We are currently at the height of an American Whiskey boom. In the past 12 months the Bourbon industry has seen a 5% increase in sales and a 20% increase for ultra-premium brands (i.e., Bourbon sold for more than $25.00/bottle). Both domestically and abroad, sales have never been higher for the industry, with exports exceeding 1 billion dollars for the first time in its history. For the first time American whiskies are being taken seriously around the globe. This recent excitement inspired many to begin collecting and enjoying these domestic spirits. Below you’ll find useful information to keep in mind when purchasing American whiskey.
Legally, Bourbon Whiskey can only be produced within the United States. It must be distilled from a mash bill of grain containing no less than 51% corn. Once distilled, the spirit must be aged in new charred oak barrels; a minimum of two years is required for spirits called “straight Bourbon.” Bourbon has grown in popularity immensely over the past years especially in the ultra-premium category, and while some bottles are extremely expensive, there are plenty available at a more approachable price.
It is very easy to assemble a respectable collection of Bourbon to be enjoyed for all occasions. To begin, you will want to acquire a solid-drinking Bourbon that is robust enough to be mixed, but is smooth enough that to be enjoyed neat or on the rocks. A common choice for this is Maker’s Mark , Jim Beam, or Buffalo Trace. A staple for any Bourbon drinker, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight is delicious in cocktails or on its own. For an average price of $31 per bottle, it’s a great go-to for everyday use. For higher quality bourbon with more complexity, it is difficult to go wrong with the Jim Beam Small Batch line. The Four Bourbon lineup consists of Knob Creek, Baker’s, Booker’s, and Basil Hayden’s. Small Batches and Single Barrel lines like this are a great step up from more basic, simple bourbons.
The obvious front runners of the ultra-premium world would be any of the fine Bourbons from the Pappy Van Winkle Family Estate. While PVW makes fine Bourbon, there are several comparable whiskies that are more readily available. Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C Tornado is one of the most sought-after bottles of Bourbon on the market. On par with PVW, this bourbon was formed under very unusual circumstances: a tornado tore off the roof of Warehouse C where this bourbon was aging, causing it to be exposed to the elements during a hot Kentucky summer. The result is an exceedingly rich and spicy bourbon. On the more accessible side, Black Maple Hill is one of the best reviewed Bourbons this year and is only expected to grow in popularity. With the incumbent PVW shortage many Bourbon experts are expecting Black Maple Hill and similar Bourbons to take Pappy’s place at the head of the Bourbon world.
American Rye Whiskey differs from Bourbon in that Rye must make up at least 51% of the mash. The difference in mash bill is what gives Rye a distinct spice, but the spirit maintains the smoky caramel notes that American Whiskey is known for. Although Rye’s popularity is not growing as quickly as Bourbon’s, there has been a noticeable increase in consumption. While most of the major Bourbon producers have their own line of Rye, Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac Rye line is by far the most popular and sought-after. These are some fantastic Ryes and, although they do carry a rather heavy price tag, they are well worth it. For a more reasonably priced Rye I look to Utah’s High West Distillery. With Ryes produced from a range of different mash bills, High West makes something for every whiskey lover whether it be a fiery 100% Rye or more mellow Rye that’s blended with Bourbon. High West allows beginner rye drinkers to explore many styles and figure out what they enjoy the most.
CORN / WHITE WHISKEY
Corn/White Whiskies are the up-and-comers of the American whiskey world. Whether this is caused by residual nostalgia for the Dukes of Hazzard or the increase of moonshine-related reality shows on TV, “white lightning” is certainly hot on the streets. Unfortunately I am not referring to the same “shine” that is distilled in the backwoods of West Virginia that comes with a 50/50 chance of taking your eyesight. No, this moonshine has the same puritanical government restrictions as all other spirits but that does not mean you should pass on this clear libation. Due to its increasing popularity many large distilleries are producing Corn/White Whiskey that is actually pretty decent, although the nose can make you think it’s used for stripping paint. Due to the un-aged nature of this whiskey, high proof batches can be very aggressive so it’s best to start with a mellow low proof whiskey. Jim Beam recently put out their own line in this division called Jacobs’s Ghost, which fits perfectly into this category. At 80 proof and with one year of age this whiskey has many of the characteristics of bourbon, but with a unique twist.
American Whiskey has garnered a lot of attention over the past few years and rightfully so. Producers like Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Black Maple Hill are making beautifully handcrafted whiskey that should not be over looked.