Only 20 years ago American whiskey was defined by just a few dominant labels. Today you can find bars that have whiskey lists as extensive as their wine selection. Much like the microbrew trend, it’s an exciting time for enthusiasts, but with so many options, price ranges and lingo like “single barrel” and “small batch,” tracking it all can be a little complex.
What we know as American whiskey evolved from what our Scotch and Irish ancestors brought over to the United States. We took that spirit and made it our own beverage that’s generally sweeter and less smoky. By definition it’s a mixture of corn, rye, wheat, and barley (mash) and is aged in charred-oak barrels. These are the four most common categories and two premium classifications:
The pride of Kentucky, it can technically be produced in any state as long as it’s aged two years in new barrels and made of at least 51 percent corn. The traditional recipe is 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye and 10 percent barley. If you can find it, splurge for Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, which substitutes the rye with wheat.
This is bourbon with the “Lincoln County Process.” After distillation, it’s filtered through sugar maple charcoal before barrel aging. This process gives the whiskey its distinct, mellow flavor that goes down smooth. Currently only two brands produce the Tennessee variety: Jack Daniels and George Dickel.
Dry, spicy, and with a little more edge than bourbon, this was once the signature American whiskey. A purist would claim that a Manhattan can only be made with rye. Once a relic, rye is making a comeback with connoisseurs. Not to be confused with Canadian whiskey, the American version must contain 51 percent rye. Try six-year-old Sazerac Rye.
This is better known as moonshine. Clear, strong and made with 80 percent corn, this was the predecessor to bourbon. Most varieties are aged for only a few months and not in wood. For an experience try Georgia Moon or Virginia Lightning.
Each barrel of whiskey produces a slightly different flavor, so most whiskey is a blend of many barrels to achieve a uniform taste. To create a premium class, the distiller samples and selects the finest barrels which are individually bottled one at a time.
Some experts believe that bottling by a single barrel creates an inconsistent and peculiar whiskey. So instead, distillers create a premium product by combining a few choice barrels into a small batch that is bottled and labeled with an individual batch number.