Corn, Wheat, Malt
& Other American Whiskies
Outside of bourbon and rye, there is a slew of lesser-known American whiskey categories. These have mostly dwelled in obscurity over the years, but thanks to the experimental streak of the craft whiskey movement many of these styles are getting some newfound attention.
There are far more of these varieties available now than there were 5 years ago, and you can expect to see more in the future. Below is primer on some of these categories. Brand recomendations are scarIt's an exciting time to be an American whiskey fan.
A classic member of the American whiskey family, if under-appreciated. Corn whiskey is like bourbon on steroids. Instead of a minimum 51% corn in the mashbill it must be at least 80%, and is often 100%. Corn whiskey doesn't have to be aged, but if it is the barrels must be used or uncharred, the opposite is true for most other American whiskeys. This distinction is so bourbon and corn whiskey rules don't overlap. Most corn whiskey is un-agaed and also known as white dog, white whiskey or moonshine, I'm not a huge fan of these, personally.
I am, however, a big fan of Mellow Corn. It is aged for 4 years, making it a straight whiskey, and is bonded (50% ABV). It drinks like a bourbon with less spice, is extremely well priced (around $14 a bottle), and highly mixable.
Must be at least 51% wheat. There are not many of these around, though this is another category I think the craft movement could bring to relevance. Wheat whiskeys are similar to bourbon but definitely lighter - too light for some - with soft caramel and toffee flavors.
These are not to be confused with wheated bourbons, which are bourbons that use with wheat in place of rye as the secondary grain.
Bernhiem - The classic wheat whiskey brand.
Malted Rye Whiskey
These apply the malting technique, which is typically done with barely, to rye. The minimum in the mashbill is 51% malted rye but often distillers will use 100%. Rye is already as assertive grain and malting it deepens and lengthens its flavors. These whiskeys are floral, grassy, and all-around unique. They're not for everyone, but are very cool.
Old Potrero Single Malt Rye
Even with all these categories, there are some distillers out there who refuse to play by the rules, which I think is great. All these rules may have been put into place to ensure product standards, but rules also create boundaries.
With whiskey growing in popularity, distillers are experimenting with different barrel finishes, unconventional wood, grains, barrel finishes, and distillation techniques. They may not all be home runs, but if you see a whiskey that doesn't fit into a particular category, don't write it off. It could become your new favorite. One great example is High West's Campfire Whiskey, a blend of bourbon rye, and Islay scotch. It's definitely a confirmation that rules were made to be broken.
Malt whiskey is a growing presence in the American whiskey landscape. The dominant grain is malted barely, like scotch, Irish whiskey and most whiskey made outside of North America. The minimum in the masbill is 51% but many distillers often use 100%, making it a single malt - like single malt scotch.
But this isn’t just Americans trying to make scotch. It's really its own animal. Many American malt whiskeys are aged in new, charred oak barrels, like bourbon. This is in stark contrast to scotch and Irish whiskey which are typically aged in used barrels, often ex-bourbon casks. So American have their own signature profile which combines new oak flavors like toffee and vanilla with the honeyed grassiness of malt. There are also even peated American single malts out there as well. I think this category is full of untapped potential and one to keep an eye on, especially as some of these whiskeys start to mature.
Westward Single Malt Whiskey - A standard-bearer of the market.
Woodford Straight Malt Whiskey
Hillrock Single Malt
White Whiskey and Moonshine
White whiskey and moonshine are unaged whiskeys, meaning they have spent no time in an oak barrel (though they may have been rested in neutral containers). They are essentially the same thing and sometimes also fall into the corn whiskey category. Brands often label their white whiskey as moonshine because it sounds cool, but moonshine is not a technical category. Authentic moonshine is illegally made white whiskey that's usually low-grade and high proof. It's pretty rough stuff.
Fun fact: moonshine got its name because those who made it who did their distilling and distributing at night to avoid the law, earning the title "moonshiners". Even more interesting, NASCAR originated from Moonshine smugglers outfitting their cars to outrun the police. They eventually starting racing each other and the rest is history.
There are more white whiskeys on the market nowadays because many craft distilleries need cash flow. Many of them don't have deep enough pockets to wait several years for the whiskey to mature. That's is one reason there are so many new gins coming out, no aging!
I've personally never been a fan of white whiskey. I miss the tasty new oak flavors of a typical bourbon or rye. But to be fair, that's not what white whiskey is. White whiskey is a showcase for raw grain distilled to a lower proof so it retains more flavor. Unlike vodka, which has most, or all, of the flavor distilled out (there's more about how and why proof affects flavor on the distillation page). A good white whiskey has aromas reminiscent of rising bread, or like the smell of walking into a distillery which, admittedly, are two very comforting sensations.