by Lauren Mote
The hallmark of contemporary spirit distillation in the United States is arguably the most delicious – American Whiskey. Its history has not been extremely well documented, but nonetheless a significant timeline, coinciding with a rich American history, tells a long tale of whiskey’s evolution from a “xxx” marked moonshine bottle in “Spaghetti Westerns”, to its resurgence as one of the modern palate pleasures.
American Whiskey is separated into a bunch of different categories, but they all have one thing in common – raw materials, like rye, corn, barley and wheat – smoked ahead of time before the “cooking stage” and that’s why that familiar sweet, rich, heavy nose and palate showcase some big differences from its Scottish and Irish relatives.
You are more then likely familiar with Jack Daniel’s, amongst a select group of spirits that are commonly requested by name rather then spirit type. It screams a certain popularity and following for its comforting flavour and aroma, and that’s due in part to its unique method of production. Jack Daniel’s, along with George Dickel Distillery, are the only two active distilleries in Tennessee today. Since their inception in the late 1860’s, their characteristics have been extremely similar to bourbon whiskey, but there’s a delicious twist – the character achieved in Tennessee style whiskies comes from the unique maple charcoal filtering.
Located in southern Tennessee, both the Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel’s distilleries have access to local cave spring and limestone waters, extremely high quality grains, and nice hot weather which aids the maturation of a spirit – this alone showcases the anticipated quality of the whiskies produced. However, as we’re always aware, the method of production is just as important. Let’s go – the grains are cooked with water, and gently stirred in the mash tun, in this case the grains are mostly maize (corn), malted rye and barley, plus, a touch of the previous cycles’ mash is added. Sour mash is not a type of whiskey, as some have previously thought. It’s a method of introducing a live yeast culture to start fermentation, which is taken from a previous wash. This method is most popular in Tennessee and bourbon whiskies. After being washed a second time, the mash will sit for 3-4 days in large wash backs (huge mash tubs – can be either stainless steel or wood). After the sugars in the mash have fermented for a few days, it’s run through a single column still, sometimes known as a “beer still”, followed by a turn in the copper pot still. The double distilled spirit now goes through its charcoal filtering. Locally sourced sugar maple trees are cut into 4 ft x 1 ft staves, and after being neatly stacked, they are lit on fire, and smolder in the open air. Once the fire reaches a roaring red glow, it’s hosed down. Tour groups can often watch “the burning ceremony”, however they happen more often at the Jack Daniel’s distillery, due to the sheer volume of production. The crumbly black remains of the sugar maple are ground and packed into “charcoal”. Now, the difference between Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel’s filtration method – “Jack” drips through the charcoal from perforated copper pipes, and comes right out at the bottom – it almost leaves a subtly sweet “smoke” on the whiskey, whereas “George” will fill up to the top of the tank, and be released slowly, leaving an abrupt charcoal flavour.
Lastly, the spirit by law must be stored in a new American Oak barrel (sometimes known as “white oak”). The barrel will also be charred on the inside to release the sweetness in the wood, creating what’s known as the “red layer”. This adds those wonderful caramel, coconut, vanilla, and spicy notes to the spirit, and its level of character strength varies depending on how long it sits in the barrel, plus the size of the barrel. Tennessee style whiskies have fantastic ageability, so if you can manage to get your hands on an aged single barrel spirit, share wisely. Regardless of how you enjoy your Tennessee whiskey, whether a small amount in a tasting glass, shots at the bar, or used as a base spirit in classic and contemporary cocktails, it’s still interesting to examine them against the other variations in American whiskey – the differences just jump out from the glass.
Bourbon whiskey has been produced since the late 1700s, and gone through its own ups and downs in the American marketplace. The very pulse of the great American distilleries have had some really hard times. Between World Wars, The Great Depression, and Prohibition, distilleries have opened, closed, changed sites, and ultimately – as most bourbon whiskey connaisseurs would agree – this liquid gold is finally getting another chance to shape the way we drink spirits moving forward.
Likely the perceived favourite of all the American Whiskey types, bourbon whiskey makes its mark throughout several distilleries lined up all over its proverbial “mecca” located in northern Kentucky. Similarly to the production of Tennessee whiskey, bourbon will undergo the same method of production, with a high temperature cook on raw material with clean, fresh water, and the addition of the sour mash. Following some quiet time in the wash backs, fermentation takes place, converting the sugars in the corn dominated mass to alcohol. After stints in column and pot still, the alcohol is cooled. Legally bourbon whiskey cannot be distilled to a higher proof then 160 (80% alcohol by volume). After a simple filtration, th spirit will move to barrel. It should be noted that bourbon whiskey can only be made in the United States, and can only legally be made wherever distilling spirits is permissible, while adhering to some strict guidelines. Additionally, bourbon whiskey must be made in the United States, and must be made from at least 51% maize (corn) however most bourbons will show at least a 70% maize dominancy, plus charred American oak aging (using new barrels), and specific labeling requirements. If the maturity is showcased on the bottle, it must be distinctly labeled so; the youngest spirit in the blend should be displayed, and thusly if a bourbon is aged for less then 4 years, it must be clearly labeled on the bottle.
Like we see in France with its regulatory system, Appellation d’origine contrôlée or “AOC”, there’s also a system in place in the United States used to regulate the quality of the distilates produced; eventually it becomes just a matter of personal taste and preference to decide between the particular bourbons that win your heart. The tasting note in general for bourbon whiskey is such that the corn dominancy makes the spirit heavier. The richness in the spirit makes for a long lasting finish on the palate, round, full body and mouthfeel, plus a perceived sweetness from the American oak. The barrels, once they’re charred, release an unprecidented amount of sweetness from the wood, capturing sweet and soft spices that enhance considerably if the spirit is strictly matured for long periods of time. As well, the hint of nuttiness that I have found in Pappy Van Winkle 20 year striaght Kentucky bourbon is likely attributed to its length in barrel, plus its oxidative character which has occurred from oxygen leaching through the wood in a welcomed way. This adds yet another layer to its already complex character.
When studying any other spirits, or wines, whiskies are no different – although the way we taste them differs slightly, its beauty allows us to stay interested in its history, its production, and its future as it rapidly shapes the contemporary cocktail culture.
In the interest of epxlaining a boubon tasting note, the rich, smokey, sweet bourbon whiskey produced in Frankfort at the Buffalo Trace distillery will hardly compare to the fruity, smooth, clean bourbon produced at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto – not because one’s better then the other, but more so the styles vary from each distillery, percentage of grains used, water quality, aging, storage, and method of production. Plus, it’s different strokes for different folks – I prefer a certain type of bourbon in my sours, over what I prefer straight up with a beer.