I though we might kick off this blog with a few nuggets about Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I always get asked, "What makes bourbon Bourbon?" and "How is it different from Single Malt?" Both are pretty reasonable questions, and apparently, quite a few people are curious about America's native spirit. First the basic facts:
To be designated Bourbon (by law, enacted in May 1964), the whiskey type must be produced from a mash of not less than 51 percent corn grain, and is usually made using between 70 and 90 percent corn, with some barley malt plus rye and/or wheat in the mashbill. It has to be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and casked at 62.5% ABV or less. Legally, bourbon must be matured in new, charred, white-oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not need to come from Kentucky to be classified as Bourbon; it needs only to originate in the U.S. There are bourbon distilleries in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and even California.
Bourbon differs from Single Malt Scotch Whisky in its primary ingredient, corn. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is made solely from malted barley in copper pot stills. "Single malt" is the product of an individual distillery. In Scotland, it must be matured for a minimum of three years.
Perhaps the second most popular question centers around Jack Daniels, the famous Tennessee Whiskey. How is it different from Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey? Here's the real deal: Tennessee whiskeys are essentially bourbon-style spirits that undergo filtration through a thick layer of sugar-maple charcoal before the spirit is casked. The same legal criteria that apply to bourbon, in terms of strength and maturation period, also apply to Tennessee whiskey. The charcoal filtration process is colloquially known as the Lincoln County Process, in reference to Lincoln County, Tennessee, where Jack Daniels was founded. One point of interest is that Jack Daniels cannot be purchased in in its home base of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Lynchburg is situated in Monroe County, which is officially "dry." Ironic, no?
To conclude, there are other styles of American whiskey: Corn, Rye, and those distilled in micro-distilleries. Here's the lowdown on each:
Corn whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn at less than 80 percent ABV. It is the one American whiskey that does not have to be aged in new, charred-oak barrels, and no minimum maturation period is specified.
Rye whiskey, by law, has to be made from a mash of no less than 51 percent rye, with other ingredients usually being corn and malted barley. It has to be distilled to no more than 80 percent ABV and casked at 62.5 percent ABV or less. As with bourbon, virign charred-oak barrels are used for maturation, and the minimum maturation period is two years. leading brands of rye whiskey include: Pikesville, Rittenhouse, and Sazerac.
U.S. Micro-distilling - The US is currently undergoing a boom in small-scale or "micro" distilling. Whiskey micro distilling is a notably vibrant area of the market, where experimentation and innovation with different grains and production techniques are the norm. Distillers often operate outside the legally-defined boundaries of bourbon, rye, or corn whiskeys.
Some micro distillers include: Anchor Distilling Co, San Francisco; Mount Vernon Distillery, Virginia; New Holland Dsitillery, Michigan; Ballast Point, San Diego; and High West Distillery in Utah.
Notes adapted from Charles Maclean's excellent World Whiskey, DK, 2009.