North American whiskies are all-grain spirits that have been produced from a mash bill that usually mixes together corn, rye, wheat, barley and other grains in different proportions, and then generally aged for an extended period of time in wooden barrels. These barrels may be new or used, and charred or uncharred on the inside, depending on the type of whiskey being made.
The Distillation of North American Whiskies
Most North American whiskies are made in column stills. The United States government requires that all whiskies:
Be made from a grain mash.
Be distilled at 90% ABV or less.
Be reduced to no more than 62.5% ABV (125 proof) before being aged in oak barrels (except for Corn whiskey, which does not have to be aged in wood).
Have the aroma, taste, and characteristics that are generally attributed to whiskey.
Be bottled at no less that 40% ABV (80 proof).
Classifications of North American Whiskies
North American whiskies are essentially classified by the type or variety of grains in the mash bill, the percentage or proof of alcohol at which they are distilled, and the length and manner of their aging.
Bourbon Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% corn, be produced in the United States, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels, although in practice virtually all straight whiskies are aged at least four years. Any Bourbon, or any other domestic or imported whiskey, for that matter, that has been aged less than four years must contain an age statement on the label. Small Batch Bourbons are bourbons that bottled from a small group of specially selected barrels that are blended together. It should be noted though that each distiller has their own interpretation of what constitutes a "small batch." Single Barrel Bourbon is Bourbon from one specifically chosen cask.
The Taste: Flavor descriptors such as toffee, pralines, vanilla, and dried fruit to describe the initial rush of flavors in a good, well-aged Bourbon. The charred oak barrels give Bourbon a distinctive spicy oak firmness that is unique to American whiskeys.
Tennessee Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% corn, be produced in Tennessee, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof), filtered through a bed of sugar maple charcoal, and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels.
The Taste: The taste descriptors for Tennessee whisky tend to parallel those of its Kentucky cousin. The distinction and the difference comes on the finish which is long, clean, and very, very smooth—a result of the final sugar maple charcoal filtration. Legally, Tennessee whiskeys could be sold as Bourbon; but the two Volunteer State distillers are proud enough of their “sipping whisky” to insist that the difference be known to all.
Rye Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% rye grain, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels. A small amount of straight Rye whiskey is bottled and marketed, but most of the industry production is blended into other whiskies to give them additional character and structure. Canadians frequently refer to their whisky as "Rye," though it is in fact made primarily from corn or wheat.
The Taste: While the best Bourbon is known for a creamy, caramel-like palate, the best Rye whiskey makes its presence known with a spicy, grainy, hard-edged firmness that is distinctive and unique. Usually very dry, with notes of walnut, toasted grain, and black pepper, straight rye has a bold assertive character that has earned it a small but dedicated following among discerning whiskey fans.
Blended American Whiskey is required to contain at least 20% straight whiskey; with the balance being unaged neutral spirit or, in a few cases, high-proof light whiskey. It has a general whiskey flavor profile (most closely resembling Bourbon), but lacks any defining taste characteristic.
Corn Whiskey is a commercial product that must contain at least 80% corn, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and if wood-aged, may be aged in either used or new uncharred barrels.
Moonshine Whiskey (a.k.a. white lightning, Corn likker, or white dog) is distilled from a varied mix of corn and sugar and is aged in Mason jars and jugs for the length of time that it takes the customers to get home, or the Dukes of Hazzard to make a delivery in the General Lee.
Canadian Whisky is made primarily from corn or wheat, with a supplement of rye, barley, or barley malt. There are no Canadian government requirements when it comes to the percentages of grains used in the mash bill. Unlike Bourbons, they are aged, primarily in used oak barrels. The minimum age for Canadian Whisky is three years, with most brands being aged four to six years. Virtually all Canadian whiskys (except the pot-distilled malt whiskies of Glenora in Nova Scotia) are blended from different grain whiskies of different ages. Bulk Canadian Whiskys are usually shipped in barrels to their destination country where they are bottled. These bulk whiskies are usually bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) and are usually no more than four years old. "Bottled in Canada" whiskies generally have older components in their blends and are bottled at 43.4% ABV (86.8 proof).
Kentucky produces all types of North American whiskies except for Tennessee and Canadian. It has the largest concentration of distilleries on the continent.
Tennessee started out as Bourbon country, but today its two remaining distilleries specialize in the distinctive Tennessee style of whiskey.
Other states-primarily Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, and Missouri have distilleries that produce straight whiskeys, although some of these plants are currently mothballed. California has one tiny micro-distillery that produces Rye. Additionally there are a number of distilling plants scattered around the country that rectify (dilute and blend), process and bottle spirits that were originally distilled elsewhere. These distilleries, in addition to sometimes bottling Bourbon that has been shipped to them in bulk, may also create their own blended whiskies. These whiskies tend to be relatively inexpensive "well" brands that are sold mainly to taverns and bars for making mixed drinks.
Ontario has the largest concentration of whisky distilleries in Canada, three. Alberta has two and Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia each have one. With the exception of Glenora in Nova Scotia, which is a malt whisky distillery, all of the Canadian distilleries produce only blended Canadian whisky.
A Whisky Lexicon
Bonded Whiskey is 100 proof Bourbon from a single distillery that was produced in a single "season" and then aged for at least four years in a government-supervised "bonded" warehouse. Distillers originally did this in order to avoid having to pay the excise tax until the whiskey was aged and ready for market. Consumers came to (incorrectly) regard the "bottled in bond" designation as a statement of quality. Bonded whiskies are not much of a factor in today’s market, although they still exist.
The Mash is the mix of crushed grain (including some malt that contains enzymes to break down grain starches into sugars) and hot water from which the distiller draws a liquid extract called wort. The wort is fermented into a simple beer called the wash, which is then distilled.
Sour Mash is the fermentation process by which a percentage of a previous fermentation is added to a new batch as a "starter" to get the fermentation going and maintain a level of consistency from batch to batch. A sweet mash means that only fresh yeast is added to a new batch to start fermentation.
Straight Whiskey is unblended whiskey that contains no neutral spirit. Bourbon, Tennessee, Rye, and Corn whiskey are straight whiskies. There is also a spirit, simply called "straight whiskey," that is made from a mixture of grains, none of which accounts for 51% of the mash bill.
Origins and History of Bourbon Whisky
The first waves of British settlers in North America were a thirsty lot. It is recorded that the Pilgrims chose to make final landfall at Plymouth, Massachusetts, even though their original destination was elsewhere, primarily because they were almost out of beer.
The first locally-made alcoholic beverage was beer, although the limited supply of barley malt was frequently supplemented by such local substitutes as pumpkin pulp. Distilled spirits soon followed, with rum made from imported Caribbean molasses dominating in the northern colonies, and an assortment of fruit brandies in the south.
In the early 1700s a combination of bad economic times and religious unrest against the Established Church in Great Britain set off a great wave of emigration from Scotland and Ireland. These Scots, and the Protestant Scottish settlers from the Northern Irish province of Ulster who came to be known as the "Scotch-Irish" in the new World, brought to North America their religion, their distrust of government control, and their skill at distilling whiskey.
This rush of humanity, augmented by German immigrants of a similar religious and cultural persuasion, passed through the seaboard colonies and settled initially in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and western Virginia. Mostly small farmers, they quickly adapted to growing rye because of its hardiness, and, in the western counties, Native American corn because of its high yields. Grain was awkward to ship to East Coast markets because of the poor roads; so many farmers turned to distilling their crops into whiskey. In Pennsylvania these were primarily Rye whiskies; farther to the west and south Corn whiskies predominated. By the end of the American War of Independence in 1784, the first commercial distilleries had been established in what was then the western Virginia county of Kentucky. From the start they produced corn-based whiskies.
In 1794 the new, cash-strapped Federal government imposed the first federal excise tax on distillers. The farmer-distillers of western Pennsylvania responded violently in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Federal tax agents were assaulted and killed by angry mobs. Order was finally restored when the federal government sent in an army of 15,000 militiamen, led by George Washington, to put down the revolt. The ringleaders were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, but cooler heads prevailed, and after jail time they were pardoned and released.
This situation did provoke a new migration of settlers into the then-western frontier lands of Kentucky and Tennessee. In these new states farmers found ideal corn-growing country and smooth, limestone-filtered water—two of the basic ingredients of Bourbon whiskey.
The name "Bourbon" comes from a county in eastern Kentucky, which in turn was named for the Bourbon kings of France who had aided the American rebels in the Revolutionary War. Bourbon County was in the early 19th century a center of whiskey production and transshipping (ironically, at the present time, it is a "dry" county). The local whiskey, made primarily from corn, soon gained a reputation for being particularly smooth because the local distillers aged their products in charred oak casks. The adoption of the "sour mash" grain conversion technique served to further distinguish Bourbon from other whiskey styles.
By the 1840s Bourbon was recognized and marketed as a distinctive American style of whiskey, although not as a regionally specific spirit. Bourbon came to be produced in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia, among other states. Nowadays Bourbon production is confined to Kentucky and Indiana, although the only legal location requirement for calling a whiskey "Bourbon" is that it be produced in the United States. Initially Bourbon was made in pot stills, but as the century progressed the new column still technology was increasingly adopted. The last old-line pot still plant closed in Pennsylvania in 1992, but the technique was revived in Kentucky in 1995 when the historic Labrot & Graham Distillery was renovated and reopened with a set of new, Scottish-built copper pot stills.
The late 19th century saw the rise of the Temperance Movement, a social phenomenon driven by a potent combination of religious and women’s groups. Temperance societies, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, operated nationally, but were particularly active in the southern states. The notion of temperance soon gave way to a stated desire for outright prohibition, and throughout the rest of the century an assortment of states and counties adopted prohibition for varying lengths of time and degrees of severity. This muddle of legal restrictions played havoc in the Bourbon industry, as it interfered with the production and aging of stocks of whiskey.
National Prohibition in 1919 had effects on the Bourbon industry beyond shutting down most of the distilleries. Drinking did not stop, of course, and the United States was soon awash in illegal alcohol, much of it of dubious quality. What did change was the American taste in whiskey. Illicit moonshine and imported Canadian whiskeys were lighter in taste and body than Bourbon and Rye. The corresponding increase in popularity of white spirits such as Gin and Vodka further altered the marketplace. When Repeal came in 1933, a number of the old distilleries didn’t reopen, and the industry began a slow consolidation that lasted into the early 1990s, at which time there were only 10 distilleries in Kentucky and two in Tennessee.
It may seem odd, but Scotch whisky may be Bourbon’s inspiration for long-term revival. The steady growth in sales of single malt and high-quality Scotch whiskies has not gone unnoticed in Bourbon country. All of the Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries are now marketing high-end "single cask" and "small batch" whiskies that have found great success among upscale consumers. Three small specialty distilleries have opened in the last few years in Kentucky and California to cater to this increasing demand for quality over quantity. The United States may yet, in the words of one commentator, "turn away from foreign potions and return to its native spirit."
Tennessee whiskey is a first cousin of Bourbon, with virtually an identical history. The same sort of people used the same sort of grains and the same sort of production techniques to produce a style of whiskey that, remarkably, is noticeably different. The early whiskey distillers in Tennessee, for reasons that are lost in the mists of history, added a final step to their production process when they began filtering their whiskey through thick beds of sugar maple charcoal. This filtration removes some of the congeners (flavor elements) in the spirit and creates a smooth, mellow palate. The two remaining distillers in the state continue this tradition, which a distiller at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery once described as being "same church, different pew."
The Scotch-Irish immigrant distillers had some exposure to using rye in whiskey production, but for their German immigrant neighbors rye had been the primary grain used in the production of Schnapps and Vodka back in northern Europe. They continued this distilling practice, particularly in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where Rye whiskey, with its distinctive hard-edged, grainy palate, remained the dominant whiskey type well into the 20th century.
Rye whiskey was even more adversely effected by National Prohibition than Bourbon. A generation of consumers weaned on light-bodied and relatively delicate white spirits turned away from the uncompromising, pungent, full-bodied straight Rye whiskies. Production of Rye whiskies had vanished altogether from its Mid-Atlantic homeland by the 1980s. A handful of modern Rye whiskies are currently being made by Bourbon distilleries in Kentucky and Indiana. America’s first indigenous whiskey style is today only barely surviving in the marketplace. Its primary use is for blending to give other whiskies more character and backbone, although a small but vocal group of Rye whisky enthusiasts continue to champion it.
Blended American Whiskey
Blended whiskies date from the early 19th century when the invention of the column still made possible the production of neutral spirits. Distillers would blend one or more straight whiskies (Bourbon and Rye) with these neutral spirits in varying proportions to create their own branded blend. The taste and quality of these whiskies, then as now, varies according to the ratio of straight whiskey to neutral grain spirit. Early blends were frequently flavored with everything from sherry to plug tobacco. Compared to straight whiskies they were relatively inexpensive and bland in character. Modern blends utilize dozens of different straight whiskies to insure a consistent flavor profile. Blended American whiskies had a great sales boost during and just after World War II when distillers promoted them as a way of stretching their limited supply of straight whiskey. This sales spike did not last, however. Blended whiskies were considered to be too bland by Bourbon and Rye drinkers, and consumers with a taste for lighter spirits soon migrated to Vodka and Gin. Blended whiskies have been leading the pack in declining sales over the past few decades.
Corn whiskey was the first truly American whiskey, and the precursor to Bourbon. An unaged, clear spirit, it was the type of whiskey that Scotch-Irish farmers produced in their stills for family consumption or to trade for store goods. When state and federal excise taxes were permanently introduced during the Civil War, most of the production of Corn whiskey went underground to become moonshine, where it has remained ever since. A modest amount of commercial Corn whiskey is still produced and consumed in the South.
Canadian whiskies, as with their American cousins, originated on the farm. These early whiskies were made primarily from rye. In time most Canadian distillers turned to corn, wheat, and other grains, but Canadians continue to refer to their whisky as "Rye" even though the mash bill for most Canadian Whisky is now predominantly a mix of corn, wheat, and barley, with only a modest proportion of rye for flavor, which results in a lighter-bodied spirit.