When European settlers began coming to America in the 1600s, they brought many things with them. Perhaps one of the most important items they delivered, however, was distilled whiskey. Whiskey remained popular in the Americas, so much so that settlers used it as currency during the Revolutionary War. Today, it remains one of the top-selling and most popular liquors in the country.
Before divulging the different types of American whiskey, it’s essential first to understand what makes whiskey unique from other types of liquor.
First and foremost, it’s important to know that distillers make whiskey with grain mash that has fermented. Most whiskey mash ages in wooden casks. These casks are responsible for giving whiskey its distinct brown taste and color. Typically, the grain used for the mash consists of:
Knowing that whiskeys are made from grain immediately separates them from two other favorite liquors, cognac and brandy. Distillers make those liquors from fermented grapes, not grain mash. However, the fact that fermented grain is the primary indicator of a whiskey means that both bourbon and scotch can be classified as whiskeys.
To be considered bourbon the liquor must be distilled in the United States. It must contain at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. The alcohol cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof, cannot enter the barrel higher than 125 proof and cannot be bottled below 80 proof.
Bourbons must also age in warehouses that have been inspected by the US government. There is no aging requirement, but any bourbon that has aged for less than four years must indicate so on the label. Distillers are also not allowed to add any flavoring or coloring to the mash. Any unique characteristics you taste in the whiskey come from the barrel that used for distilling.
Most bourbons are made in the southern United States, with many distilleries located in Kentucky and Tennessee. Bourbon tends to be a sweeter whiskey, although it can also taste smoky depending on the barrel. Popular American bourbon brands include:
- Wild Turkey
- Maker’s Mark
- Jim Beam
- Woodford Reserve
Another favorite American whiskey, Jack Daniel’s, is a bourbon even though the company does not brand themselves as one. Jack Daniel’s is a little different from other bourbons on the list, however, because of how its filtration process. It goes through the Lincoln County Process, which means it is steeped in charcoal before entering the casks.
At this point, it’s worth noting different spellings that you may see on whiskey labels. Whiskey, spelled with an e, is typically considered a liquor made in Ireland or the United States. Whisky, on the other hand, is distilled in Canada, Japan or Scotland. So, if you see a label that says American whisky, you should read closer to see its country of origin.
That brings us to scotch, which is considered a whisky because distillation occurred in Scotland. It is made primarily from malted barley, although different ingredients can be added to the mash to create unique flavors. Whereas bourbon is sweet, scotch tends to have a sharp “bite” or “kick.” It tends to be more difficult for beginners to drink scotch over bourbon.
Popular scotch brands include:
- Cutty Sark
- Johnnie Walker
To summarize, the main differences, bourbon is an American whiskey, while scotch is a Scottish whisky. Bourbons are made from corn mash, while distillers make scotch from malted barley.
How to Drink American Whiskey
Whiskey is not a liquor that you chug or mix with many cocktails. Fine whiskey can be sipped out of a rocks or tulip glass, allowing you to appreciate the many different flavors. These glasses are specially designed to enable you to enjoy the aromas that each whiskey has to offer.
When pouring the whiskey, you should pour two fingers-worth into the glass. Then, slowly smell the whiskey, which allows you to begin appreciating the various flavors contained in the liquor. As you gain experience with whiskey, you’ll find that your nose becomes more valuable than your tongue when evaluating a new one.
If you’re a beginner, you may find that adding a few drops of clean water into your drink will be beneficial. Clean water dilutes the whiskey, making it easier to handle the alcohol. But it also opens up the flavors, allowing them to become more noticeable. We recommend you use bottled water, as you don’t want to taint the whiskey. Start by using one caps-worth.
Best Whiskey Brands
Although there are many different brands of American whiskey that are popular, popular does not always mean the best. It’s important to try a variety of different whiskeys, so that you may find the one that best suits you.
Best American Whiskey
There is no better time to begin drinking whiskey. According to Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the country is in the middle of whiskey renaissance. Coleman attributes this renaissance to high-end, expensive whiskeys. An American whiskey with a higher price point tends to drive both volume and sales growth.
It also seems as though people around the world are beginning to realize how good American Whiskey is. Coleman indicated that American whiskey exports have risen by approximately 50 percent over the past decade. The industry now exports nearly a billion dollars of whiskey per year.
Curious about which is the best American whiskey? Consider starting with one of these brands.
Jim Beam Black is the older, more mature brother of the famous Jim Beam bourbon. Jim Beam Black ages in white oak barrels for twice as long as regular Jim Beam. Jim Beam Black contains hints of honey, caramel, and brown sugar for a sweet, smooth liquor.
Bulleit Bourbon 10-Year-Old is a whiskey well-recommended by whiskey enthusiasts. Some have described it as “heaven on the tongue.”
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select is a bit different from the Jack Daniel’s that you mixed with Coke in college. Those who have enjoyed the whiskey have described it as creamy and robust. Each bottle is carefully hand-selected, so you can rest assured knowing you’re getting a high-quality whiskey.
Just like with beer, there are craft whiskeys that yield different tastes. And just like with craft breweries, craft distilleries are gaining popularity. Although there were only 204 craft distilleries in American in 2010, there were more than 1,300 by August 2016. Estimates project there could be as many as 3,000 by 2020.
Craft whiskeys are also unique because of where distillation occurs. While bourbon is typically distilled in Kentucky and Tennessee, craft whiskeys are distilled far and wide across the US. States like Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa, and Ohio all feature prominent craft distilleries.
The growth of craft distilleries has been inspiring. It’s great that so many distillers have become interested in putting their twist on their mash. If you’re looking for a few to try, consider these ten craft American whiskeys from Forbes, some of which are listed below.
Boondocks American Whiskey was established a little over a decade ago a partnership between the Royal Wine Corporation and Dave Scheurich, who has over 40 years of experience in the industry. It features fruitier flavors that are finished with a sweet vanilla touch.
Bourye, a creation of the High West Distillery, is a unique blend of bourbon and rye whiskeys. The company sources rye whiskey from a warehouse that used to be owned by Seagrams. The taste of the whiskey has been described as a bit spicy and different, so this may be hit-or-miss.
Cedar Ridge Wheat Whiskey of Iowa features a drier finish is perfect for those who enjoy subtleties in their whiskey. Many users have reported that the whiskey is an excellent base for cocktails as well.
Rye Whiskey Brands
Rye whiskey is similar to bourbon, except that it must be made with a 51 percent rye mash, as opposed to a 51% corn mash. Many rye whiskeys also use corn as the other main ingredient of the mash. Popular rye whiskey brands include:
- Knob Creek’s Old Overholt Rye Whiskey
- Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey
- Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
- Templeton Rye’s “The Good Stuff”
- Redemption Barrel Proof Straight Rye Whiskey
- Bulleit “95” Rye Small Batch Frontier Whiskey
American Whiskey NYC
Whether you’re a beginner or novice whiskey drinker, you should consider visiting American Whiskey the next time you are in New York City. American Whiskey NYC contains over 375 different whiskeys from around the world. The bar is easy to get to, as it is located a mere block from Madison Square Garden.
The bar contains many unique, rare, and distinctive whiskeys. While visiting the bar, we recommend trying a whiskey flight. A flight allows you to sample four different types of whiskeys, giving you exposure to different tastes and flavors. We also recommend trying their food, which is very good as well. Your bartender can recommend which foods pair well with the whiskey you selected.