We’ve covered some basics of what makes a whisky in our introduction to whisky, but didn’t dive into the flavour profiles you can usually expect from each type of whisky. In our “Understanding” series, we’ll go into more depth about each type of whisky, including a bit about history, process, and flavours. We may even mention a few brands so you have something to reference. So let’s dive in.
Defining American Whiskey
Thanks to the keen eye of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), American whiskey is clearly defined and regulated. In the early days, legislation was looser because of the difficulty overseeing horse-drawn shipments between distillers through suppliers to the customers. Eventually, to weed out the charlatans selling subpar or diluted whiskey, sealing and labelling bottles became common practice in the industry. In 1897, the Bottled in Bond Act was passed and included the federal government in the process to further prove the authenticity of the spirits. We’ll talk about that more later. You can see that Americans are serious about their spirits, its labelling, and authenticity. This helps to understand what you’re drinking but can also be overwhelming if you’re just dipping a toe in the water.
Bourbon in American whiskey made from at least 51% corn. It must be aged in new charred oak barrels. It must be distilled at no higher than 80% ABV, go into the barrels at 62.5% ABV or lower, and be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, even though most of it is.
Since it only has to be 51% corn, there is room to play with other grains and flavours. If the other 49% is mainly rye, it becomes a high rye bourbon which would be dry and spicy. If the rest of the mash bill is mainly wheat, it’s called a wheated bourbon and would be sweeter.
Typical notes when tasting a bourbon tend to be sweeter flavours like vanilla, caramel, maple, almonds or marzipan, dark cherries, honey, and then that will be followed by the tannins of the barrel since it gets unadulterated exposure to the char of the barrel. If you’re looking for a traditional mash bill to start, try a Wild Turkey or a Buffalo Trace. With the spice of a high rye bourbon, you could find heat like a pepper, or warmth from baking spices. Four Roses Single and Bulleit are prime examples of high rye bourbons. On the other end, the sweeter end that you’d find with wheated bourbons, you can expect a stronger presence of sweet notes like the vanilla and caramel but even other flavours like butterscotch or chocolate.
This differs from bourbon in that the mashbill must be at least 80% corn. There is no age requirement but if it is aged, it must be in either uncharred or previously used oak barrels. Other than that, it follows the same distilling, cask, and bottling limits as bourbon.
When drinking corn whisky, you’ll taste similar notes to bourbon but, because it doesn’t have to be aged, it can be rough around the edges. Sometimes corn whisky is advertised as moonshine despite being produced legally. The Balcones distillery in Texas creates a variety of corn whiskies but something local (Ontario), check out Murphy’s Law from Elmira.
American rye whisky follows the same rules as bourbon with the exception that it is made from at least 51% Rye. The aromatics spice and floral tones along with grain, pepper and grass notes are a definite contrast to bourbon. Knob Creek, Bulleit, and Rittenhouse are all great examples of ryes and Whistlepig is always fun to have. It’s important to know that when we talk about rye in this case, it’s not to be confused with what us Canadians call rye which is simply a colloquial term for Canadian whiskey.
Wheat whisky is gaining popularity as people pursue the rare Pappy van Winkle whiskeys and distillers leverage the lightness and floral aspect that wheat brings. Wheat whisky follows the same rules as bourbon except it’s at least 51% Wheat. It may be harder to get your hands on a wheat whisky but if you’re looking for bottles to pick up, you can grab a Dry Fly for an introduction into a straight wheat whisky.
Essentially, this is bourbon that is made in Tennessee and that goes through the Lincoln County Process which means, before being aged, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal made from specific sugar maple trees. It’s also known as charcoal mellowing and smooths the rough edges of the new-make. It often has that same flavours found in bourbon but mellower. Jack Daniels and George Dickel are two well-known brands but you could also try Pritchard’s.
A little extra
We’ve covered the major types but there are a few terms to know when talking American whiskey. if any of the above whiskeys are called straight. It means they are aged for at least 2 years. If under 4 years old, it must have an age statement.
When a spirit is bottled-in-bond it be produced in the US by one distiller at one distillery over one distillation season and then in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years and bottled at 50% ABV. The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled.