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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...
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, the 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 climatic 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.