When it comes to American whiskey, the style you’re most likely to encounter is Bourbon – perhaps dressed up with bitters and a slice of orange in an Old Fashioned cocktail; sweetened and garnished with mint in a Julep; or simply served on the rocks.
The spirit, distilled primarily from corn, is going through a boom in the UK among drinkers and bartenders looking to widen the choice of whisk(e)y on their shelves.
But there are many more types of whiskey available across the pond and they’re all looking to follow in Bourbon’s success and gain a foothold in the UK.
Each whiskey style has its own rules and regulations that determine what it can be called, with the volume of the main grain used being a key criteria.
Straight Rye Whiskey (with at least 51 per cent rye in the mash bill) is the most commonly available outside of the Bourbon market, with the rye’s spicy character making it a punchier choice for cocktails.
But with a little more exploration you’ll also find whiskey made from malted barley – along the lines of our more familiar single malt whiskies – besides some that use less celebrated grains such as wheat, oats and millet.
If you want to start your American whiskey adventure with a bourbon then check out our round-up of the best bourbons; but if you want to venture beyond the Bourbon then read on…
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Westland garryana American single malt 2019 edition, 50%
Seattle’s Westland distillery takes Scottish single malt traditions and reimagines them with local ingredients, including more than 20 varieties of barley. Garryana is a single malt, aged in sherry casks, then finished in casks made of the underexplored Garry oak, a tree native to American’s pacific north west. Creamy vanilla and honey flavours and textures, and a rich, dense fruitiness, have been spiked with spices and an almost smoky dry oak taste. In this whiskey, tradition meets modern American invention and the result is one to savour.
Hudson baby bourbon, 46%
American bourbon must contain at least 51 per cent corn, which is usually combined with other grains; we’re allowing this spirit to join our non-bourbon list because the corn count is less common at 100 per cent. Grown and distilled in New York, and aged in small, new charred American oak barrels, it’s quite sweet and light with lots of vanilla and some warming oak and ginger spice coming through towards the finish. A simple sipper that we think anyone will enjoy.
Whistlepig 10 year old cask straight rye, 58.5%
This is a special edition straight rye, matured in Vermont, that has developed a richness of spicy and fruity flavours from its 10 years maturing in casks. Imagine big, juicy oranges bursting with flavour; cinnamon and dark chocolate sprinkled on a caramel-coated dessert; and deeper botanical notes of roots, bark and herbs and you’ll be somewhere close. But for the full myriad of flavours, we insist that you try this treat for yourself.
Jack Daniel’s old no. 7 Tennessee whiskey, 40%
The world’s most popular American whiskey isn’t a bourbon, mainly because the makers of Jack Daniel’s would much rather it be called a Tennessee whiskey, arguing that its slow charcoal filtered, smooth sipping spirit has a unique taste all of its own. Although the brand has ventured into new flavour territories, including honey and apple editions, for maximum rock star credit it has to be the original no.7 and its mellow brown sugar, chocolate orange and charred spice flavours. Just don’t call a bourbon.
Koval single barrel millet whiskey, 40%
Chicago’s outstanding Koval distillery has successfully experimented with all manner of grains including wheat, oats and millet, for its single barrel whiskey releases. The latter is rarely used in alcohol production outside of Africa and Asia, but Koval has coaxed some magic from its 100 per cent millet distilling. It’s especially creamy, with unexpected flavours of soft pears mingling with the more predictable grain and vanilla notes. This isn’t simply an unusual grain novelty, it’s an extremely enjoyable spirit.
Old Potrero 18th century style whiskey, 51.2%
Here’s a recreation of a whiskey style that Americans would’ve been drinking during the revolution, made using entirely malted rye and aged for a minimum of 30 months in lightly toasted casks (it can’t be called a rye whiskey because those casks would need to be charred). You can taste the grain and rye spiciness which, at 51.2% ABV, comes with a bit of a kick. It’s more savoury than it is fruity, but there are also softer bready notes and a drying oak finish that gives it a highly enjoyable complexity.
Balcones baby blue, 46%
The Balcones distillery in Waco, Texas, was founded with a desire to do things differently. It produces an outstanding Texas single malt and has dabbled with local honey in its spirits and has made a big impression with whiskey produced from blue corn. The corn has been roasted for this spirit, which immediately gives it green pepper notes not too dissimilar to tequila, while the sweet bread, fresh fruit and leathery flavours push it firmly back into whiskey territory.
Ezra Brooks straight rye whiskey, 45%
If you’re looking for an American whiskey on a budget then this straight rye, produced by Lux Row Distillers, is a great choice. Smoother than a lot of cheap whiskies, it rapidly crescendos to a wallop of boozy, peppery rye spices before steadily softening out with sweet vanilla and honey. Drinkable neat, better with ice and, we think, an excellent choice for cocktails.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 45.2%
Not many American distillers enlist wheat as the main ingredient for whiskey, and even fewer export those whiskeys to the UK, but thankfully one of our favourite bourbon producers, Woodford Reserve, has a wheaty number available over here. What can you expect from this underused grain? The fruitiness leans towards apple pie, while the spicy flavours have a complementary sweet cinnamon accent to them, but perhaps the standout flavour comparison here is coconut.
Westward American single malt, 45%
Our final entry is one for Scotch fans who want to delve into new territories – a single malt that bursts forward with fruity, malty aromas as soon as the bottle is opened. Distilled from locally grown Oregon malted barley it’s full of sweet berry and orchard fruit flavours while the finish is all about the lightly toasted American oak casks – dry tobacco, dark chocolate and nutty biscuit flavours that last an age.
The verdict: American whiskies
If you’re looking to try something different, read our review of the best peated whiskies that are deliciously smoky
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