Friday, June 12, 2015

Whiskey 201: American Whiskey, What's the difference?

Whiskey comes in all shapes and sizes, even within a single country countless styles and recipes can come to be. In America, all walks of life have created all kinds of whiskey for all kinds of people. White whiskey was the first, then we aged it and started playing with it. We used whatever grain we could. We made it when we weren't allowed and we had fun ducking Johnny Law. These are the mai styles of whiskey made in the United States of America. 

Moonshine / White Whiskey
Moonshine is a bit of a loose term. It refers to a time when whiskey had to be made and shipped illegally, under the moonlight. Interestingly enough, this practice of illegal whisky making dates back to before American Prohibition to the united kingdom where the British would heavily regulate and tax production. In America, moonshine is typically a corn made whiskey distilled to a very high proof. To make a legal whiskey, one needs to have a dedicated facility and regular inspections and such, homemade whiskey is illegal. It's presumed that most moonshine production is still illegal, but some brands have emerged on a few state store shelves. Most moonshine is flavored these days with flavors ranging from cherries to apple pie. Overproof unaged spirits like moonshine typically have very little flavor, so flavors are added to lower the proof and make the drink more palatable to a larger audience.

Bourbon is most likely the best-known variety of American whiskey. While it is named after the Bourbon region of Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the USA. Like moonshine, bourbon is predominantly corn. By law, bourbon must use at least 51% corn in its mash, but can be supplemented by other grains like rye, wheat, and barley. Corn being the sweetest grain, bourbon yields a very sweet and flavorful profile. Like most whiskeys, bourbon is aged. To be called a straight bourbon whiskey, it must be aged at least two years in fresh charred white oak barrels. It thus picks up quite a bit of smokey flavor from the burnt wood. Bourbons that are bottled in bond are seen by many as the height of bourbon quality. To be bottled in bond, it must come from one distillery and be bottled at 100 proof. You can buy cask strength whiskey, such as Booker's at 126 proof, but many find it a bit unpalatable without water.
Tennessee whiskey is straight bourbon whiskey that is made in the state of Kentucky. So all Tennessee whiskey is also bourbon. There are two main brands of Tennessee whiskey: Jack Daniels and George Dickel. Supposedly Jack Daniels is the best-known whiskey brand in the world, which makes some sense due to it's very unique style and flavor. While it is a bourbon it is also a sour mash whiskey, meaning after a batch of whiskey is made, a portion of the leftover spent mash is added to the new portion to aid in the fermentation. This used grain doesn't contain as much sugar, as it's been used, but it still contains the earthy grainy flavor, thus Sour Mash. Most Tennessee whiskey also use the Lincoln County Process of filtration.

Rye whiskey is most likely the truest style of American whiskey. It was the favored alcohol of America in the 1700s. Rye was the most prevalent and hearty grain in those times and it survives in a variety of climates. In states like Pennsylvania, the foundation of our country, rye was everywhere. Most Canadian whiskys are rye as well, as the grain survives the colder climates. Rye has less sugar in it and gives a certain spicy quality to a whiskey. By spicy I don't mean jalapeno, I more mean baking spices like cinnamon and cloves. Rye's can be very smooth and have a great spice note that distinguishes it from the smokey scotch of sweet bourbon. Rye is also typically aged these days but not necessarily. Dad's Hat does create a wonderful white rye. The laws in America are effectively the same as bourbon except for the ratio of grains in the mash. 

“I’m a simple man. All I want is enough sleep for two normal men, enough whiskey for three, and enough women for four.”
- Joel Rosenberg


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