A beginner’s guide to American whiskey

With the stateside craft distilling scene thriving and the crippling 25% tariffs recently lifted on US whiskey imports, now’s the time to get to know America’s finest, whether is bourbon, rye, corn or Tennessee.

 The Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC.

Photograph by Greg Powers
By The Thinking Drinkers
Published 11 Sept 2022, 06:03 BST

So, dear bartender, what delightful drop are we using to remove the light from my glass this time?

American whiskey — the ultimate frontier spirit. It courses deep through America’s veins and percolates through its past — right back to the first settlers and the Founding Fathers.

Tell you what, before telling us what it tastes like, why don’t you put it into some sort of historical and social context?

Pleasure. Not long after the first Europeans tossed their toe-rope on US shores, they fired up their stills and began making whiskey, using the abundant rye that grew around them. Fuelling settlers’ Western wanderlust, it was initially madcap moonshine with names like Skull Bender, Panther Piss and Snake Head — which featured a dead snake head in the barrel. Things improved, however, when George Washington, America’s first president, tightened up production techniques. He had quite the weakness for whiskey and, after serving two terms in the White House, built a distinguished distillery at his home in Mount Vernon.

That seems a far cry from America’s two most recent presidents — both of whom are teetotallers.

Indeed. In fact, Donald Trump didn’t do domestic whisky distillers any favours in 2018 when he slapped big tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium. In retaliation, the UK whacked a damaging 25% duty on US whiskey. Thankfully, both sides saw sense, and in June, the tariffs were lifted, making US whiskey a good deal cheaper, as of June.

Phew. So what’s it all about then?

US whiskey encompasses several different styles, nearly all distinguished by the ‘mash’ (the combination of grains used in the distillers’ recipe, be it malted barley, rye, wheat or corn). While malted barley helps fuel fermentation, rye (dry and spicy) and wheat (nutty yet nuanced) are flavour grains that keep their characteristics throughout the production process. Each distillery also has its own type of heavily guarded propriety yeast that hugely influences the flavour of the final spirit. Maturation is a major factor, too — this encompasses the strength of the spirit as it enters the oak barrels, the length of time it stays in there and both the temperature and location of the warehouse where it’s stored.

What are the different styles?

Bourbon is the most prevalent. It can be made anywhere in America but its mash must contain at least 51% corn — which, along with the ageing process, delivers sweetness. Distilled to a maximum of 80% abv and aged in fresh, charred oak barrels at no more than 62.5% abv, Bourbon can comprise different aged whiskies, but the age statement refers to the youngest in the bottle.

There’s been a resurgence in rye whiskey in recent years. With a mash bill consisting of at least 51% rye, it’s traditionally bolder and spicier than bourbon and an authentic choice for classic cocktails such as the sazerac and the manhattan.

Meanwhile, corn whiskey (which must have a mash containing at least 80% corn) harks back to the historic hooch enjoyed by true rootin’-tootin’, cow-poking, beaver-trapping, tobacco-chewing cowboys. Chewy and sweet, modern versions are more than mere moonshine, however — and increasingly popular among bartenders.  

Got it. So, what’s Jack Daniel’s? 

It’s a Tennessee whiskey — which distinguishes itself from bourbon by being filtered through charcoal, plus it must be made in Tennessee. ‘Jack’ is by far the world’s biggest-selling US whiskey, but look beyond it and you’ll discover some quality classics alongside some awesome expressions from a thriving Stateside craft distilling scene.

American whiskey has just become cheaper to buy in the UK.

Photograph by Stockfood

Where to drink it

1. Neat Bourbon Bar & Bottle Shop, Louisville, Kentucky
Kentucky is home to more than 90% of America’s bourbon. Most of it adorns the shelves of this sophisticated, 1920s-style speakeasy and bottle shop, set up by two Louisville locals, both clued-up bourbon connoisseurs. Amid the plush surroundings of red leather, dark mahogany and dimmed-down lighting, they’ve collated a staggering collection of sensibly priced bourbons, including private barrel selections and extensive ranges from all the major distilling houses. Specialising in vintage expressions, it also buys dusty bottles of bourbon from customers and adds them to its back bar. With switched-on, knowledgeable bartenders, it’s a great place to gently sip through bourbon’s rich past.  

2. The Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington, DC
George Washington would’ve loved this iconic Washington elbow-bending institution, situated just two miles from the White House. It claims its 2,700 strong whisky collection is the biggest in the Western Hemisphere. Slide onto a bar stool and marvel at the vast selection of bourbons and other US whiskeys stacked high and wide on vast, floor-to-ceiling shelving under a pressed tin roof. The tyranny of choice weighs heavy but bartenders will gently guide you in the right direction, whether its US icons, rare bottlings, vintage classics or a tasting flights, including its own bespoke Jack Rose Barrel Picks or Ryes to Write Home About.

3. Canon, Seattle, Washington
Created by acclaimed Canadian alco-demic Jamie Boudreau, Canon is pure uncut catnip for cocktail connoisseurs, drinks historians and bartenders. Identifying as a ‘whiskey and bitters emporium’, this intimate venue deftly dovetails deep drinks knowledge with the relaxed vibe of a neighbourhood bar — plus it also serves some phenomenal food. But it’s the vast selection of spirits and liqueurs that stands out here — more the 4,000 labels crammed into the bar, hallway and even bathrooms. Among these are what’s claimed to be the world’s largest selection of US whiskeys.

4. The Lexington, Islington, London             
Previously a basic boozer but now a laidback lounge bar, this little corner of Kentucky near King’s Cross has been bigging up bourbon for quite some time now. It has more than 100 US whiskies on its back bar — including single-barrel expressions, rare and vintage whiskies, key classics, some spicy ryes and Whisky Thief, the house pour made in close collaboration with distillers in the US. As well as the whiskies, its cocktail game is strong, there’s some awesome US beers to accompany the Mexican menu and things get loud with a legendary live music venue upstairs.

Three whiskies to try

Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 47%
From Heaven Hill, the only heritage distillery to produce every major style of US whiskey, this is a cult classic. Wonderfully rounded and wearing its age well, it’s sweet and deep with stewed fruits and big bourbon vanilla on the nose. A bold but decidedly drinkable bourbon.

Balcones Texas Rye 100 Proof
As ever, the Texans don’t muck about. This is entirely rye with 20% a blend of crystal and chocolate varieties. Spicy, robust but with a deeper, richer bitter chocolate character than other ryes.

Michter's US*1 Unblended American Whiskey
Unlike bourbon or rye, which must be aged in new oak, this unblended expression is aged in oak barrels already steeped in bourbon.

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