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America's Whiskey

Bourbon, rye and Tennessee Whiskey are leading a golden age of American brown spirits.

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Other tricks from the distiller’s toolbox have been brought to bear, such as adding a wood finish. Angel’s Envy does just that with its rum-cask-influenced rye, and Hillrock has its Sherry-wood finished expression. High West, of Utah, has had interesting results blending old and new ryes as well as bringing Bourbon into the mix with its Bourye.
The major thrust, however, has been in experimenting with the mashbill—to the advantage of rye content. Today, a number of whiskeys bring a rye quotient of 90 to 95 percent, eliminating the sweetening influence of corn altogether. Some even forsake barley. You’d think the result might be impossibly tart and overbearing, but nuances occur like the licorice and menthol of Masterson’s set against a floral nose or Whistle Pig’s perfect balance of mint, chocolate and caramel. Or consider the elegant Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye, from whiskey giant Buffalo Trace. It’s a bottled-in-bond dram with no corn that comes off with notes of chewy caramel, toffee, licorice and pine needles.
That Bulleit went the high-rye route for its rye whiskey introduction was to be expected (their Bourbon brand has an unusually high rye content). But the same treatment from George Dickel’s, whose other whiskeys are known for smoothness, was a bit of a surprise. Both sourced their liquid from the same Indiana distillery, but ended with very different products as Dickel put its whiskey through a charcoal filtering.
Big distilleries were caught a bit off guard by the revival. “It was the biggest surprise in my 32 years in distilling,” says distiller Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey, where they make four times as much rye as before the boom. Still there are shortages of aged rye whiskey. The lack of market years ago explains that. No one had planned for its sudden popularity. “If people are only willing to pay $10, you’re not really encouraged to keep it for 30 years,” says Comstock. Now, he says, demand is international.
David Pickerell, a consulting distiller for more than 20 craft whiskeys, including Whistle Pig and the Hillrock ryes, sees this changing quickly because distilleries will soon meet demand with more mature whiskies.
Nimble craft distillers caught on to rye’s popularity right away. Thirty-eight of the craft whiskey makers listed on make a rye. Templeton, of Iowa, was started to revive a Prohibition-era recipe. Ralph Erenzo, of Tuthilltown Spirits in New York’s Hudson Valley, says he saw the trend and said, “Okay, lets do rye.” Now his Hudson Manhattan Rye rivals the company’s Baby Bourbon in sales.
But there’s much more to American whiskey than just Bourbons and ryes. The irony of a third class, Tennessee Whiskey, is that it’s tremendously well-known to drinkers but often left in obscurity. That is because it gets confused with Bourbon, which has a very similar formula. While Tennessee Whiskey defines a club of effectively two members, one of them is the highest selling American whiskey in the world.
The reason Tennessee Whiskey is so often confused with Bourbon is that the same parameters (at least 51 percent corn) govern the mashbill, and it also follows the legal strictures of straight whiskeys. Where it differs is that state law requires that it must a) of course, be made in Tennessee, and b) undergo a filtration in several feet of sugar maple charcoal.
That filtering step, also called the Lincoln County process and done before aging, gives Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel their mellow character and explains why the whiskeys are so approachable.
The distilleries are within 20 miles of each other and both enjoy limestone-rich water sources (much like in Kentucky). Daniel’s, however, dwarfs Dickel in size and notoriety, thanks in part to unofficial endorsements by among others Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Its constant growth led to one of its line extensions: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel. Looking for more space to age whiskey in, the company opened up its rafters of warehouses for storage and subsequently found that the barrels kept there had a special quality.
Dickel takes a different aging tack altogether, using only one-story warehouses located on hilltops. The thinking is that the whiskey gets better air circulation, meaning more consistency between barrels. The distillery, which has adamantly avoided modernization, also looks back to its roots for one of its main points of distinction. The founder noticed that the whisky (Dickel’s uses the Scottish spelling) made in the winter months tasted better. Today, the new-make whiskey is chilled before it starts the filtration process to mimic the same conditions. Temporarily shuttered in the 1990s, it was reopened to fulfill demand. The closure left it with some especially old whisky, some of which goes into Dickel’s Barrel Select, made yearly from 10 handpicked casks.
After the micro-brewing revolution that erupted almost four decades ago, it seemed that something similar was due in the distillery world. At first, legal and fiscal hurdles kept that from happening, but recently craft whiskey has become a formidable reality. With relaxed licensing laws and newfound public interest, there are now hundreds of small distillers in some 30 states.
The output hasn’t been much so far, at least compared with the big spirits makers, but the movement is obviously gaining ground. Many are devoted to vodkas as those are products that go immediately to market. Nevertheless whiskey is well-represented as well because of its artisanal nature.
Craft distillers, which make small batch products, can react quickly to consumer trends. They can also distinguish themselves with unusual grain recipes. (New York State’s Hillrock and Colorado’s Stranahan’s each make 100 percent barley whiskeys, which are essentially like single-malt Scotch.) Talk of a whiskey terroir is often bandied about because many distillers source local ingredients.
Where the small guy loses ground is in aging. Most haven’t been in operation long enough to have barrels that would rival the dozen-plus-year-old whiskeys that so many big distillers have on hand. Nor do craft distillers have the enormous breadth of barrels to choose from when mixing whiskey together.
Craft distillers can speed maturation by using small casks, which increases the wood-surface-area-to-volume ratio, but doesn’t always provide the same depth as longer aging. Some, like Wisconsin’s Death’s Door and California’s Charbay, have eschewed aging almost entirely, creating clear whiskeys. Aged for plain whiskey’s legal minimum one day in wood, they are very similar to the raw product that comes off the still. Some of these products have been called by the Kentucky term “white dog” and even “moonshine,” although it isn’t an illicit spirit. It is interesting to see what whiskey tastes like right off the still, but don’t expect the mellow tones of straight whiskey.
One of the industry’s most popular segments has some purists crying foul—flavored whiskeys. Wild Turkey makes American Honey and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. Heaven Hill makes a honey and a cherry variety. And Jim Beam’s Red Stag comes in black cherry, honey tea and spiced cinnamon.
On the one hand, the movement seems to adulterate a product marked by its struggle to remain pure. On the other hand there is strong history for whiskey-based liqueurs stemming from Scotland and Ireland. And no higher an authority than master distiller Jimmy Russell recalls that his mother once rubbed a combination of Bourbon and honey on his gums when he was teething.
“It’s good for a cough, too,” says the whiskey legend. “So I always try to have a cough.”
To read more about the history of whiskey, click here.
George C Commack, NY, USA, March 17, 2014 9:37am ET
great article
Arthur Hoge Calhoun, Ga, U.S., June 2, 2014 6:21am ET
Any suggestions on what to pair with Knob Creek,,being from Georgia,,we have a lot at our disposal of local stuff as well as the advertised whiskies,,but I am curious about ANY suggestions for Makers Mark,Knob Creek,,and Dickel.For years I drank Turkey,Daniels,Beam,and all though,they were all good,,NOW,,in my older years,,I prefer the more refined whiskies,,SO,,now that I'm learning about more refined cigars,,it seemed only natural to finally learn more about the more refined beverages.

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