The Whos Whats and Whys

Author: Andrew Huber

The no-lies guide to the North American Whiskey we imbibe

Whiskey, it's in America's blood. We didn't invent it but we used it to build the nation. The American Revolution was planned out over whiskey and Madeira in taverns across the Colonies. When the British blocked the ports and cut off the flow of rum, domestically produced whiskey kept the Continental Army's spirits high. And the Whiskey Rebellion directly influenced Thomas Jefferson to create the Republican Party to push back against Federalism and led George Washington to mount his horse and end the rye-soaked uprising.

The end result of all that history is that Americans know everything there is to know about whiskey. Like for instance everybody knows that to be called Bourbon, whiskey has to be made in Kentucky, right? Well…not exactly. There are more myths and misconceptions about whiskey than there are drams in a barrel, so here's a primer on each type of North American whiskey along with recommendations for outstanding examples of each kind so that the next time one of your drinking buddies spouts a whiskey factoid, you can confidently chime in with; 'well, actually!' (Because everyone loves that guy…)

Since we're already talking about Bourbon, let's start with that one. The true legal definition of Bourbon is any liquor made in the United States consisting of at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels. Being made in Kentucky, especially Bourbon County can lend a brand some extra cachet, but is not a requirement. Legend has it that distiller Elijah Craig made the first batch, but in reality Scottish and Irish immigrants had been making their own corn whiskey for as long as non-native peoples had inhabited the area. Elijah Craig is still around, and their Barrel Proof Straight Bourbon Whiskey one of the finest bourbons currently on the market. This rich, dark whiskey scored 96 points with our tasters, who loved its nutty, roasted flavors and dark chocolate and hazelnut aromas. At 123.6 proof, it can easily stand being mixed in a Manhattan but may fare best sipped neat or on the rocks.

Unlike bourbon, Tennessee whiskey does in fact have to be made in the state of Tennessee. It must also adhere to all the standards of bourbon and include the additional step of charcoal filtering. When people think of Tennessee whiskey, their mind immediately goes to Jack Daniels, but the Volunteer State has so much more to offer than that. In fact, the highest scoring whiskey in our 2021 North American review is Uncle Nearest Master Blend Edition Premium Whiskey Blend No. 002, which racked up 97 points and a platinum medal. The notes contained within this golden amber nectar evoke a relaxing morning at a neighborhood coffeeshop; café au lait, spice cake, fruit tart, and rich leather. At $149 a bottle, true aficionados will want to savor it neat or with just a few drops of water to open up the flavors, but if you must, you can use it to create a decadent and luxurious Old Fashioned. For a more affordable tipple, try Uncle Nearest 1884 Premium Small Batch Tennessee Whiskey, which packs in nearly as much spicy goodness at only a third of the price.

Despite what some people might believe, 'America' includes more than just 'Murica. Our polite neighbors to the north produce excellent and distinctive whisky. (Note the lack of an 'e') Legally, the only requirements for Canadian whisky are that the spirit be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada, aged for no less than 3 years, and contain at least 40% alcohol. In practice, Canadian whisky is often defined by the addition of rye for that signature Canadian flavor. Our current favorite is Collingwood Double Barreled Canadian Whisky, whose mild profile allows the nuanced flavors and aromas to shine through. Dried fruit like figs and dates will tickle your nose, while the tastes of an entire bakery delight your mouth including pumpernickel, cinnamon roll, and brown butter. Best of all, at only $28 you can make it a staple of your rotation.

And of course we can't forget rye whiskey, whose production is identical to bourbon except with 51% rye instead of corn. Once the most popular American whiskey, rye is now relegated to use as a cocktail ingredient, but the current crop of fabulous rye coming out of distilleries across the nation proves that it's well past time for rye to step back into the spotlight. Russells Reserve Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey is one of those on the front lines turning rye back into the sipping beverage it was always meant to be. Obviously spice is front and center as is typical for the style, with aniseed and nutmeg featuring prominently. More surprising are the tastes of vanilla cream and dill, the kind of milder flavors that lesser ryes may overpower. The only thing you need to drink this with is a nice cigar.

Finally, there is the wide array of flavored whiskies. With few requirements to adhere to, distillers can go buck wild and add just about anything they want. Peanut butter is incredibly popular right now, with Skrewball Peanut Butter Flavored Whiskey being the best seller in that category, but we recommend you consider the 'absurdly delicious' Ole Smoky Peanut Butter Flavored Whiskey. Don't be afraid to branch out though and sample the wide array of interesting flavors on offer. FEW Immortal Rye With Eight Immortals Tea Flavored Whiskey and Bird Dog Salted Caramel Flavored Whiskey are surefire crowd pleasers and well worth their bargain prices.

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