Along with the iPhone, whiskey is one of America’s most recognizable exports. These days, master distillers from Kentucky and Pennsylvania to Oregon and Tennessee have cracked open hand-selected barrels and bottled their best, releasing the epitome of their craft.
The chant “Buy American” can now be heard in bars and stores around the globe. The vivacious, satiny characters and assertive bouquets of these whiskies are universally appealing, yet by nature they are understated. Even as they acquire more prestige, they remain accessible to all palates and priced for all budgets.
Another factor in the category’s worldwide resurgence is that American whiskeys are extremely mixable. As evidence, bourbon appears in more classic cocktail recipes than any other type of whiskey. Whether served with cola, a splash of branch water or featured in a cocktail, American whiskeys are highly compatible with a broad range of mixers; a legitimate claim not all styles of whiskey can make.
By all indications, American whiskeys will continue to grab an increasingly larger share of the popular limelight. Their mixability, affordability and easy-to-appreciate character seem to be what consumers are looking for. So, where is the category heading?
In an admittedly tough economic environment for everyone, the straight whiskey category was just about flat overall (down 0.1%) in 2009. The two leading brands remain the formidable duo of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, with sales of more than 4.6 million 9-liter cases, and Jim Beam Bourbon, with 2009 sales eclipsing 3 million cases. Evan Williams Bourbon gained an impressive 10.3% in sales volume last year, to more than 1.2 million cases, while the iconic bourbon Maker’s Mark increased by 4.3%, breaking through 800,000 cases in sales.
“American whiskey is reinventing itself and communicating better to consumers,” observes Amy Preske, public relations manager for Buffalo Trace Distillery. “Today, a number of distillers have gone back to the small batch method that places a premium on producing high-quality whiskey. The reality is that these whiskeys cost more to produce; however, consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for these outstanding products. Their drinkable characters and rich flavors are extremely appealing.”
Larry Kass, director of corporate communications at Heaven Hill, is bullish on the category’s prospects for continued growth. “Obviously there are a lot of positive things happening with American whiskeys, particularly among the super-premium segment, where small batches, single barrels and extra-aged bottlings continue to sell exceptionally well and draw attention to the category. As a matter of fact, it appears that as a percentage of total category sales, super-premium American whiskeys have a lot of room to grow when compared to equivalent high-end tequilas and single malt Scotches.”
Whiskey producer Julian Van Winkle says that current efforts to make bourbons and ryes more interesting for the consumer are paying off. “There are more aged whiskeys being marketed today by distillers. These older whiskeys are far more interesting than the younger versions sold previously. There are also more specialty bottlings and private labels for stores and restaurants. It’s an exciting time for American whiskey.”
Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris, who has made bourbon his life’s work, is especially optimistic about the future of the American whiskey category. “Twenty years from now this category will be stronger, healthier and held in even higher esteem around the world thanks to the groundwork of quality and innovation that are being laid today.”
Attracting New Consumers
There are a number of American whiskeys that have been crucial the category’s reversal of fortune. These established brands have for decades maintained a loyal consumer base and are now attracting a new generations of followers.
– Jim Beam Black Label Double Barrel – Although outfitted with a new name and updated packaging, the whiskey remains the classic favorite. It’s distilled using a high proportion of white and yellow corn with lesser amounts of rye and malted barley. The bourbon is matured in oak a minimum of 8 years and then bottled at 86 proof.
– Bulleit Kentucky Straight Bourbon – The most unusual aspect of its production is the 10 different strains of yeast used, each producing a slightly different tasting whiskey. After aging for 6- to 8-years in white oak barrels, these whiskies are blended together to create the distinctive flavor profile of this 90 proof bourbon.
– Buffalo Trace Bourbon – Introduced in 1999, Buffalo Trace is a sophisticated straight whiskey made from rye, malted barley and 2 varieties of corn. The 90-proof whiskey has an enticing and mouth-filling palate loaded with tantalizing flavors.
– Knob Creek – The small batch bourbon from Jim Beam is aged 9 years in flash-fired white oak barrels. The depth of charring forms a layer of red caramelized wood and gives the 100 proof whiskey its deep amber color and sweet flavor.
– Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon – One of the famous names in American whiskey, Four Roses Small Batch is a blend of four different styles of bourbon carefully selected by the master distiller to yield a spicy, semisweet 90-proof whiskey.
– George Dickel No. 12 Superior – Produced at the George Dickel Cascade Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee, the acclaimed George Dickel No. 12 is distilled from corn, barley and rye and limestone water from the Cascade Springs. The 90-proof whisky is aged for 10 years and chilled prior to mellowing in charcoal.
– Maker’s Mark – Handcrafted at the Star Hill Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, Maker’s Mark was the country’s first small batch bourbon and is one of only a few to include wheat in its mash bill instead of rye. The 90 proof whiskey also contains corn, barley malt and a sour mash component.
– Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve – Distilled at Buffalo Trace, Family Reserve is an elegant and sophisticated Kentucky straight bourbon aged 20 years and bottled at 90.4 proof.
– Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select – The bourbon is distilled in Louisville and matured at the 100-year-old stone warehouses at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Woodford County. Limestone-filtered spring water is used to reduce the whiskey to its bottled strength of 90.4 proof.
– Wild Turkey Russell Reserve Bourbon – Another small batch gem from master distiller Jimmy Russell, the Kentucky straight bourbon is aged 10 years and bottled at the distillery’s trademark 101 proof.
There are whiskeys so singular in design or composition that they defy typecasting. While many of these innovative spirits receive little more than their allotted 15-minutes of fame, others achieve considerable critical acclaim and commercial success-and deservedly so. The following whiskeys merit being called “trailblazers.”
– Benjamin Prichard’s Single Malt – Introduced in 2010, this limited release Tennessee single malt is distilled in copper pot stills from malted barley with a small percentage of rye. The whiskey is aged in small, 15-gallon barrels and bottled at 80-proof.
– Bernheim Original – Distilled at Heaven Hill, Bernheim Original is the first Kentucky straight wheat whiskey. Introduced in 2000, the 5-year-old whiskey is crafted from a mash bill of 51% winter wheat, as well as corn and malted barley.
– Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – These limited release bottlings can be considered whiskey-making experiments, if you will. Among the roster of never-before-seen whiskeys are two Chardonnay wine-finished bourbons, two French oak-finished whiskeys (10 and 12 years old) and a fire pot barrel-aged whiskey aged in barrels heated prior to being filled.
– Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel – Aged in oak for the better part of two decades, this classic single barrel bourbon from Heaven Hill provides an extraordinary whiskey experience. It’s bottled at 90? proof and inexplicably retails in the low $40s.
– Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey – Created from a recipe created by Jack Daniel at the turn of the last century, the whiskey is mellowed in Tennessee sugar maple charcoal prior to being aged in oak barrels for 4 years. Afterwards it’s mellowed again with charcoal and bottled at 80 proof.
– Jefferson’s Reserve – Handcrafted at the McLain & Kyne Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, limited edition Jefferson’s Reserve is distilled in extremely small batches, aged for 15 years in heavily charred oak barrels and bottled at 90.2 proof.
– McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt – Made at the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, McCarthy’s is made in small batches with peat-malted barley from Scotland. The whiskey is aged in used sherry casks and finished in air-dried Oregon oak barrels
– Old Forester Birthday Bourbon – George Garvin Brown opened his Louisville distillery in 1870. His birthday is commemorated each year with a limited release, vintage-dated bourbon. The 2009 vintage is 97 proof and crafted from a 98-barrel batch selected by Master Distiller Chris Morris. All of the whiskeys were distilled on the same day in 1997.
– Parker’s Heritage Collection – This release from Heaven Hill pays homage to master distiller Parker Beam’s 50 years with the distillery. The “Golden Anniversary” blend contains hand-selected bourbons from each of the past five decades. It’s aged no less than 27 years in oak and bottled at 96 proof.
– Triple Eight Notch Whisky – The first legal whisky from Nantucket, Notch is pot distilled at the Triple Eight Distillery using Maris Otter malt and sand-filtered water from an aquifer deep beneath the island. It was barrel-aged 8 years on the island and appropriately enough is bottled at 88.8 proof.
– Wild Turkey Rare Breed – This limited release bourbon from Wild Turkey is undiluted, unfiltered and bottled at barrel-proof, which ranges from 109.6 to 112 proof. Rare Breed is made using a blend of 6-, 8- and 12-year old bourbons to ensure consistency between bottlings.
Top American Ryes
Interest in American rye whiskeys is surging. Once incredibly popular among the American drinking public, sales of rye whiskeys went into a protracted slump following World War II. That decline mirrored the rise in popularity of soft blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from American retail shelves.
Fortunately, that trend has recently reversed and American ryes are again attracting a broad-based following. The following rye whiskeys have joined such established brands as Jim Beam Rye, Old Overholt and Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond in sparking the category’s revival.
– Hudson Manhattan Rye – This artisanal rye whiskey from Tuthilltown Distillery in Upstate New York is pot-distilled from whole grain rye, matured in new charred oak barrels and bottled unfiltered at 92 proof.
– Old Potrero Single Malt -Produced at the Anchor Distillery in San Francisco, Old Potrero is made in small batches entirely from malted rye. The whiskey is double-distilled in pot stills, aged for a year and bottled at a lofty 123.5 proof. Do not let its relative youth deceive you as rye whiskeys reach maturity quickly.
– Rendezvous Rye – Made in Utah at the High West Distillery & Saloon, Rendezvous Rye is a blend of two straight whiskies with unusually high rye content. The 16-year old whiskey contains 80% rye and the 6-year-old is distilled from 95% rye.
– Rittenhouse Very Rare Single Barrel Straight Rye – The October 2009 release marks the end of this extraordinary brand. Drawn from the last of the casks aging in Heaven Hill’s brick warehouses, the 25-year old single barrel whiskey is unfiltered and bottled in its natural state.
– Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – A charter member of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, the limited production pot-distilled whiskey is barrel-aged a minimum of 18 years and bottled at an accessible 90 proof.
– Sazerac Rye – Ranked among the best buys in the category, the 90 proof premium whiskey from Buffalo Trace is aged for 6-years.
– Van Winkle Ryes – One of the venerable names in whiskey, Van Winkle’s produces two highly revered ryes. Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye is a 12-year old made from a family recipe dating back to 1872. Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye is a 95.6 proof classic aged for 13-years.
– Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Rye – Created by Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell, the 90-proof, small batch whiskey is aged in charred oak casks for a minimum of 6 years. It’s available in limited quantities.
More Sippin’ Whiskeys
Today there are increasingly more American sipping’ whiskeys with which to tantalize your clientele. To that point, here’s our take on several of these players.
– Evan Williams Single Barrel 2000 Vintage Bourbon – This acclaimed vintage-dated bourbon from Heaven Hill was distilled and barreled in the autumn of 2000. After resting for 9 years in oak, it’s drawn straight from the cask and reduced to 86.6 proof with spring water.
– Benjamin Prichard’s Double Barreled Bourbon – Handcrafted in Kelso, Tennessee, the pot-distilled is first aged for nine years in new charred oak barrels, after which it’s reduced to 90-proof and put back into wood for another three-to-five years. The process is exclusive to Prichard’s.
– Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey – This classically structured, small batch whiskey is distilled primarily from white corn with lesser amounts of rye and malted barley. It’s aged in both new charred oak and 15-gallon, ex-rum barrels and reduced to proof with limestone-filtered water from the Teal Hollows Springs. All of Prichard’s whiskeys are bottled intact and unfiltered.
– Dry Fly Whiskey – The limited release whiskey is made at the Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane from locally grown wheat and water drawn from the nearby Gillatin River. The amber 80-proof whiskey is matured in new charred barrels for two years and drinks well beyond its years.
– High West Bourye Whiskey – High West Distillery & Saloon in Park City is Utah’s first legal distillery since 1870. High West Bourye is a blend of 16-year and 12-year-old straight bourbons on a base of 10-year-old straight rye-thus the “Bou-rye” name. The 92-proof whiskey is handmade and in demand.
– Hudson Baby Bourbon – Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson Valley is New York’s first legal whiskey distillery since Prohibition. Among their growing range of small batch whiskeys is Hudson Baby Bourbon, a single grain whiskey made entirely from 100% New York corn and aged in small American oak barrels. Each bottle is hand numbered and sealed with wax.
– Templeton Single Barrel Rye – The brand originated in Templeton, Iowa during Prohibition. Knowing great whiskey when he tasted it, Al Capone made Templeton Rye the backbone of his bootlegging syndicate. The 5-year old, single barrel whiskey is made in the same manner and according to the original Prohibition era recipe.
– McKenzie Rye Whiskey – Made by Finger Lakes Distilling in the heart of New York’s winemaking country, McKenzie Rye is distilled in a large copper pot still from locally grown grain and water drawn from adjacent Seneca Lake. Much of the whiskey’s singular character comes from being finished in sherry barrels obtained from local wineries.
– Maker’s 46 Bourbon – Maker’s 46 is the distillery’s first new expression since the brand debuted in 1958. It’s created by aging traditional Mark’s Mark an additional 2-3 months in barrels containing a specially designed framework of oak staves. The staves are seared through high heat to add more oaky nuances. While it still dons the recognizable red wax-dipped seal, the new 94-proof release is a decidedly bigger, bolder version of itself.
– Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey– A full-bodied whiskey that illustrates the impact of terroir on a finished whiskey. Crafted in the stillness of the Rockies, Stranahan’s is a small batch spirit pot distilled using local barley and mountain spring water. The whiskey is aged a minimum of two years in American white oak barrels before being bottled at 94 proof.
New White Whiskeys
Aging whiskey in oak has a profound affect on the finished product. Years of interaction with the wood imbue whiskey with color and oak-induced flavors. Barrel-aging also smoothes out the rough spots and eliminates the alcohol’s raw, raspy edge. Over time, the spirit slowly matures and loses much of its youthful vitality and character.
That said, there’s something to be said for whisky so skillfully crafted that it’s a bona fide pleasure to drink without it first having to be locked away in oak barrels. This realization has sparked the growing trend of bottling white whiskey, or what back in the day was referred to as “White Dog” or “White Lightning.”
Unflattering as those monikers are, white whiskeys are finding favor with enthusiasts and aficionados alike. When well made they’re typically flavorful, exuberant and surprisingly refined, not at all like the breath-robbing firewater portrayed in the movies. The following brands are setting the pace.
– Benjamin Prichard’s Lincoln County Lightning – The crystal clear Tennessee white corn whiskey is drawn directly from the pot still and bottled at 90 proof. It has a lively palate with a farm-fresh quality.
– Hudson New York Corn Whiskey – Tuthilltown’s small batch whiskey is distilled entirely from New York corn and bottled fresh from the still at an accessible 80 proof. Much of the production run is barrel-aged and eventually becomes Hudson Baby Bourbon.
– Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey – Created by Marko Karakasevic, master distiller of Napa Valley’s Domaine Charbay, the shimmery small batch whiskey is distilled from hops and two row malted barley-the same essential components of an India Pale Ale. It is barrel-aged a mere 24 hours prior to being bottled at 99 proof.
– Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey – A buttery, smooth corn whiskey distilled in Upper New York at the Finger Lakes Distillery. Bottled at 90 proof, the whiskey tastes and smells like freshly husked sweet corn.
– High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat – Produced at 7000 feet in a 250-gallon copper pot still, the clear whiskey is distilled from a mash bill of western oats and a small portion of barley malt. It’s bottled unaged, satiny smooth and at 80 proof.
Sidebar: A Celebration Bottle
Jack Daniel’s is kicking off a month-long celebration in September (Bourbon month) celebrating the 160th birthday of its founder, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel. To mark the occasion, the Jack Daniel Distillery is releasing a limited-edition 160th Anniversary commemorative bottle.
Jack Daniel registered his distillery with the federal government in 1866, making the Jack Daniel Distillery the oldest registered distillery in the U.S. The whiskey won a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which helped it gain worldwide recognition.
The commemorative bottle is available primarily in the 750 ml size (though there are 1 liter bottles available in a few select markets). Containing its famous 80 proof Tennessee Whiskey, the 160th Anniversary bottle has a suggested retail price of $29.99. The bottle also includes a necktag with a reference number allowing purchasers to register the bottle on JackDaniels.com.