocktails. Bourbon is by far the most prominent and widely distributed style. Behind it is rye, which has made a notable comeback in recent years, though it still trails bourbon sales by a wide margin. Broadly speaking, bourbon is mellower and rounder while rye is sharper, spicier and drier. A more in-depth comparison can be found on the Bourbon and Rye page. There are several other styles of whiskey made in America, some of which are listed across the page.
The predominant grain used to make American whiskey is corn, followed by rye, with wheat and malted barely also playing important roles. More on this below.
American Whiskey = New Oak Barrels
Many American whiskeys, by law, must be aged in new oak barrels. Whereas Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and Canadian whiskeys are typically aged in used barrels, incidentally often ones that previously held bourbon. This is a key distiction, new barrels impart much stronger oak flavors up front, and they are a primary source of the trademark flavors you'd expect from a bourbon or rye, such as of vanilla, coconut, and toffee.
Use Higher Proof Whiskey For Cocktails
Whether you choose bourbon, rye, or another style, I recommend using higher proof whiskeys for cocktails, particularly stirred ones. Ideally around 45-50% ABV.
Bourbon contains at least 51% corn and is sweeter and rounder. Rye contains at least 51% rye grain and is sharper and more assertive in cocktails. Tennessee Whiskey is nearly identical bourbon, with a couple exceptions. Read More...
Other types of whiskey made in the U.S. include corn whiskey - at least 80% corn (Mellow Corn is great), wheat whiskey - 51% wheat, malt whiskey - 51% malted barely and rye malt whiskey - 51% malted rye. Unaged whiskey is known as white dog or, more popularly, moonshine. Read more...
Whiskey was brought to America by the colonizing Europeans who had been making it for centuries. Barley, the main ingredient in Scotch and Irish whiskey, didn't grow as well here. So up in Pennsylvania and Maryland they made whiskey with rye, and when settlers ventured further south they began to use corn, the base of bourbon. Learn more...
How American Whiskey is Made
American whiskey must be distilled to, or below, 160 proof, or 80% ABV. Any higher and it'd be considered vodka. Most American whiskeys are distilled in a column still, before going through a second run in what’s called a thumper or doubler, which is a lot like a pot still. This second phase helps raise the proof a little more and polish the quality of the spirit. A hybrid still is also sometimes used, which is basically a pot still with a short column in top. Similar to a traditional armagnac still.
I look at this two-pronged approach as the American whiskey distiller’s way of balancing art and commerce. They still make a world-class whiskey without exclusively using the pot still, which is much more time consuming and expensive. More on the basics of distillation and different types of still on the Distillation page.
Corn and rye are the foundation of the American whiskey category. They are where bourbon and rye whiskeys get their trademark balance of sweet (corn) and spice (rye). When one is the primary grain the other is usually the secondary grain, as you’ll see below.
Corn has a higher sugar content so it yields more alcohol, which is why it’s often called the engine of bourbon. Rye is heartier, stingier, and more difficult to work with overall. Interestingly, because corn yields more alcohol than rye, some rye whiskeys will have more alcohol derived from corn than rye, even though they contain more rye grain than corn.
When a barrel is "charred", that means the inside has literally been burned with an open flame. Charring creates a layer of carbonized wood which imparts multiple benefits to a maturing spirit. It helps filter out impurities and bitter flavors and breaks down the wood which releases many of the flavors compounds that we know and love in American whiskey. It also gives the whiskey a rich amber color. There are four degrees of "char," 1 being the lightest, 4 the most intense.
Fermentation: The Sour Mash Process
You’ll see "Sour Mash" printed on a lot of Bourbon labels. This not a separate classification of whiskey, contrary to some bogus claims (#4). Sour mash is a fermentation method that is common amongst American whiskeys. It involves retaining some liquid leftover after distillation - aka the backset - and adding it to the next fermentation batch. The backset is very acidic, and yeasts prefer acidic conditions. So this provides a better environment for them to do their job: create alcohol. It's a similar process to making sourdough bread, or the use of dunder in high ester Jamaican rums. More on the basics of fermentation on the Fermentation page.
I’ve been told citric acid (crystalized citrus acid) would accomplish the same goal, but the sour mash is process is a much about tradition as it is about function and it is lovingly entrenching in the American whiskey culture.
An example of a typical mashbill for bourbon:
75% corn, 15% rye, 10% barely
Increase the rye to 20% and it’s a "high rye bourbon".
Replace the rye with wheat, it’s a "wheated bourbon".
Swap the corn and rye proportions, and it’s "rye".
What is "Straight" Whiskey?
Straight whiskey is a term unique to American whiskey. It may seem meaningless because it appears on so many labels, but it actually speaks volumes about what's in the bottle - especially amidst the rise of craft whiskey. To be classified as "straight", a whiskey must meet all the requirements to be called a bourbon, rye, etc., and aged for at least 2 years. So a whiskey that's been aged for 6 months could still be called bourbon, but not straight bourbon. Equally important, if a straight whiskey is aged for less than 4 years, the age must be stated somewhere on the bottle. Sometimes it'll be hidden somewhere, like on the bottleneck.
So a bottle that of Straight Bourbon or Straight Rye with no age statement means it is at least 4 years old, (also that has no additives, more below) making it a solid marker of quality.
Common American Whiskey Categories:
Bourbon - Made from at least 51% corn, though it's usually 70-80%.
Rye - Made from at least 51% rye.
Tennesse whiskey - Almost exactly the same as bourbon, except it can only be made in Tennessee. Another difference is it can be filtered through sugar maple charcoal for added mellowness.
Corn whiskey - Like bourbon, but made from at least 80% corn. It does not have to be aged, but if it is, it must be in used barrels, distinguishing it from other American whiskeys.
Wheat whiskey - Made from at least 51% wheat.
Malt whiskey - Made from at least 51% malted barley. This includes American single malts which are 100% malted barley.
Moonshine (aka White Whiskey) - Not a technical category. Moonshine is really just unaged, illegally made, whiskey. The term is often used on white whiskey labels, purely for the cachet.
Broadly speaking, American whiskey isn't aged as long as some other whiskey categories, like scotch and Irish whiskey. One reason for this is the relatively warm and dry climate in the United States, particularly in Kentucky, which expedites the aging process. Additionally, new oak imparts more intense flavors up front, so these whiskeys don't need to sit as long. Most lower and mid-shelf American whiskies are in the 3 to 8 year range, with the higher end rarely going longer than 10-15 years.
Of course, there some exceptions, and exceptional ones at that. Wheated bourbons can be aged longer because wheat's flavors are so subtle. This why Pappy Van Winkle is able to keep maturing after 20 years, whereas other bourbons and ryes will become overly oaky by that time. As always, these are generalities. Every barrel and every whiskey is different.
In general, I think the minimum for a properly-aged bourbon is 4-5 years, and 3-4 years for rye (rye's spice pice covers up the rawness of the spirit). Any younger than that and there will be a disctinct aroma that all younger whiskeys (aka "new-make") have which I can best describe as "bread-y" or "green". This is why I think "Straight Whiskey" is an important label to pay attention to,more on that across the page.
Maturation & Barrel Aging
The Importance of New Barrels
As mentioned above, most American whiskey categories by law must be aged in brand new oak barrels, corn whiskey being an exception. Additionally, the barrels must be made from American white oak and charred (burned) on the inside. This combination of white oak, new barrels, and char provides American whiskey with its hallmark flavors like vanilla, coconut, peach, dill, smoke, and toffee. Also of note, because American whiskey can only use barrels once, many other whiskeys around, like scotch, Irish, and Canadian whiskey, are aged in ex-bourbon casks. More details on the inner workings of barrel aging can be found on the Maturation page.
American Whiskey is aged in warehouses called rickhouses, aka rackhouses. The larger companies will hold 20,000 barrels in a single rickhouse and they are stacked, or “racked”, 27 barrels high. The barrels on the top will age differently than the ones on the bottom, due to the discrepancy in temperature and humidity. It is much hotter and drier higher up. This prompts many producers to rotate their barrels.
Any Straight American whiskey as well as any bourbon, straight or otherwise, may not contain any flavoring, coloring, or sweetening of any kind. This in stark contrast to most other whiskey categories, and spirits in general, which usually do permit some, or all, of those things (it's true, your Scotch probably has some coloring in it). Though with the exception of bourbon, if it doesn’t say "straight" on the label, the whiskey may indeed include these additives, and many do - not that that is always a bad thing.
Like most spirits, different barrels and batches of American whiskey blended together to maintain flavor consistency within a brand. Often the barrels will be different ages though even when a bottle has an age statement it is usually a blend of barrels of that age, or older.
Single Barrel Whiskey
The exception to blending is single barrel whiskeys which are bottled from specifically selected barrels, usually ones that are deemed superior in some way. Single barrel whiskeys almost always have a high price point. This is not to be confused with barrel proof whiskey, see below.
Blended American Whiskey
There is also a Blended American whiskey. Which is a category that's a mixture of as little as 20% straight whiskey, with the rest being and "grain whiskey" or "grain spirit" which have been distilled to very high proofs and aged for just a few months, if at all. So they are essentially lightly aged vodka.
To be blunt, avoid blended American whiskey at all costs. It is cheap and it tastes like it. If you're looking for budget whiskey there are plenty of solid options, Evan Williams for one. To be clear, American blended whiskey is not to be confused with blended scotch or Irish whiskey, both of which are excellent examples of blended whiskey.
American whiskeys are generally bottled a little high in alcohol that other whiskey categories: between 43% and 50% ABV (86-100 proof), though lower-priced options are at the minimum 40% ABV, some of which are quite good, Four Roses Yellow Label for one. As I said above, I prefer higher proof whiskey in cocktails. More proof means more flavor. Here are two label statements that are good to aware of which speak to proof:
Bonded - “Bonded” or “Bottled in Bond” is a U.S. government supervised certification that ensures a few things: the whiskey is 50% ABV/100 proof, it was all made in the same distilling season, and is at least four years old. Bonding began in 1897 to ensure distillers were being honest about what was in their product. I love using bonded spirits in cocktails.
Barrel Proof - Barrel proof means the whiskey was not diluted before bottling. American barrel proof whiskey is some of the highest proof in the world, as high as 60-62% ABV and in some cases all the way up to 70%! This is because many of them are aged in the hot and dry Kentucky climate where more water evaporates in the barrel than alcohol, so the proof goes up during aging.
Which Distilleries Make Which Brands
There are countless brands of bourbon and now many ryes, but amazingly, all the major brands pretty much come from one of just eight major distilleries in the United States. Many of your favorite brands are made by the same company in the same distillery. The difference between brands could as simple as aging for a whiskey for longer or bottling it at a different proof. Below is a wonderfully helpful diagram made by the folks at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn which shows where many of the major brands come from and how they are related. Note, these brands sometimes change hand and businesses merge, so this chart will always be subject to new developments. Click to zoom in.
Regarding "Craft" Whiskey
Despite the dominance of the larger companies outlined in the chart above, over the last 10-15 years there has been an influx of independent whiskey brands hitting the American market. These are broadly referred to as “craft whiskey”. While they only make up about 3% of sales, craft whiskey has significantly impacted the industry by breathing life into lesser-known styles and diversifying the landscape. But it hasn't been an easy road. A lot of the product is hit or miss and not all of them have survived.
Below is a primer on the world of craft whiskey in 2019, how it works, what to look for, and where it’s headed.
Types of Craft Whiskey Brands
They generally fall into one of two categories (with some overlap):
Craft Distilleries - These companies have a distillery and make their whiskey from scratch, from mashing to fermenting to distilling to aging.
Non-Distilling Producers (NDP) - These companies purchase whiskey from another distillery, usually one of the larger ones, and bottle it under their own label. But they can still make unique whiskeys by blending different barrels together, aging it for longer, or finishing it a new barrel. A telltale sign of an NDP brand is if the whiskey in the bottle is older than the company itself.
On the surface, it’s tempting to view craft distilleries as more genuine and NDPs as masquerading impostors. But that is a mischaracterization. Both can be great or not so great. All I care about is whether the whiskey is good and that the company is honest about their process.
Craft Distilleries - Aging Pains
Craft distillers brave a tough road. The investment required to make a properly aged whiskey, both in time and money, is huge. Imagine starting a business and having to wait a few years before any product is ready to sell while behemoth companies have loads of better-priced stock ready to go.
This has led to my biggest complaint about craft-distilled whiskey: it's often sold before it’s old enough. Many of them are bottled at less than two years, in some cases one, or not aged at all (don’t even get me started on white whiskey, aka the trend that no one wanted)! Most larger whiskey brands are a minimum age of 4 years for bourbon and 3 for rye. This is why most craft bourbons and ryes don’t say "straight" on the bottle, and whiskeys from larger brands do.
Some producers try to expedite the aging process by using smaller barrels, and/or putting staves (planks of wood used to make barrels) in the barrel so there's a higher ratio of wood in contact with the whiskey. This method imparts some of the oakier characteristics of older whiskeys, but ultimately produces inferior results. Other important reactions that occur inside a barrel happen the same rate, no matter how big the barrel is. So a spirit aged in a small barrel may resemble an older one in some respects, but it won’t be fully mature. More on the science behind barrel aging can be found here.
Why is Young Whiskey a Problem?
Simply put, it just doesn't taste as good. Under-aged (or small barrel-aged) whiskey has a distinctive yeasty undercooked bread-like flavor (which makes sense since whiskey and bread are made of the same things) which hasn't been tamed by the barrel yet. I often describe these flavors as "green" or “new-make”.
I sympathize with a company’s rush - or need - to get to market to create cash flow. But to be brutally honest, many of these young craft-distilled whiskeys are lower quality than your common bottom shelf whiskey, but at 4 times the price. This is why I don’t list many craft distilled brands among my favorites in the recommendations page, as far as classic-style bourbons and ryes go, a lot of them just aren’t there yet.
Looking Ahead - Driving Innovation and Coming of Age
The romance of craft whiskey has kept it afloat and it isn’t going away. Nor should it. After a decade or so of growing pains, barrels are beginning to come of age and the gap between craft and the big whiskey is narrowing. But where I really think craft distillers are gaining traction is their exploration of obscure, unrepresented, and flat-out new styles of whiskey. Here are some examples:
The Koval distillery uses unconventional grains like millet and oats in some of their whiskeys.
Westward Single Malt whiskey is aged new oak barrels, which puts an American spin on malt whiskey. Most malt whiskeys in the rest of the world are aged in used barrels. Even better, Westward is an average of 5 years old.
The New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn, along with a group other New York State distillers, has spearheaded a new category of rye called “Empire” rye. It must be made with at least 75% New York State grown rye. This taps into the largely unexplored frontier of terroir in grains. New York Distilling has released one bottling in this style: a bonded expression of their Ragtime Rye. It’s pretty amazing and fantastic in cocktails.
NDPs - Trying to Stand Out
Considering the uphill climb craft distillers face, it’s no wonder non- distilling producers exist. Buying ready-made whiskey allows companies to get to market immediately, not to mention with properly aged product (hopefully) that’s made by an experienced distiller. For this reason, many of the best craft whiskey brands available are NDPs.
Many Rye Brands are NDPs
One area where NDPs are prevalent in rye whiskey. Demand for rye skyrocketed about 10-15 years ago at the birth of the craft cocktail movement. But because demand was virtually zero through the latter half of the 20th century, practically no one made rye anymore.
But one distillery did: Midwest Grain Products of Indiana (MGP). Today, by some estimates, MGP makes as much as 70% of the rye on the market today. More on this here, including which of your favorite brands are on that list.
The list of brands have sources some or all of their rye (and bourbon in some cases) from MGP: Bulleit rye, George Dickel Rye, High West Rye (both the Rendezvous and Double Dye), Widow Jane, Whistle Pig, Redemption, Templeton, and Angel’s Envy. Their most prevalent mashbill is 95% rye and 5% malted barely. If you see those proportions listed on a bottle of rye, it almost certainly came from MGP.
Blending and Additional Aging
The challenge of an NDP brand is to convince the consumer that their whiskey is special. Giving it an embellished backstory or slapping attractive label isn’t (or shouldn’t be) enough.
The best NDPs do something to the whiskey they source before bottling it, typically aging or blending it. For example, Whistle Pig gets rye from Canada’s Alberta distillery, and then ages it further in Vermont, and High West’s core products are all blends of whiskeys from MGP.
Recently Barrel Bourbon, an NDP brand, made waves by garnering some prestigious awards for their barrel proof whiskey blends, many of which contain components of several sourced barrels. I can personally attest that their whiskey is ridiculously delicious.
The only issue with NDPs is a potential lack of honesty. At the beginning of the craft whiskey boom, a lot of NDP brands took advantage of an uneducated public and passed themselves off as homespun small-batch whiskey-makers. While some conveniently omitted the fact that their whiskey was sourced, some brands egregiously stretched the truth and built a dedicated customer base on those fallacies ().
Nowadays, thankfully, sourcing whiskey is a more widely understood and accepted practice. So NDPs are generally less evasive about where their whiskey came from. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to go on the company’s website and check out their process. They should either talk about their own distillery or what distillery they are getting their whiskey from and ideally the age of the barrels that they purchased. If there’s no mentioned of either, there’s something fishy going on.
Contract Distilling Transitioning to Distilling
Many NDPs plan to eventually open a distillery and distill their own whiskey. Some already do, and have barrels laid down. Sourcing whiskey allows them to get to market and generate some cash flow while they wait for the juice to mature. Of course, the trick is successfully bridging the gap between sourced and self-distilled whiskey, while maintaining a consistent flavor profile, which is easier said than done.
Some brands go the route of hiring a contract distiller, which means another distillery will make the whiskey for the brand according to their specifics. This allows them to have a unique proprietary product that will be easier to replicate if and when they open a distillery of their own.
Michter’s and Bulleit were two high profile contract distillers that recently just opened their own distilleries.
Four of my favorite craft whiskeys.
Ultimately, it’s just about good whiskey. However a brand approaches accomplishing that shouldn’t really matter. Good is good, no matter where it came from.
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A mashbill is the proportions of different types of grains in an American whiskey, it is essentially the whiskey's recipe. Most American whiskey mashbills contain three grains which fit into the following classifications:
Primary Grain: 51% of the mashbill or more - Bourbon must be at least 51% corn - though it's usually closer to 70-80%, rye whiskey is 51% rye, wheat whiskey is 51% wheat and so on.
Secondary Grain aka Flavoring Grain: 10-40% of the mashbill - The supporting player to the primary grain. In bourbons, this is usually rye, and in rye, it's usually corn. If a bourbon has a rye content around 20% or higher it's called a high rye bourbon, and in some cases, wheat is used in place of rye. Then it's a called a wheated bourbon. It will be a bit sweeter, because there will be less spice with no rye.
Malted Barely: 5-15% of the mashbill - Malted barely is used in almost all American whiskeys. Despite being the smallest component and not contributing much flavor, it has one of the most important jobs: kickstarting fermentation with it's superior ability to convert starches into sugar. More on that here.