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The days where the mention of American distilling conjured up images of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam are long since passed. The USA is now a country with a rich modern distilling culture and an attitude towards micro distilling that is more in line with the very healthy boutique beer market that already exists over there. There is more to US spirits than Jack 'N' Coke.
The most famous style of USA Whiskey is Bourbon, it can legally be made anywhere in the states but it is most closely, and historically, associated with the state of Kentucky where there are 10 distilleries in operation. They are:
Heaven Hill, Early Times, Jim Beam (two distilleries), Tom Moore, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses & Makers Mark.
All of these distilleries are responsible for a multitude of different ‘brands’, a fact which explains the presence of so many different names and bottlings on the market.
Bourbon is a distinctly unique style of whiskey. Its first, and arguably most important, distinction lies in its raw material. Unlike Scotch, Bourbon is distilled from a mixture of different grains, this mixture is known as the ‘mashbill’, the mashbill differs from distillery to distillery and indeed some distillers will distil from a variety of mashbills of their own devising in order to breed variety within their maturing stock. Vital if they wish to develop multiple different brands in the future.
The legal requirements of the bourbon mashbill are that it must be at least 51% corn, although it is often closer to 70%. The remainder is composed of wheat, malted barley and rye. This mash bill is then ground and mashed with water to extract all the necessary starches, sugars and proteins. The resultant liquid is fermented, often with unique and closely guarded yeast strains, and finally distilled through a mix of column and pot stills, although occasionally only pots are used. The new make or ‘white dog’ is filled into casks at no more than 125 US proof, or 62.5%. The casks used must legally be charred virgin casks, never before filled with any other wine or spirit. Contrary to popular belief they are not legally required to be oak and there are no restrictions on size; despite this the overwhelming majority of casks filled are 200 litre American White Oak barrels and these barrels contribute an enormous amount to the character of bourbon. To legally become bourbon the spirit must age for at least 2 years, although many of the more premium brands age for much longer. The oldest so far bottled was a 27yo.
There are many varieties of bourbon produced in America from variations of the above basic production process. The typical characteristics are those of intense vanilla, liquorice and spice derived largely from the use of such intensely active wood maturing in such hot climactic conditions. The mashbill is also essential in determining base levels of sweetness, aromatic spice qualities and further underlying complexities that are often manifest as chocolate, thicker fruit tones, resinous notes and borderline smoky notes. A greater emphasis on Rye will push the spicy qualities while more malt or wheat will nurture an oilier, sweeter bourbon. The more old style bourbons are those of Wild Turkey with their more earthy spicy notes while modern examples are produced at Makers Mark and Buffalo Trace. Many consider the Buffalo Trace brands such as George T Stagg and Van Winkle to be among the greatest bourbons of the last twenty years. They are often bottled at much greater ages and strengths allowing all the intensity and syrupy, almost medicinal concentration of the wood to come shining through. Stagg in particular is a stunning and deeply uncompromising example. Younger examples of bourbon tend to be lighter with a more even mix of wood and distillate characteristics.
Rye Whiskey is produced throughout the states, not only in the distilling heartlands of Kentucky and Tennessee but also in many of the nation’s fine modern micro-distilleries. The legal requirements for a Rye Whiskey stipulate a mashbill of at least 51% Rye to be used. However some modern distillers have used up to 100% Rye. The rule, as with all American Whiskeys, is that more Rye equals more spice. Some of the most extreme and top class examples of modern Rye are Old Portrero from Anchor Distillery in San Francisco, High West 16yo, a much longer aged example distilled at High West distillery in Salt Lake City and Hudson Rye from Tuthilltown in New York. These are all distinctive and uncompromisingly spicy drinks, much drier than bourbon and clearly bearing the influence of their base ingredients despite similarly intense wood influence. In fact the natural spice tones and lignins of the virgin oak barrels tend to compliment Rye’s more aromatic spice notes very beautifully. These are well worth seeking out in comparison to the more commonly known bourbons and sour mash whiskeys.
There are many other examples such as single malts and unique whiskeys that refuse to conform to any particular category. Few bear much resemblance to the grain spirits of Europe or Japan, the sweetness, unique grain profile and climatic variances serve to make them unique and exceptionally flavoursome, often intense, spirits. A whole new world and style to explore that is getting bigger and deeper by the year.
The roots of Canadian distilling lie in the origins of its early settlers, many of whom came from northern Europe and were of Gallic, Germanic and, of course, Celtic origin. The highland clearances uprooted whole communities of Scots to Canadian shores to make way for sheep farming. This in turn exported the home distilling culture of Scotland and Ireland to the fledgling nation of Canada. However the influence was convoluted by the seafaring nature of the country and by the ready availability of molasses, this led to a higher production of rum than whisky for many years. However the abundance of fresh water and the ability of Rye as a grain to thrive on the plains and farmlands soon led to the forging of a basic identity for Canadian whisky distilling. This identity remains separate from Scotch and American Whiskey but it does share combined elements of both though historical convolution of the two styles.
Initially a neutral or ‘base’ whisky is produced from a mixed mash of corn, wheat, rye and barley. This is fermented for 3-5 days before being distilled without filtration in column stills. The resultant spirit is then reduced with water and redistilled in a rectifier (a still with an adjustable head) up to a final strength of about 94% abv which is then aged, usually in American oak barrels. The second kind of whisky, known as ‘flavouring whisky’ is produced using a rye dominated mash. The beer from this mash is then distilled at least once through the beer (column) still. Different ‘cuts’ of the final spirit will be taken to give mature stock with a variety of profiles and flavour emphasis to be used when blending or creating a new whisky. These spirits must be legally aged in oak casks not larger than 700 litres for a minimum of three years in Canada. Not unlike Scottish laws in that sense. However they may use virgin, charred, toasted and refill oak as they see fit and in any combination, so the level of wood influence on the spirit can be quite variable. Although Canadian whisky has a long historical association with the rye grain, the most common grain used is corn and some whiskies may state rye on the label but actually contain little of it in the mashbill. The variety of distillates produced by most distilleries allows them to create their own ‘single blends’ as it were, entirely from the different in house products at their disposal.
Style & Flavour
The slightly looser rules surrounding Canadian whisky production make for an extremely wide palate of flavours and styles. The worst are overly youthful, thin and spirity due to the lightness of the distillate and the lack of sufficient aging, a complaint that can be applied to Scottish and Irish whiskies as well. However, the best are often quite excellent, although sadly hard to find on UK shores.
Rye influenced spirits such as some of those produced by Hiram Walker for the Canadian Club range will be understandably spicier and fuller but can vary depending on the oak influence, the heaviest can be reminiscent of American ryes but with a more ‘Scotch-like’ edge in their levels of sub fruit characteristics. The spirits produced with a higher malt content tend to age better and take to oak more gently; the older versions aged from 18-30 years can be spectacular with big notes of fresh apples, cedar wood, cigar smoke, cereals, vanilla sweetness and dusty fruits. There are single malts produced in Canada, particularly at the young(ish) Glenora distillery on Cape Breton Island, however this distillate is still finding its feet as it remains quite young.
The best Canadian whiskies remain hard to find but they are worth the effort as they can be a light, appetising, flavoursome and highly drinkable alternative to the more common Scottish, Irish and American styles.