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About American Whiskey

 
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opelfruit
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 28, 2014 9:56 pm    Post subject: About American Whiskey Reply with quote

Ok, no sure how many people actually frequent the American section of this forum so it may be a bit pointless doing this, but I've decided to do a piece on the stuff.

Firstly, sorry in advance. I'm not a writer, I'm a drinker so it's likely that this post will be; long, full of bad grammar and with little direction! Take what you can and ignore the rest.

I think that a lot of people from the UK look down at bourbon and other American whisky and mainly it's the bourbon industries fault. Most drinkers of whisky think that bourbon is a mid to bottom shelf drink, often harsh and all very samey/one dimentional....well, I can understand that.


The issue comes because of lack of understanding about bourbon. My comment would be this; "Scotch is rubbish, I've had Bells, Treachers, Famous Grouse and the odd Glenfiddich 12 in a the pub and it's just horrible". Now how would the educated Scotch drinker react to that? Smile With annoyance I bet.


The stuff most people think of as bourbon is the stuff they see in pubs/bars or in the supermarket - Jim Beam, Jack Daniel (yes I know it's a Tennessee, we'll get to that later), Makers Mark. They drink it with ice, or with cola because it's just not great neat. Correct. This is like comparing Scotch to average blended Scotch - it just isn't the same thing.

So let's get this straight, there is more to bourbon that Jim Beam. They are produced for their target, and their target loves to drown them in mixers.

Let's get to to *real* bourbon and American whisky.

American whiskey, what is it?
It's whisky, but the rules are strict and it's complicated. So....it's a barrel aged distilled spirit made from a fermented mash of cereal grain. It can be made anywhere in the USA, not just the south or bourbon county. There are 4 main types;

    Bourbon - made from a mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize)

    Rye - made from a mash that consists of at least 51% rye

    Wheat - made from a mash that consists of at least 51% wheat

    Tennessee - it's bourbon but filtered through maple charcoal in a process called "Lincoln Country Process" before it's put into the cask - it's supposed to make it smoother.


You can also get malt whiskey and corn whisky (80% corn), but it's not too common.

It must be distilled to not more than 80% abv (160 US proof), there must be NO added colouring (wahoo!) or flavouring, it must be aged in charred NEW oak cask and bottled at no less than 40% abv. No minimum period is stated.

Straight whiskey - this is whiskey that is as above but has been aged for at least 2 years and must not enter the barrels for aging at any more than 62.5% abv. It cannot be blended with any other spririts, colourings, additives. Although it only has to be aged for 2 years it must state the age on the label if it is aged for less than 4 years. If it's 4 years or older there does not have to be an age statement.


Stuff on the label:
So now we know what we see when we reach for a bottle of "Straight Kentucky Bourbon" or "Straight Tennessee Whiskey". So what's all that other stuff on the lable?

Usually you'll get a few bits of info about the bottling. Nothing means it's mass produced and bottled according to the regulations above, but sometimes (well, often) distilleries like to go all craft on us;


    Small batch - we know this from Sctoch right? It's a bottling done with a limited barrel dump to the vatting. There isn't anything legal about definition so it can be anything from say 4 barrels (Four Roses only used 4 barrels per batch) to 1000 barrels. So it's still a bit sneaky.

    Single Barrel - does what it says on the tin. The bottle comes from a single barrel - they are popular at the moment so there are loads about, usually they are more expensive and gooooood.

    Bottled in Bond - pretty irrelevant now but back in the olden days bottlers may bottle a whisky at 45% and it may actually be less. There may be colouring and all sorts, basically all a bit corrupt. Bottle in bond act of 1897 put a stop to some of this; if "Bottled in bond" is on a label it means the whiskey is guarenteed to be at least 4 years old, made at 1 distillery during 1 distilation season by 1 distiller and 50%abv (100 US proof), with no additives. It was stored in a government bonded warehouse under lock and key by federal agents no less. It's probably the closest term to "Single Malt" in meaning.

    Cask Strength - yeah, so we know what this is.


Age:
Forget about it. This aint Scotch, this is American. Think of single malt from India or Japan where it ages fast, you don't need an age.
Kentucky gets hot hot hot, this means that the difference in temperatures over a year are dramatic and it causing the whisky to mature fast as there is more movement into the wood. The barrels are new oak and so it impact of cask is high. Bourbons are really easy to over oak, the sweet spot is usually around 6-8 years for a standard bourbon and some of the best I've ever had have been in this bracket.

Don't get caught up on age statements or lack of them, they are not common place in American whisky as they don't really matter. Whiskies are produced on a quality basis and not to high an age bracket for an un-educated consumer.

Mash bill - "what you say?!";
Unlike Single Malt whisky where the only ingredient is malted barley (yeast and water), American whiskey can be made up of many grains. If you take bourbon as an example;

51% corn minumum. So what's the other 49%? Well, you can chose from wheat, rye and malted barley. Usually it's padded out with more corn and then the other grains added to give various flavours. The end mixture is the "bill" or reciped for the mash and will determine the flavour (in most part) of the end whiskey.

    Rye - The big flavour grain. Bold, floral, spicey, pungent and vibrant. It's the peat of the American whiskey trade. It's also expensive and hard to handle in distilling so it's used sparingly.

    Wheat - Smoothness baby. This is the polar oposite to rye, it gives lots of caramel and butterscotch and a very smooth taste and finish.

    Corn - The sweetness. This is the bit more people don't like about bourbon, it's overly sweet. Corn is high is sugar and most budget bourbons are high in corn as it's the cheapest grain, so they are overly sweet and 1 dimentional - corn doesn't give a lot of flavour to whiskey but it does give texture and body.

    Malted Barley - enzymes. Almost all whiskey makers have some of this, maybe not a lot but some. You can get 100% ryes, corns or wheats but they are not common. Malted Barley contains an enzyme that converts the starches into sugar, sugar is turned into alchohol by the yeast so you get the most out of your mash when you have some malted barley.


    High rye - usually rye content is 8-10% but some put a lot more in. Four Roses has the highest rye mashbill with 35% rye. Note: rye is goooood. You like flavour then go for high rye.

    High corn - usually it's about 60-70%, sometimes it can be as high as 80%. Sweet and buttery. Not may of these about.

    High wheater (wheaters!) - these have a high wheat content in the mashbill and are good if you are starting out in bourbon
.

Examples of each type:
Here are some examples of your main stay whiskies and which categories they fall into, just incase you are interested and see stuff on the shelf.

    Wheaters - Maker's Mark, Van Winkle (*cough* - if you can afford one), Weller (William Larue Weller and Old Antique).

    High rye - Four Roses, Blanton's, Rock Hill Farm, Hancocks, Elmer T Lee, Jim Beam, Bulleit, Ancient Age.

    Standard bourbon (lowish rye) - Eagle Rare 10yo, Evan Williams, Elijah Craigh, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Benchmark.

    Tennessee - Jack Daniel, George Dickle.

    Straight rye - Sazerac, Rittenhouse, Pikesville..



How distilleries work:
So Amercian distilleries produce many brands of whiskey from the same distillery, some use the same mashbills and others use different once. Some are stored in their own warehouses others are together. Basically, there are so many different flavours given the mashbills and warehouse and locations and vattings that a distillery can produces dozens of different brands of whisky from the same company each tasting different.


Example;

Buffalo Trace (probably the best distillery on the planet!), these guys produce the following;

    Eagle Rare
    Rock Hill Farm
    Hancocks
    Weller
    George T Stagg
    Actual Buffalo Trace
    Sazerac Rye
    Van Winkle
    Blanton's
    Benchmark
    Elmer T Lee


.....and so it goes for other distilleries too, some are bigger than others. There are only a few big players out there that produce 90% of the whiskey.




Sorry if I've forgotten anything!
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Quaich1
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 28, 2014 10:12 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

A comprehensive explanation of the key elements and terms of reference for understanding American whiskey. Forum members, it's really worth a read. Thanks Opelfruit.
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opelfruit
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 28, 2014 10:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks, I think that the American section is a bit light on content (I know it's Scotch Malt Whisky . com and all that).

I've been drinking scotch for about 10 years (only in my early 30's so I've got a way to go to catch a lot of you) and Japanese for about 5 years or so. Only really got into American about 3 years ago (ish) and it's been a slow process as I favour single malts generally so I don't buy as many of them.

.....but I'm a geek and I like to know what I'm drinking.

I've not had a massive array of Americans, probably more than most but certainly not as many as I've had Scotch(es). I'm going to make it my business to fly the flag for this bit and try to dig out some of my historic tasting notes. I've not made many in the past and I can't remember where I put them!

Any new whiskies I get I'll be posting about as I think that education and understanding is the key to truely enjoying something. So maybe it'll turn a few people to the quality of American whiskey.....maybe not.... Wink we'll see.



and no I'm not American!
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cdn_dram
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 27, 2017 12:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for posting this. Realize this is an old thread but came up in a search and was a great read. Very informative!
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