America is one of the world’s largest whiskey producers, boasting an extensive range of offerings in numerous distinct styles. From sweeter Tennessee whiskeys to the spicey rye and corn expressions, the country offers something truly unique for whiskey connoisseurs to experience.
First introduced to the country by Scottish and Irish immigrants, whiskey in the United States has overcome a wide range of challenges, from Prohibition to the stock market crash, to successfully launch itself into a renaissance that has seen its growing popularity all over the world.
Read more about the history and various styles of American whiskey below, or browse the extensive range of bourbon and rye at The House of Whisky here.
- The Origins of Rye and Bourbon
- The Styles Of American Whiskey
- Typical Character and Style of American Whiskeys
America’s whiskey history dates back to the mid-1700s when Pennsylvania was dominated by British, Scottish, and Irish settlers. While these settlers brought their extensive knowledge of whiskey production to this area, barley malt was in short supply, which lead to the malting of unmalted barley and rye. People quickly realised that the rye gave the whiskey a spicier character, and it became so popular that it was shipped abroad to Europe and Asia. During these trips, the spirit spent months in barrels before reaching its destination, which made it darker, smoother, and more palatable, and the process of barrel ageing was born.
When the American border moved west in the late eighteenth century, settlers stumbled across the native corn and maize and started mixing this new grain into their mash bills, which lead to the development of a new style of whiskey altogether. To distinguish this new expression from rye whiskey, all corn-based whiskeys became known as bourbon, after the Bourbon County region in today’s Kentucky.
Much like Scotch, there are varying styles of American whiskey, with their production being stipulated, governed, and protected by US federal law.
While the general underlying flavour notes of all American whiskey styles include a foundation of vanilla, caramel, and oak, the use of different grains can help these spirits adopt a wide range of characteristics. The various styles of American whiskeys can be broadly subdivided into the following classifications based on the grains they use:
Bourbon is the most classic incarnation of American whiskey, shaped by the use of corn and white oak barrels to produce a unique spirit with a distinct sweetness and notes of vanilla, toffee, cinnamon, and dried fruit. It has grown from a way for poor early American farmers to earn a living from their fields into an immensely popular drink and is now enjoyed neat and in cocktails around the world.
Several laws dictate how bourbon is made, namely that it must be produced in the United States with a mash bill of at least 51% corn, and must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. The spirit must also be distilled to less than 80% ABV, and be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
In addition to the popular bourbon expressions such as Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark, there are several other bourbon distilleries to look out for. These include Elijah Craig, Blanton’s, Four Roses, Bookers, Old Fitzgerald, Larceny Bourbon, and more.
With notes of toffee, oak, vanilla, and fruit cake, Tennessee whiskey has a down-home image and smooth character that has made it part of the American folklore. Tennessee whiskey is marked as distinct from bourbon by several factors. It is made exclusively in the state of Tennessee from a mash of at least 51% corn and with less rye than bourbon and is aged in new charred oak barrels.
The most noticeable difference is that Tennessee whiskey is made using the Lincoln County Process, where the mash is filtered through active sugar-maple charcoal before ageing to remove impurities and give the spirit a smoother character. The most famous Tennessee whiskies include the world-famous Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel.
One of the original American spirits, rye whiskey is known for its intense flavours, full-body, and distinct bitter finish. These powerful notes can make rye challenging to taste when young; however, if given the time, its flavours will mellow into new levels of rich complexity.
Rye whiskey must have a mash bill of at least 51% rye among other grains and is aged in charred oak barrels. Rye whiskies are also fantastic additions to cocktails, with their notes of vanilla, toffee, cloves, cinnamon, and caraway adding a unique touch to classic flavours.
Corn whiskey is the historical American style of whiskey due to its low cost, short ageing period, and intention for immediate consumption. Corn whiskey must contain a minimum of 80% corn in the mash bill and is usually aged in uncharred oak barrels.
This particular spirit is a favourite among bartenders and cocktail mixologists, as its toffee, butter, and acetone notes add a unique character to cocktails.
Wheat whiskey is distilled using a mash of at least 51% wheat and only differs from bourbon in the type of grain used. Wheat whiskies are aged in new charred white-oak barrels and offer a sweet character with a soft, mellow finish.
American whiskies are often categorised by toastiness, spiciness, and vanilla sweetness. This is primarily due to the use of new charred oak, which is predominant in most styles of US whiskey and used exclusively in the bourbon production. The use of these barrels lends to rich, sweet flavours and various other flavour compounds. The typical notes of American whiskeys include:
If you are looking to expand your palate passed the traditional Scotch whiskies, the strong flavours and complex characters of American whiskey are sure to provide you with the perfect alternative. Browse our selection of American offerings below, or place your order today.