WASHINGTON, April 22, 2017 — Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye whiskey sales are experiencing record growth as new fans of the warming, brown, distilled spirits demand more. The Distilled Spirits Council reports that U.S. whiskey sales in 2016 were nearly 8 percent of all distilled spirit sales globally, worth $3.1 billion.
Whiskey Advocate magazine’s executive editor, Jeffrey Lindenmuth, says that whiskey’s rich American history and the connection of farming to the distilling process—which includes farming of wheat, barley, corn, and rye—have helped to spur demand and innovation.
Today, there are over 1,300 craft, smaller-batch distillers in the U.S. Each makes whiskeys that have distinct nose and taste profiles. Some whiskeys have been distilled to remove the cowboy grimace after burn; they have rich, warm flavor profiles that are attracting younger—and female—fans.
Whiskey (or “whisky”) falls into five specific categories: malt whiskey and barley grain whiskey (Scotland); blended whiskey; bourbon; Tennessee whiskey; and rye whiskeys.
What’s with the “e” in whiskey, versus whisky? Both are correct, but American and Irish distilled brown spirits use the spelling “whiskey.”
The spelling is a “tell” as to where the beverage came from while being an indication of the whiskey’s flavor. “Whisky,” without the “e,” is more often used to identify Scotch and Canadian spirits.
That’s important to know because the geographic region has much to do with the final flavor, similar to how the origin of grapes impacts a wine’s profile. Scotch and Canadian spirits are often lighter in color and sharper in taste. Scotch is also made, mostly, from malted barley, which does not bring in the sweetness of the corn and/or wheat used in Tennessee whiskey or bourbons.
Today’s master distillers are bringing notes of honey, vanilla, nuts and fruit to their product, along with the more traditional caramel and smoke. They do this through their distilling and aging process, the grain used and their yeast, a recipe as highly guarded as the recipe for Coke.
“Many [distillers] are trying new and exciting ways of crafting their whiskeys; they’re not afraid to experiment a bit and come up with something unique,” says Joan McGinley, events manager at Whiskey Advocate magazine.
Whiskey is as old as U.S. democracy. President George Washington gets credit for bringing whiskey to the Colonies via his plantation manager, James Anderson, a native of Scotland with experience in distilling grains. Anderson encouraged the building of a whiskey distillery next to Washington’s Mount Vernon gristmill.
In 1799, Washington was the largest whiskey producer in the U.S., with five copper pot stills producing nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey that year.
Washington’s whiskey grain mix was 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley. Clear spirits distilled at Mount Vernon were placed into barrels and shipped “down the Mississippi to New Orleans.” During that process, being in the open air and sun, gently rocked on a rolling barge, the spirits were absorbing sugars and flavors from the wood.
When the barrels were opened at their final destination, the clear liquor had turned shades of amber brown, and those spirits tasted a whole lot better than straight ole moonshine.
Today’s distillers use a variety of American, white oak stave barrels previously used to age ports, sherry or wine, to coax a new flavor profile into the whiskey.
Jack Daniels uses charred barrels made at its cooperage in Indianapolis. Whiskey lore says that the Rev. Elijah Craig, circa 1789, gets the credit for first charring barrels. One version of the “charred barrel” story is that a fire left barrels in Craig’s distillery charred, and being frugal, he used them anyway.
Another version of the story is that Craig charred previously used wine barrels as a way of cleaning them and removing any lingering taste of their previous contents.
Either way, when whiskey ages in the charred oak barrels, the liquid interacts with the layer of charcoal, seeping beneath it to interact with the wood, then filtering back out of the wood and through the charcoal, creating the smooth taste and amber color.
The barrel process involves six distinct aging elements: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration and coloration.
Extraction is the process of pulling compounds from the wood barrels. The American white oak barrels favored by U.S. distillers bring in flavors of vanilla, nuts, and butterscotch. The process of evaporation, what the industry calls the “angels’ share,” increases the alcohol content.
As the whiskey ages in the barrel, it soaks into the wood, and if the barrel is charred, the residual charcoal and notes deepen the spirit’s color.
Barrels of whiskey are put into large barrel barns where they rest through the seasons and age, filtering through the barrels’ wood drawing sugar from the wood into the whiskey. Interesting to note is that in addition to the time in the barrel barn, the location of the barrel in the cavernous barn can make a difference.
Barrels aged near a window where there is light and heat from the sun, for example, are often called the “honey barrels” and contain the most highly desired whiskey.
The time spent resting in the dark, often humid barrel barn also helps change the whiskey’s color, from clear to yellow grass to dark ambers.
The darkness of the whiskey often correlates to its “proof,” or alcohol content.
These are just some of the tools a whiskey distiller has to work with to create their spirit.
A few of the more interesting distillers today include:
- Yellowstone, a straight Kentucky bourbon whiskey at 93 proof that has a story that began in 1910.
- The Quiet Man, an 8-year-old single malt Irish whiskey created in memory of John Mulgrew, a bartender of Irish lore and the distiller’s father.
- TX, a Texas straight bourbon whiskey from Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. that is new to the market but whose flavor profile is as unique as the state from which it comes.
- Blood Oath Pact No. 3, a Kentucky straight bourbon that is created using the spirits distilled by three different distillers, then finished in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels.
- And finally Du Kan Jiu, a whiskey distilled from 55 percent sorghum and 45 percent wheat, which is blended in China.
Over the next few weeks, watch for these distillers’ stories and tasting notes on these five exceptional craft whiskeys.
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