Scotch & other whiskies

American Whiskey

  • American whiskey is a general category that includes straight Bourbon, rye, Tennessee, and corn whiskey as well as blended whiskey. These are produced primarily from corn with the admixture of barley, wheat or rye (the mixture of grains used for distillation is referred to as the mashbill).

    Whiskey distillation has a long tradition in the United States. The founding fathers even considered it a tempting source of revenue: in 1789 the Continental Congress passed a law taxing whiskey. There was widespread opposition to this tax, resulting in the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion that lead to the temporary, and ultimately failed secession of Pittsburgh from the union.

    Although the rebellion was put down, distillers fled the more settled regions of the colonies (where rye was often used for whiskey) and settled in Kentucky and Tennessee where corn was more common. Corn eventually came to dominate whiskey production since it is considerably less expensive than other grains. Today, even rye whiskey contains a fair amount of corn.

    Maturation of the spirit in oak barrels also became common in the early 19th century, and the "white dog" style of un-aged whiskey style gradually lost favor to sweeter, softer cask matured styles. Bourbon began to gain fans beginning in the 1940s, since Bourbon County, Kentucky was seen as a quality-oriented place.

    Prior to the Civil War, whiskey (and apple jack) did not enjoy a great prestige, but by the end of the 19th century, however, it had almost completely supplanted Cognac and other traditional drinks. The industry gradually modernized, installing continuous stills and using charcoal fermentation.

    From 1920 to 1933, Prohibition spelled the end of this rich period of whiskey production. Distilleries began to reopen after Repeal, enshrined in the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution, but there was a lag time as whiskey aged in cask. In 1948, there were only four American distilleries that could produce commercial quantities of spirit. Whiskey made a gradual comeback in the 50s and 60s, although it was eclipsed by white spirits in the 70s. The 1980s saw the development of small-batch Bourbon and single barrel whiskies (small-batch Bourbons are chosen from particular barrels, NOT distilled in small batches).

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  • The mashbill varies by type of whiskey - Bourbon is a minimum 51% corn, but is usually more like 80%, along with rye or wheat and 5 – 15% malted barley to aid fermentation. Rye is a minimum 51% rye (usually 60 – 65%), along with corn and malted barley. Tennessee whiskey is 51% - 79% corn with rye or wheat and malted barley. Corn whiskey is at least 80% corn.

    The mash is fermented along with the tails (called the backset) to produce the wash. The backset must be 25% of the mash. When the backset is added to the mashbill, it is called sour mash whiskey. The wash produced by fermentation is then distilled in a single column still called a beer still.

    After this initial fermentation, the low wines are re-distilled in a doubler or thumper to increase the purity and strength of the whiskey. The spirit must be distilled to no more than 160˚ and no less than 80˚. The raw spirit is cut with water and aged in brand new charred American oak casks (except for corn whiskey, which can be aged in used casks).

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  • Bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey must be aged a minimum of 2 years in new charred barrels. There are four levels of char: level one is the lightest, level four is the heaviest. If the aging period is less than four years, it must be stated on the label.

    If the whiskey is more than four years old, the product of a single distillery, distilled during a single season and bottled at 100˚, then it may be sold as Bonded Whiskey. Corn whiskey is aged in un-charred or used barrels for at least two years. Coloring and flavoring are not permitted in any of these whiskeys.

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  • Bourbon
    "America's Native Spirit" according to a 1964 US Congressional resolution, Bourbon must be 51% corn in the mashbill (although most are 60 – 70%). Straight Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160˚, as opposed to 144˚ for Scotch (most others distill to lower proofs, some to as low as 60 % ABV or even less). Bourbon can be produced in any state in the union.

    Tennessee Sour Mash
    Jack Daniels and George Dickel are the only two in this category; strictly speaking, a Tennessee sour mash whiskey cannot be a Bourbon. Here is why: These two Tennessee distillers filter their whiskey through maple wood charcoal 10 ft thick and 10 ft wide, and this is the reason they are not Bourbons, since Bourbon is filtered through cloth. This process is referred to as the Lincoln County Process. "Sour mash" whiskey is produced by adding the tails of one batch of whiskey to the mash of the next.

    Rye is a bit spicier than Bourbon and not as sweet. Centers of rye production include Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The popularity of rye is on the rise - in 2000 there were six types of rye available, now there are more than twenty.

    American blended whiskey
    American blended whiskey can be produced from Bourbon, rye, Tennessee or corn whiskey blended with at least 50% and usually much more grain neutral spirits distilled to 190˚ or higher. These whiskies command a large proportion of sales.

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