Whiskey Dossier: USA

In colonial America before the Revolutionary War (April 1775 – September 1783), the colonists’ alcoholic beverages of choice were Madeira (the majestic fortified wine from the Atlantic Ocean Island of Madeira that lies off Portugal), Rum that was produced from sugarcane grown in the Caribbean but distilled and aged in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Applejack (apple Brandy) and perry (pear Brandy) from the orchards of New York, Virginia, and New Jersey, and ale/beer.

Whiskey, by comparison, was relegated to lowly status because grains, with the exception of rye, failed to grow abundantly throughout the thirteen colonies that abutted each other along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Whiskey-making, in actuality, didn’t occur in the New World to any significant degree until Scots-Irish and German settlers migrated into Pennsylvania and Maryland, places where rye grew relatively well. In those woutposts, American Whiskey in the spicy form of rye whiskey came alive.

In post-Revolutionary War America, the government was up to its eyeballs in war debt. After the English were expelled, the fledgling United States owed a gargantuan total of $50,000,000, virtually all of it borrowed from France and Spain. As these loans were coming due, Alexander Hamilton, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, and President George Washington decided to stiffly tax distilling and distilled spirits to raise revenue. In flagrant response, the farmer-distillers of Pennsylvania and Maryland vociferously revolted. In response, Washington sent 13,000 militiamen to Pittsburgh to quell the revolt, which they largely did without bloodshed. But, in the meantime, to escape the new lofty taxes on distillation many hundreds of farmer-distillers packed up and sailed down the nearby Ohio River to the virgin territory of Kentucke as the native Americans called it. We know it as Kentucky.

What the early 1790s settlers discovered was a fertile region where the Native Americans were few (four regional tribes used Kentucky as a hunting ground without ever building permanent settlements in it), the hunting was bountiful, and one grain grew especially well: corn. By 1810, 2,000 stills were estimated to be operating in Kentucky, dealing smartly with the bumper crops of corn by distilling it. The area that experienced the biggest explosion of distilling was Bourbon County, so named in honor of the French aristocracy that helped underwrite the Revolutionary War. The name stuck, as consumers yearned for more “Bourbon Whiskey”.

But the biggest boost to Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey was when it started being shipped downriver to the bustling port of New Orleans. From there north Bourbon traveled along the east coast to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Soon, Bourbon Whiskey was here to stay. Another pivotal development occurred in Kentucky in the 1830s when an innovative Scotsman by the name of Dr. James Crow devised a system, called “sour mash”, in which a portion of the fermentation, known as the “backset”, is held back and added to the next and on and on. This procedure promotes continuity from mash to mash. With this innovation, Bourbon’s quality soared.

After the Civil War (1861-1865) reduced stocks, the distilling industries of Kentucky and Tennessee geared up once again, supplying the newly opening territories west of the Mississippi with “red eye” Whiskey. Beer and wine didn’t travel as well as Bourbon did. Consequently, Bourbon and Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey were the prime lubricants of the Wild West. Whiskey, thus, became a staple libation in the final third of the nineteenth century as it flowed freely in all major U.S. cities and became the base of many classic cocktails.

Then, like their peers in the British Isles and Canada, the four-headed monster of World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II devastated American Whiskey distillers. Distillery closings riddled the industry as sales slumped badly from 1915 to 1950. The markets rebounded somewhat in the 1950s. Then Whiskey distillers were adversely hit again by the dramatic growth of Vodka in the 1960s and 1970s. One positive development from the 1960s was the recognition by the U.S. Congress of Bourbon’s importance to America. In 1964, a congressional resolution named Bourbon “America’s native spirit”, but even that was cold comfort to a once robust industry.

In the 1980s, things picked up once again for American Whiskey with the release of high-end, more expensive bottlings made from small lots of barrels (so-called “Small Batch Whiskeys”) or even more exotic, Whiskeys that came from a single barrel. Today, the American Whiskey industry, thanks in large measure to the popularity of small batch, rye, barrel strength, and single barrel Whiskeys, is thriving and healthy.

>>Straight Whiskey
By Federal regulation (Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits), Straight Whiskey in the U.S. means that the “mashbill”, or grain recipe, of the Whiskey must contain at least 51% of one type of grain, i.e. corn, rye, wheat. The grain may be malted or unmalted. Straight Whiskey, by law, must also be aged for at least 24 months in new, charred barrels at no higher than 62.5% alcohol.

>>Straight Bourbon Whiskey
While Kentucky is the traditional epicenter of the Bourbon industry, in truth and by law, any state in the Union can produce Bourbon. Virginia remains a significant distilling center for Bourbon in America. And, scores of craft distillers (producers making 40,000 9-liter cases or less) are making Bourbon in a multitude of states. Bourbon as a straight Whiskey (a whiskey made from at least 51 percent of one grain) is an international symbol and is acknowledged by most experts as being America’s benchmark distillate.

The American Whiskey industry is a tightly regulated business, whose rules must be adhered to. In order for a Whiskey to become properly labeled as a straight Bourbon Whiskey, it must meet a set of production standards. Those rinclude:

  • 1) Straight Bourbon’s grain mash must be made from at least 51 percent corn.
  • 2) Straight Bourbon must be matured in new, charred barrels for a minimum of two years.
  • 3) Straight Bourbon cannot be distilled at higher than 80 percent alcohol by volume, or 160-proof.
  • 4) Straight Bourbon Whiskey can be reduced in alcoholic strength only with distilled water.
  • 5) Straight Bourbon Whiskey must be bottled at least 40 percent alcohol by volume, or 80-proof.
  • 6) As a straight Whiskey, it is unlawful to add any color or flavor enhancements.

Bourbon distillation usually involves an initial distillation in a column still and a second pass in a pot still-like kettle called a “doubler” or a “thumper” (because of the pounding noises these stills make during distillation). So, America’s foremost whiskeys are double distilled, for all intents and purposes.

Unlike Ireland, Canada and Scotland (as we shall see), Bourbon distillers must by law employ new, unused barrels in which to age their Whiskeys. Barrels must also be charred on the inside. Charring levels of one-to-four are the norm, with level four being the deepest char. The deeper char levels (three and four) impact the new spirit more than lighter char levels (one and two), imparting smells and tastes of caramel, maple or vanilla.

Bourbon warehouses are known as “rickhouses” and populate north-central Kentucky by the scores. The aging period in Kentucky is generally much shorter than in cooler climates, like those of Ireland and Scotland. Spirits mature much faster in warm, humid conditions than in cool, damp climates and so can be bottled sooner.

>>Tennessee Whiskey
Tennessee Whiskey is very close in production methods to straight Bourbon except for a filtration process, called the Lincoln County process, in which the Whiskey is dripped through of maple charcoal chunks in huge vats. This happens after distillation and prior to the spirit being placed in new, charred barrels for a minimum of two years. Ten feet deep, the charcoal is so densely packed that it takes each drip many hours to make it to the bottom. The procedure is designed to leach out impurities not stripped away by distillation. The result is a smoky type of Whiskey that is reminiscent of campfire smoke.

Because of the inclusion of the Lincoln County process step, law does not allow Tennessee Whiskeys, to be identified as “Bourbon”. This is no hardship for the Tennessee distillers who prefer to be known as makers of fine Tennessee Whiskey. For half a century, only two distilleries co-existed in Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. Now, there are small, artisanal distilleries popping up across the state as the regeneration of Tennessee Whiskey happens with vigor and purpose.

>>Rye Whiskey
Aside from being America’s first important marketable variety of Whiskey, Rye Whiskey is an admired variety among distillers. Once corn-based straight Bourbon was crowned “America’s whiskey” in the expansive 19th century, Rye Whiskey faded from sight. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, a handful of Rye Whiskey brands reappeared, but again the category flagged against the unstoppable tide of Bourbon. By the 1970s and 1980s, Rye Whiskey was scarcely seen, except for one or two brands.

Then, following the turn of the Third Millennium, more Rye Whiskeys became available as word spread about this variety’s pedigree, historical importance, mixability in classic cocktails, and status within the American distilling industry. At present, there are more straight Rye Whiskeys in the marketplace that at any time since the early 20th century as the style has become a bartenders’ favorite.

>> North American Blended Whiskey
After World War II, the North American whiskey category, led a genuine Whiskey revolution in inexpensive blended American and blended Canadian Whiskeys, made mostly from neutral grain spirits. Spurred by the legendary Sam Bronfman, CEO of Canada-based drinks giant Joseph E. Seagram, a pair of Seagram brands — Seagram’s 7 Crown from the U.S. and Seagram’s VO from Canada — ruled supreme from the late 1940s through to the mid-1970s. These ubiquitous Whiskeys were blends of 20 percent straight Whiskey and 80 percent neutral grain spirits. Both are wood-aged. While they lack the depth of character and elegance of straight Bourbon, Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, and straight Rye Whiskey, they nonetheless serve a noble purpose as excellent mixers.