Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: American Whiskey

On my first Whiskey Wednesday, I discussed America's premier whiskey: Bourbon. The United States, however, is the proud home to a number of whiskies. Gearing up for the July 4th holiday, I will give a brief introduction to American whiskies and next week, taste a variety of new American single malts. But now, I introduce to you, the other American whiskies.

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is all about Jack and George. While bourbon might have more producers, the biggest selling whiskey is Tennessee whiskey, or more specifically, Jack Daniels. In fact, Jack and his pal George Dickel are the only two Tennessee whiskies currently in production.

What is the difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon? While their composition is similar, after the whiskey is distilled, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal in a method known as the Lincoln County process. If you do a search on Straightbourbon.com, you will find much discussion and debate, with an almost Talmudic quality, about how substantive this difference is. Should Jack and George really be considered bourbons? Does the Lincoln County process really merit a distinction? Does the process impart or remove flavor? Is "Tennessee whiskey" simply a marketing label? I am in no position to answer these questions nor do I necessarily care whether Tennessee whiskey is really bourbon or something different. (In the future, we will taste and find out). What is undeniable is that Jack and George are hugely popular, even if they are mostly drunk drenched in Coke.

Rye Whiskey

Before prohibition, if you were talking about American whiskey, you were talking about rye whiskey. Rye was made in great quantities in the once whiskey dense eastern seaboard, with distilleries all over New York and Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion was a protest over taxes on rye whiskey, and even George Washington distilled rye at Mount Vernon...you just can't get more American than that.

After prohibition, rye production never picked up again and for years it was dormant except for the occasional rye put out by the big bourbon companies. In the last decade, however, there has been an explosion of rye whiskies such that rye is some of the most exciting stuff happening in American whiskey.

Most of the new ryes are from bourbon distilleries in Kentucky that are gaining a new found respect for America's first whiskey, but the Anchor Distillery, out in San Francisco, is making a great series of single malt ryes (composed of 100% malted rye) under the Old Potrero label.

I'm a big fan of rye. It tastes like a spice cabinet: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice. It tickles the tongue and marries well with the corn that is often mixed with it in Kentucky ryes. In coming weeks, I'll introduce some ryes and do some rye tastings.

Single Malt Whiskey

There is a small but growing group of distilleries, maybe six at most, making single malt whiskey in the US. Some use Scottish barley, some use local, and many make other spirits as well, such as brandy and vodka. Next week, I will review four of these new American single malts and see what the US has to offer in the single malt category.

Next Whiskey Wednesday: American Single Malts

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