It’s Not All Bourbon

By / Magazine / November 22nd, 2013 / 3

“I’ve known several men who drank too much — and they were all extremely interesting.”

— Katharine Hepburn in a 1991 interview with Phil Donahue

Scotch whisky may have garnered a reputation as the thinking man’s drink, but American whiskey is surely the drinking man’s drink. The Kentucky Derby and frilly mint juleps aside, American whiskey is big, bold and heady. One envisions the early pioneers — Daniel Boone–era types — firing up rickety stills charged with a mash of whatever grains were handy at the time (likely rye in most cases, perhaps with some corn) and bleeding from them a potent “white lightning” to take the edge off after a long day in the bush.

At some point in time this image may have been replaced with that of a string-tie-wearing southern gentleman, relaxing on the porch of his colonial estate with a glass of sippin’ whiskey mellowed by a dollop of branch water. Both the gentleman and the whiskey may have a sophistication and finesse that is just an outward veneer, but both still need to be shown respect. The American spirit isn’t something you fool with.

it’s all bourbon to me

It’s probably helpful to clarify what we mean when we talk about “American whiskey.” In many circles, bourbon is synonymous. But is this really the case?

“Not really,” Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at the Buffalo Trace distillery, clarifies. “Bourbon has its own rules that each producer must abide by.”

The “rules” Wheatley alludes to stipulate that bourbon be the product of a mashbill — the term used for the mix of crushed grains and hot water that is subsequently fermented into a low-alcohol “beer” prior to distillation — of at least 51 per cent corn (rye and barley typically make up the remainder) distilled to less than 160 proof (80 per cent alcohol by volume) and aged a minimum of two years in charred new oak barrels. (And if you’re wondering where used bourbon barrels end up?… Scotland.)

So, if not all American whiskey is really “bourbon,” what are the rest of them? A quick breakdown looks like this:

First, there’s bourbon. “Straight” (unblended) bourbon must fulfill the rules described above. It cannot be coloured in any way and must be at least 80 proof when bottled. “There are rules that state that you must put the age on the bottle if it is less than four years old,” Wheatley informs me.

Then we have wheat whiskey, where wheat replaces rye as the predominant grain after corn. The Maker’s Mark brand is perhaps the most famous in this category. And, as of 2000, the first straight wheat whiskey came onto the US market in the form of the Heaven Hill Distilleries’ Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey.

Tennessee whiskey is essentially bourbon that’s (obviously) made in the state of Tennessee and is, after distillation, slowly filtered though about 10 feet of sugar-maple charcoal. This method is referred to as the Lincoln County Process. (Tidings featured a story on Tennessee whiskey back in May of 2010 — go to tidingsmag.com and search for “Tennessee whiskey.”)

Rye whiskey is more or less bourbon with rye swapping in for corn. Same rules apply (51 per cent rye mash, etc.). Popularized by German immigrants who were used to using the grain to make schnapps and vodka back home, rye whiskey gained wide appeal in Pennsylvania and Maryland but all but vanished by the 1980s. It is, however, making a strong comeback, as the keen but patient readers will discover.

Corn whiskey must be distilled from a mash of no less than 80 per cent corn and distilled at less than 160 proof. Aging requirements stipulate at least two years in new or used un-charred barrels.

Blended American whiskey contains at least 20 per cent “straight” whiskey blended with neutral grain spirit or, in some cases, other whiskies. Declining in popularity, they may be headed the way of the dodo.

There are also a couple of newer styles out there that we’ll get to.

catching up with the rye

Rye contributes to the character of some bourbons, Wild Turkey being one. “We have one mashbill for all our bourbons,” reveals Eddie Russell, the associate distiller for Wild Turkey. And the mashbill in question favours rye as the second grain to corn. “Rye gives the whiskey the bold, spicy flavour. We do add more rye than most bourbons because we want that assertive character.”

Rye is also capturing more of the spotlight as the lead grain in the growing straight-rye category. Wild Turkey has released an 81 proof rye to complement its Wild Turkey 81 bourbon, and brands such as Rittenhouse, Rathskeller and Sazerac have pushed the quality and popularity of American rye whiskey to new heights. Russell reveals that the market for rye has grown by over 20 per cent in the past couple years, leaving some distillers — including Russell — in short supply.

The flavour profile of a rye-based whiskey is dramatically different that that of their corn-based counterparts. While traditional bourbons typically sport a smooth, creamy and even slightly sweet flavour, rye whiskies are spicy, sharp and very dry. The word “brittle” is often used to describe their assertive/aggressive character. “We treat our rye whiskey just like our bourbon,” Russell replied in answer to whether different techniques are used for each style of whiskey. “We distill and bottle at low proofs to keep the flavour. The only difference is the mixture of grains.”

favoured flavours

On the topic of flavour, one relatively new category is taking the American whiskey category into a whole new realm, this being flavoured whiskies. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Wild Turkey American Honey, Jim Beam Red Stag and Phillips Distilling’s Revel Stoke (produced in Minnesota using Canadian whisky) are a few of the brands that are currently flying off the shelves, with flavours that range from honey and spice to black cherry and cinnamon. The popularity of these products have surprised even some of their creators.

When coming up with Wild Turkey American Honey, Russell says, “We were looking to bring a different consumer into our market. We were focusing on women and a younger crowd that does shooters. What I’m surprised by is the number of men who are drinking it.”

However, the success of flavoured whiskies has not come without controversy. True whiskey enthusiasts scoff at them, and some critics like Jim Murray refuse to even rate them. Murray has stated that these products “are simply not bourbon whiskey.” And, of course, they aren’t. Comparing flavoured Tennessee whiskies or bourbons is kind of like comparing the new “confection” vodkas with flavours of bubble gum, icing sugar and root beer to pure SKYY or Stoli.

“To be a bourbon whiskey you cannot change anything about it,” Russell points out. He’s aware of the controversy. “Our American Honey is a liqueur that is blended from pure honey and bourbon whiskey. The bourbon is the base, but not the [end] product.”

the dog has its day

There’s another growing category of American spirit that, though most definitely a whiskey, is creating no less controversy.

“White dog” — aka white whiskey aka moonshine — is essentially non-aged bourbon. As with the flavoured stuff, it can’t be called bourbon simply because it hasn’t fulfilled the legal aging requirements. We haven’t heard much about it in Canada, but the category started taking off in the US a couple years ago. And it’s been a boon to newer micro-distillers like Wisconsin’s Death’s Door, Portland’s House Spirits and Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia, giving them something to pay the rent with while the wood-aged spirits mature. Not a bad business plan, but is the stuff worth drinking? The reviewers from the Drink Spirits website (drinkspirits.com) are less than enthusiastic.

“While white dog might look good on paper, it simply doesn’t deliver as a category … [The] trend is ultimately a crutch for American micro-distillers who really should be spending the time and money on producing fully aged whiskey. It’s difficult and expensive to sit and wait for your whiskey to age in barrels but the end result is far superior to the alternative.” The writers were a bit more congenial in a later story … but not a whole lot more. Russell, too, is rather to the point. “The craft of making a good whiskey is aging it right.”

It goes without saying that there was nary a dog to be found in this market at the time of writing, so I can’t give you my own impressions. However, a few years ago I had the opportunity to sample some “new make” Macallan single malt Scotch. A bit different from white dog, to be sure, in that it was non-aged malted barley rather than corn, but I can say that it reminded me much more of grappa than Scotch.

In any case, whether you see yourself a rugged Wild West type or more of a southern gentleman (or belle), there’s an American whiskey style for you. The new American whiskey frontier is yours to discover and enjoy, neat, on the rocks or mixed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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