Every other year a new trend in alcoholic beverages comes along, making it possible for the self-appointed hip guys (yes, it´s always guys) to set themselves apart from their pals by amassing tons of nerdy knowledge. I should know since I´ve been one of those guys for years. We´ve seen single malt whisky, matured rum, Italian grappa, premium vodka, Carter-head still gin and several others go from cult to mainstream, and now the time in the limelight has come for American whiskey. For many years, the Systembolaget store (the only licensed seller of alcohol in Sweden) has offered just a handful of pretty basic Bourbons. This has definitely changed and now you can get over 70 types of American wiskey, many of them by special order and some with prices even higher than premium Scottish malts.
The many centuries of history of this type of drink in Ireland and Scotland is very hard to overlook, and that story deserves it´s own telling some other time. To simplify things you could say that Scottish whisky is made from either malted barley (malt whisky) or from other grains (mostly wheat or rye). Single malt whisky is distilled from a mash containing only malted barley, while the equivalent single grain uses either rye or wheat. Several blends of the different types of whisky also exists; blended malt, blended grain as well as blends of malt and grain whiskies.
American whiskey follows the same ground rules with some noteable exceptions. The spirit is still distilled from different kinds of fermented grains – barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat and corn. Several distinctive types of this whiskey exists with different rules of what they are allowed to be made of. Rye and rye malt whiskey must contain at least 51% rye or malted rye. Similarly malt and wheat whiskey must use at least 51% malted barley or wheat respectively. Corn whiskey on the other hand contains at least 80% corn, something that sets it apart from all the others.Bourbon is maybe the most well known of American whiskeys and can only be distilled from a mash of at least 51 % corn and then aged in charred new oak barrels. No artificial colour or flavouring is allowed and the length of barrel aging is not closely regulated. To be called straight whiskey a distillate needs to be not more than 80% alcohol, aged for at least two years and without additives.
Tennessee whiskey is a special case of straight Bourbon produced in the state of Tennessee. Relatively few producers of this type of whiskey exists due to a statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverages that has endured much longer than the national prohibition. Many of the Tennessee whiskeys will not use the Bourbon label in spite of technically qualifying as such. The main producers of Tennessee whiskey are Jack Daniels, George Dickel and Benjamin Prichard. All of these companies manufacture several types of whiskey with their own unique character. Some of these are made with the Lincoln County Process, meaning that the whiskey is filtered through or steeped in maple charcoal chips before going into oak casks for aging. The Jack Daniels and George Dickel distilleries have different ways of doing this, which is claimed to affect the taste of their products. The sour mash process used in making the Tennesee whiskeys is a way of achieving an even quality over time. Some of the already used mash is added to the present batch to start fermentation, ensuring that the same yeast is used and lowering the pH to avoid proliferation of bacteria that could affect the taste of the distillate.
Having a story explaining why your particular whisky is better and more special than the rest has always been important, and the lore of Scottish malts are full of special ingredients and techniques, single-minded master distillers, unique combinations of new and previously used barells, as well as storage locations exposed to salty sea air or other environmental factors perceived beneficial. The same goes for American whiskey, however with several important differences. While age is an important factor in Scottish whiskies, American ones have no way of competing in that department. Instead we get a lot of unique compositions of the fermentable material, paired with some special manufacturing steps like for example the Lincoln County Process. The tales behind American whiskeys are in no way less intriguing than those behind their Scottish counterparts. Very often you have a strong personality initiating manufacture of whiskey in a different way than what´s been done before. It might be a water supply of remarkable quality, a special combination and/or treatment of the grains used, different extra processes like maple charcoal mellowing, and innovations in barrel maturation. How the distillery dealt with the Prohibition Era is often a part of its history that´s recounted with pride, and of course adds colour to its background. Having been the favorite whiskey of different luminaries from Abe Lincoln to Al Capone is also used as part of the mythology surrounding a certain brand.
There´s been a lot of debate about whether to add water or ice to your drink, and even though no distinctive truths are to be found there are still arguments for the different practices. When talking about single malts, many agree that a splash of water is needed to release the full taste of high alcohol content whiskies like cask strength varieties, that can go up to 60% or more. At this high percentage the alcohol can actually prevent your taste buds from registering the subtler nuances of the whisky, and instead leave you with an anaesthesized feeling. For single malt whiskies ice is never an option even though it´s sometimes used for blended ones. American whiskeys on the other hand have a long history of drinking on the rocks, and there might even be a point to this practice. It´s true that the lower temperature in a glass of whiskey with an ice cube in it will withhold some of the tastes. Still, some of the high end Bourbons like Blanton´s have such a high alcohol content that some water might help to release some of their finer nuances. While tasting American whiskey it might be a good idea to first try it neat and then continue by adding an ice cube and see how it changes. Future posts in this blog will be doing exactly that, with different products from a number of distilleries.