You all know American Whiskey from the supermarket. But the Whiskeys we would like to present to you here are as far away from these supermarket Whiskeys as Glenfarclas or Lagavulin is from Blended Scotch Whisky. They are all something special and should be enjoyed neat (without cola, without ice) or with some still water. There are two regions on the North American continent where Whiskey is traditionally distilled: The area along the St. Lawrence River in Canada and the US States Kentucky and Tennessee.
This article explains the different types of Whiskey in America and what defines them - also according to law.
The most famous type of American Whiskey is probably Bourbon, named after the Bourbon County in Kentucky. This county got its name in honour of the French royal family, because Louis XVI helped the Americans during the wars of independence against England. According to law Bourbon Whiskey must be made of at least 51% corn, which provides its typical sweet taste. The other grains used are rye, which is very spicy, mild wheat and barley, which is essential for the fermentation process. American Whiskey is mainly distilled in column stills. According to American law, Bourbon must mature in fresh, charred oak casks. The alcohol content of Bourbon must not exceed 80% at the time of distillation and must not exceed 62.5% at the beginning of the maturation. Bourbon is bottled at a minimum of 40%, as spirits with a lower alcohol content may not be declared as Whisky or Whiskey. In theory, Bourbon can come from anywhere in the USA, but most of the Bourbon distilleries are located in the US state of Kentucky.
The middle of the 20th century was not a good time for Whiskey producers in the USA. In the 1960s, US connoisseurs began to enjoy lighter spirits - Gin, Vodka or imported Whiskey distilled to a higher alcohol content and stored in used casks. As Americans moved away from local Whiskey, the government reacted in 1968 with a new legal category of Whiskey: Light Whiskey. According to this, 'Light Whiskey' is produced in the United States with more than 80% and stored in used or uncharred new oak casks.
Bourbon - Kentucky Straight Bourbon
There are other definitions and specifications for the designation of Bourbon Whiskey. As already described, Bourbon consists of at least 51% corn, is stored in freshly charred oak casks and contains at least 40% alcohol. If, in addition, the Bourbon is aged for at least 2 years and is not blended after the cask storage, it may be called 'Straight Bourbon'.
If a Bourbon is produced in a single distillery during the production season, matures for at least 4 years in a warehouse under customs seal and is bottled with more than 100 proof (=50%), it may use the quality label 'Bottled in Bond'. Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a label only Bourbon may carry that has been distilled and matured for at least one year in the US state of Kentucky. An excellent representative of Kentucky Straight Bourbons is Woodford Reserve.
Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey enjoys a growing popularity nowadays. As the name suggests, Tennessee Whiskey is Whiskey produced in the US state of Tennessee. Otherwise it is subject to the same requirements as Bourbon Whiskey. In addition, two steps in the manufacturing process distinguish Tennessee Whiskey: Charcoal Mellowing and the so-called Sour Mash procedure. The first step describes the filtering of the new made spirit through a several meter thick layer of activated carbon (charcoal) before maturation. The charcoal is produced from sugar maple, which is widely used in the USA. After this filtration process, the Whiskey becomes really soft (mellow). In the second step, the Sour Mash procedure, residues from the distillation process (also known as stillage) are collected and added to the mash before fermentation. This not only improves the taste of the Whiskey, but also the production process: Adding stillage changes the pH level of the mash. The mixture becomes more acidic so that the yeast can work optimally. Nowadays, this process is used by almost all distilleries in America. Therefore, most Bourbons are usually also produced with this method. So every Tennessee Whiskey is also a Bourbon, but not every Bourbon is also a Tennessee Whiskey.
Far more important for Tennessee Whiskey, however, is the filtering of the spirit through a layer of activated carbon several meters thick prior to maturation. The filtering process takes up to ten days and completely removes all trubs and suspended matters from the distillate. The resulting Whiskey therefore tastes exceptionally soft and mild. An outstanding representative of this type of Whiskey is George Dickel No. 12. The best-selling Whiskey in the USA. Jack Daniel's is also a Tennessee Whiskey.
If a Whiskey contains at least 51% rye, it may call itself 'Rye Whiskey'. Rye Whiskey must also be matured in oak casks. In the past, there was a wide range of Rye Whiskeys in America. An exceptionally spicy taste characterizes them. But the connoisseurs' taste changed over the centuries, so that Rye Whiskey almost fell into oblivion. For today 'mild and mellow' has become fashionable. US Rye Whiskeys are rarely found today, while a lot of them are still produced in Canada. Because Canadian Rye Whisky is an important component of Canadian Blended Whiskies.
Whiskeys with 80% corn content from the USA are called 'Corn Whiskey'. They taste very neutral. Pure Corn Whiskeys are therefore very little enjoyed and are mainly used for the production of Blends.
Something Special - Maple Whiskey
The so-called Maple Whiskey combines two things that are very characteristic of American culture: Whiskey and maple syrup. Throughout the production maple syrup casks are often used for maturing, more precisely Bourbon casks. Some particularly high-quality maple syrups are stored in Bourbon casks and thus absorb the typical Bourbon flavors. The syrups are stored in Bourbon casks for up to three months, having a 'finish', so to speak. Since the aromas of the two liquids harmonize so well with each other, the producers of American Whiskey also had the idea to turn the tables and fill the casks from the maple syrup storage with Whiskey again, in order to complement the Whiskey with maple syrup aromas. Maple Whiskey is available with Hudson Rye Whiskey from the Tuthilltown Distillery, with Bourbon from the Taconic Distillery and with the Cask Proof Roundstone Rye from the Catoctin Creek Distillery.