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American Whiskey, a simple drink?

It sometimes feels that American whiskey and bourbon is deemed to be the less complex of the whiskey category. We would beg to differ.

There are six main types or style of American whiskey, and these are all governed by Title 27 of the US Code of Federal Regulations.

Each type is made from a different type of cereal grain that has been fermented. The grain type and required percentage in the mashbill used to make the whiskey is strictly governed by Title 27. This means that when you see a whiskey term on a bottle, you can be sure that it meets clear guidelines and you can be sure of what you are buying.

Let’s have a look at those whiskey types and discover the 51% rule:

  • Rye Whiskey: the mash must have at least 51% rye
  • Rye Malt whiskey: the mash must have at least 51% malted rye
  • Malt Whiskey
  • Wheat whiskey: the mash must have at least 51% wheat
  • Bourbon whiskey: the mash must have at least 51% corn*
  • Corn whiskey

(* more on bourbon below)

The 51% rule guarantees that the mash is made up of a majority of one grain type.

And there are MORE rules!

To be one of the main six whiskey types, they cannot be distilled more than 160 proof (80%abv). This is the proof before going into the barrel for maturation. In doing this the whiskey flavor is deemed legally “proper”.

Next, whiskey producers are not permitted to add color or flavor additives to the whiskey. (In the UK caramel coloring is still added to some whiskies to ensure color consistency).

And lastly except for corn whiskey which does not need to be aged, they must all be aged in charred new oak containers.

Unlike Scotch whisky, for American whiskey (except for corn), there is no specified minimum aging. This means that producers have lots of opportunity to set themselves apart from other producers based on maturation times alone.

An example of this would be a straight whiskey. This is a whiskey that is no more than 80% abv (160 proof), is aged for at least 2 years and is not combined with any other spirit, color or additive. So, a rye whiskey that has been aged for 2 years can be called a “straight rye whiskey”.

Like whiskies made world over, the longer the spirit is in cask, the more the flavour will change. A whiskey/bourbon at 2 yrs. old will still be giving out the young cereal flavor of the grain it is produced from. However, that charred cask will be giving more toasty, vanilla and caramel flavors over a longer period.

Another similarity with other whisky producing countries, American whiskey should be bottled at minimum 40%abv (80 proof).

In addition to the six main types defined above, there are a few more American whiskey types, none of which have a dominant grain specification.

  • Blended Whiskey
  • Blend of Straight Whiskeys
  • Light Whiskey
  • Spirit Whiskey

If a whiskey has been distilled at more than 80 %abv (160 proof) it would be referred to as a “light whiskey” and if a neutral spirit is mixed with 5% min of another whiskey, it would be a called a “spirit whiskey”.

Bourbon whiskey:

As a type of whiskey, bourbon is popular world over and many coming into the world of whisky/whiskey may find it easier to approach due to its sweetness, which comes from the 51% minimum corn grain mashbill. However, bourbon as a group has several subgroups:

Bottled in Bond: Made in US, by one distiller, at one distillery in one distilling run. Aged min 4yrs and stored in a federal bonded warehouse and/or distillery.

High Rye and wheated, Standard Bourbon Whiskey and Single batch and Single – barrel whiskey: can be produced anywhere in US. Aged min 2yrs and minimum 80 proof (40% abv)

Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: must be produced in Kentucky, aged min 2 yrs., and minimum 80 proof (40% abv)

Straight bourbon, Sour-mash bourbon and blended bourbon whiskey: production in Kentucky, minimum aged 2 yrs. and minimum 80 proof (40% abv)

All the bourbons noted may sound very similar based on the minimum lawful requirement. However, the remaining 49% of the mashbill can be made from one or more other grains. The age can be 2yrs one day and there is no upper limit. But as many drammers will know, there comes a point when the wood from the cask is “used up” and no further real flavour can be imparted. A distiller will regularly check aging casks to keep an eye on the spirit and will know the perfect time to bottle that whiskey or bourbon.

What about Tennessee whiskey?

Although very similar to Bourbon (which can be made anywhere in the United States), Tennessee whiskey can only be made in Tennessee. It still uses a 51% corn mash; it also uses new charred oak casks and is bottled at minimum 80 proof (40% abv). However, it differs in one part of the production process, that being the Lincoln County Process.

The Lincoln County Process is where the spirit is passed through a column of maple charcoal chips prior to going into cask. This action softens the sprit and makes it smoother. Even this process is adjusted specifically by each distillery that uses it. Depth of charcoal or how many times the liquid is run through may are two ways it may differ between distilleries.

So, there you have it. That simple, sweeter, generally cheaper dram, that is regularly used for mixing into cocktails is extremely complex as a product. Maybe bourbon / American whiskey needs a rethink?

Barrel Global works with a number of American whiskey/bourbon producers and we’re on a mission to make whiskey barrel ownership accessible to collectors worldwide. As the first ever global marketplace for whiskey barrels, you can connect with distilleries and collectors around the world to build your own portfolio. For a whiskey experience unlike any other, request access today. 

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