The spirits (#4)

It would be remiss to write a series of posts about American made spirits and not include whiskey. (Or so I have been told!)

According to legend, we have Irish and Scottish monks to thank for whiskey. (Go ahead, I’ll wait why you thank them, after all tomorrow is Thanksgiving.) As they traveled through the Middle East during the Crusades, the monks became aware of the copper alembics used to make perfume and realized these could also be used to make medicinal spirits. For this reason, it is assumed that the word whiskey comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha or whiskybae meaning “water of life.”

As people from various countries immigrated to America, they brought with them a taste for and a knowledge of the spirits of their homeland. When the Scottish and Irish began to arrive in large numbers at the end of 1700s, they saw a wealth of farmland and a demand for liquor. Through their work ethic and knowledge of the still, they lay the ground work for a uniquely American spirit.

With the ingredients for rum (sugar and molasses) harder to come by, whiskey soon eclipsed rum as the New World’s spirit of choice. Whiskey can be made from virtually any grain. This made whiskey not only popular with drinkers, but also with farmers who could use any excess grain to create mash.

But Prohibition hit America’s spirit hard. Sure, there were plenty of bootleg spirits being made, but few were being aged. Most were lighter in flavor profile than Bourbon or Rye. (You will recall that gin and vodka began their rise to prominence about this same time!) When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many whiskey distilleries did not reopen. Those that did began to consolidate to survive. By the 1990s, there were only 10 distilleries left in Kentucky and 2 in Tennessee.
Thankfully, the tides have turned and recently there has been a whiskey resurgence in America. Ironically, some of the momentum for this movement may be coming from the rise in popularity of single malt and high-quality Scotch whiskies. (Looks like we need to thank the Scots again!) Today, many American whiskey makers are offering their own high-quality single-cask or single-batch spirits to compete.

American whiskeys are classified by:

  1. the type of grain used in the mash
  2. place of production
  3. proof (or ABV) at which it is distilled
  4. length and/or manner of aging

Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbon is named for a county in Eastern Kentucky (which ironically is dry today) that owes its name to the Bourbon kings of France who aided the Americans during the Revolutionary War.  In 1964 Bourbon was recognized by Congress as a distinctive product of the U.S.A. To be classified as Bourbon, the spirit must be at least 51% corn, be produced in the United States, be distilled at less than 160 proof, and be aged for at least 2 years in new charred barrels. (If it is aged for less than 4 years, the number of years must be indicated on the bottle.) No colorings or flavorings may be added. And only distilled water may be used to achieve the proper alcohol by volume (ABV) before bottling. Small-batch Bourbon is bottled from a small group of specially selected barrels that are blended together. Single Barrel Bourbon is from one specifically chosen barrel.

(For your edification only, because I want your whiskey education to be somewhat complete and not because I have not listed any of them below, Tennessee Whiskey is almost identical to Bourbon Whiskey except 1) it must be made in Tennessee and 2) it should be filtered through special charcoal.)

Blended American Whiskey: Dating back to the 19th century advent of the column still and production of neutral spirits, the first Blended American Whiskeys were usually inexpensive and often bland in character. Blends have come a long way and can now replicate desirable flavor profiles. To be classified as a Blended American Whiskey, the spirit must contain 20% straight whiskey, with the balance being unaged neutral spirit or, in a few cases, high-proof light whiskey. Blended American Whiskey has a general whiskey flavor profile (most closely resembling Bourbon), but lacks any defining taste characteristic.

Corn Whiskey: The precursor to Bourbon, corn whiskey can trace its origins to Scotch-Irish farms where it was made for family consumption or traded for goods. To be classified as Corn Whiskey, the spirit must contain at least 80% corn, be distilled at less than 160 proof and it does not have to be aged. However, if it is, the aging should be done in new or used uncharred barrels.

Rye Whiskey: Though known to other nationalities, rye was probably most familiar to the German-American immigrants. They had been using rye to make Schnapps and Vodka for generations in Northern Europe and continued to do so here.  To be classified as Rye Whiskey, the spirit must contain at least 51% rye grain, be distilled at less than 160 proof, and be aged for at least 2 years in new charred barrels.

Wheat Whiskey: A classification that almost became extinct thanks to Prohibition. To be classified as a Wheat Whiskey, the spirit must contain at least 51% wheat, be distilled at less than 160 proof, and be aged for at least 2 years in new charred white oak barrels.

Once again, if you are old enough and so inclined, please support these great American distilleries! (Responsibly, of course.) And do not forget that several of companies featured in the  ginvodka and rum posts also make whiskey! So check them out again for more inspiration.

(Please note: The tasting notes below are not mine. They belong to BourbonBlog (BB),  DrinkSpirits (DS), New York Times (NYT), Spirit Journal (SJ), Spirits Review (SR), Tastings (TC), WhiskyConnsr (WC), WhiskeyReviewer (WR), WineEnthusiast (WE) or were provided by the distillery itself (D). If you agree, thank them, if you don’t . . . well, by now you have the idea.)

Arkansas Young Bourbon Whiskey – Made in Little Rock, Arkansas

You Ought to Know: When Phil Brandon began his distillery in 2010, he set out to craft spirits using only ingredients from Arkansas. As a result, his bourbon is made from corn and soft, red winter wheat, not rye as rye does not grow in the state. Arkansas Young Bourbon is aged for between 3 to 6 months, not years (hence “Young Bourbon”) in new charred white oak barrels also sourced in-state.

Type: Bourbon

Tasting Notes: It tasted like a high end bourbon, and a relatively high-powered one at that. It starts out with an almost floral, cognac nose and settles into a deep, corn-fueled flame banked with the merest hint of vanilla. It’s less oaky than a lot of bourbons and it’s more refined than some of the rawer busthead stuff we decant. (D)

Distillery: Rock Town Distillery

Price: $25/375 ml

Other Products: Arkansas Lighting, Brandon’s Vodka, Brandon’s Gin, American Whiskey Aging Kit

Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey – Made in Bardstown, Kentucky

You Ought to Know: Bernheim is first straight wheat whiskey available in the US since Prohibition. It seems only fitting that the brand bears the name of two brothers, German immigrants, who in the 19th Century established a small distillery in Louisville, Kentucky on little but their dreams. Since that time Bernheim Distillery has become synonymous with high quality whiskey.

Type: Wheat Whiskey

Tasting Notes: Warm, light aroma with hints of citrus and spice and just a touch of oak. The flavor is clean, crisp and dry with honeyed citrus and undertones of toasted nuts. (WR)

Distillery: Heaven Hill Distilleries

Price: $35/750 ml

Other Products: (none at this time – under the Bernheim brand)

Black Bear Whiskey – Made in Jacksonville, Florida

You Ought to Know: Black Bear Whiskey is so new it is not even in the bottle yet. But this small-batch spirit will be available in March 2012. And starting in January, Spirits of the USA will take orders for pre-sale. (Aren’t you loving the inside scoop?)

Type: American Whiskey

Tasting Notes: (not available yet)

Distillery: Spirits of the USA

Price: (not available yet)

Other Products: Coyote Vodka, Coyote Ice Vodka, Coyote Vodka Jalapeño, Coyote Vodka Mango, Black Widow Gin, Rattlesnake Tequila, Rattlesnake Tequila Jalapeño, Deadman’s Dark & Spicy Rum, Deadman’s Mango Rum, Runner Energy Drink

Breckenridge Boubon – Made in Breckenridge, Colorado

You Ought to Know: The idea for the Breckenridge Distillery came to Founder Bryan Nolt while he was fly fishing. (The catch of the day, I would say!) To help make his dream a reality, Bryan headed to The American Distilling Institute in Petaluma, California to learn more of the art and science of spirits crafting. There he met Master Distiller Jordan Via who ultimately became his partner.

Type: Bourbon

Tasting Notes: Light body with warm texture and long sweet oak, vanilla finish with a touch of bitterness to balance. Reminiscent of a slice of toasted rye bread with honey drizzled on it. (D)

Distillery: Breckenridge Distillery

Price: $50/750 ml

Other Products: Breckenridge Vodka

Colorado Straight Bourbon – Made in Palisade, Colorado

You Ought to Know: The Peach Street Distillers, Rory, Bill and Dave, released Colorado’s first (legal) bourbon in 2008. Using sweet corn from the nearby town of Olathe, Colorado Straight Bourbon is available in limited release (the initial bottling was limited to 200) after aging for two years. Making it even more special, each bottle is numbered by the head distiller and the top is dipped in black wax.

Type: Bourbon

Tasting Notes: Medium amber color. Aromas of playdoh, cherry cola, spiced roasted walnuts, and savory polenta follow through on a silky vibrant entry to a dryish medium-full body with dried tangerine, musky perfume, and vanilla bean notes. Finishes with a bold, Asian spice, and honey fade. (TC)

Distillery: Peach Street Distillers

Price: $58/750 ml

Other Products: Goat Artisan Vodka, Peach Goat Vodka, Jack and Jenny Peach Brandy, Jack and Jenny Pear Brandy, Jack and Jenny Plum BrandyGrappa of GewürztraminerGrappa of Viognier, Jackalope Gin

Corsair Wry Moon – Made in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee

You Ought to Know: Corsair Artisan, a craft spirits company, does everything by hand from production in their pot stills to bottling. Why pot stills? They allow the distiller finer control over flavors and give broader room for experimentation. (But they are more a labor intensive.)

Type: White Whiskey (100% rye)

Tasting Notes: Touch of sweetness and rounded. Much better than many unaged whiskeys. Nice balance of grain and sweetness. (BB)

Distillery: Corsair Artisan, LLC

Price: $34/750 ml

Other Products: Corsair Artisan Gin, Corsair Vanilla Bean Vodka, Corsair Red Absinthe, Corsair Spiced Rum, Corsair Triple Smoke American Single Malt Whiskey, Experimental and Seasonal Offerings

Elmer T. Lee – Made in Frankfort, Kentucky

You Ought to Know: Ever wonder how you can get a bourbon named for you? (Oh, sure, you could start your own distillery and name one for yourself, but that is cheating!) If Elmer T. Lee is any indication, to do it you have to give more than 50 years of your life to the crafting of fine Kentucky bourbons (of course, that is after you serve your country in WWII as a radar bombardier and graduate with honors from the University of Kentucky.) Because that might not have been enough, Elmer also introduced the single-barrel bourbon concept to the world with Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Looks like it is pretty hard to get a bourbon named after you. In fact, Elmer T. Lee is one of only 3 living Master Distillers to achieve such an honor.

Type: Bourbon

Tasting Notes: Medium gold in color; the nose brings notes of butterscotch, clover, vanilla, and old leather. The big body bears a palate with an almost wine-like character that balances intense fruits, honey, and vanilla with a light spiciness that shows off the distiller’s craft. The finish is long and warm. (WE)

Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Price: $34.99/750 ml

Other Products: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare Single Barrel, Antique Collection, Experimental Collection, Van Winkle, Blanton’s, Sazerac Rye, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve,  A. Smith Bowman, Old Charter, WLWeller, McAfee’s Benchmark, AncientAge, E.H.Taylor, Jr., Very Old Barton, Kentucky Tavern

Few White Whiskey – Made in Evanston, Illinois

You Ought to Know: Few Spirits may have breathed new life into a Prohibition staple, when it began crafting its White Whiskey, but to do so it had to change some laws. The City of Evanston (Few’s home) was founded as a dry community and remained that way for more than 100 years. In the late 1990’s the City began selling alcohol and thanks to perseverance of Master Distiller, Paul Hletko, Evanston eventually repelled enough of its alcohol laws to allow a Few Spirits to set up shop.

Type: White Whiskey (malted barley/corn blend)

Tasting Notes: The entry has corn right up front and then leads way to some cherry and tarragon notes with an undercurrent of black pepper. The finish is medium long with the sweeter notes lingering on the palate. Few Whiskey is one of the cleaner unaged whiskeys we’ve tried, with a finish that would be quite friendly for vodka drinkers looking to trade up. (DS)

Distillery: Few Spirits, LLC

Price: $44.95/750 ml

Other Products: Few American Gin

Headlong White Dog Whiskey – Made in Woodinville, Washington

You Ought to Know: Mentored by Maker’s Mark Master Distiller David Pickerell, Woodinville Whiskey Co. has developed recipes that exploit the pure ingredients and pristine water of the Pacific Northwest. Taking the brand to the next level, Woodinville has created a limited edition whiskey called Harvest Release. This special annual spirit made its inaugural debut November 19th in both Bourbon and American Whiskey varieties.

Type: White Whiskey (corn, wheat and malted barley)

Tasting Notes: Clear with a platinum blue cast. Aromas of frosted peach pastry, buttercream and raisin bran with a soft, silky dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a super smooth, lingering peppery spice, Brazil nut, and grainy flour accented finish. Great purity and balance. (TC)

Distillery: Woodinville Whiskey Co.

Price: $35/750 ml

Other Products: The Microbarreled Collection, Peabody Jones Vodka, Age Your Own Whiskey Kit

High West Whiskey Son of Bourye – Made in Park City, Utah

You Ought to Know: Son of Bourye (SOB) is High West’s newest product offering. (Just another bit of insider information that has not even hit High West’s website yet!) SOB carries on the tradition established with the Company’s wildly popular Bouyre, the world’s first blend of straight bourbon and straight rye. Son of Bourye, as you may have already guessed, is the same super top-secret blend; however, it is made with younger whiskeys — 5 year old Bourbon and 3 year old Rye. (Want to try the original Bourye? There are some bottles still available, but the whiskey used in the blend is in short supply, so there will be very few more bottles produced.)

Type: Bourbon/Rye (blend)

Tasting Notes: (not available yet – but it is very versatile: try it neat, over ice or in any cocktail that calls for either bourbon or rye)

Distillery: High West Distillery

Price: $39.99/750 ml

Other Products: High West Rendezvous Rye, High West Double Rye!, High West 12 year old Rye, High West Rocky Mountain Rye 16 year old, High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 year old, High West Bouyre, High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat, High West Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye, High West Whiskey 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan, High West Vodka 7000′High West Vodka 7000′ Peach

Hudson Single Malt Whiskey – Made in Gardiner, New York

You Ought to Know: The building that Tuthilltown Spirits now uses to do much of its distilling is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Fancy, huh?) For 220 years the Tuthilltown Grist Mill, powered by water, converted grain to flour. In 2001 it was purchased and found new life as a micro-distillery and New York State’s first whiskey distillery since Prohibition.

Type: Single Malt Whiskey

Tasting Notes: A sweetish start with a rapid onset of and wood char notessome spiciness, with papaya and citrus, with vanilla oak notes. Medium mouth feel, with some bite to it. Nice drying finish is quite long with slightly minty tingling to the tongue and lips. (SR)

Distillery: Tuthilltown Spirits

Price: $40/375 ml

Other Products: Hudson Manhattan Rye, Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey, Hudson 4-Grain Bourbon, Hudson New York Corn WhiskeySpirit of the Hudson Vodka, Heart of the Hudson Vodka

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Made in Brooklyn, New York

You Ought to Know: Proud to be New York City’s oldest operating whiskey distillery since Prohibition (circa April 2010), Kings County Distillery was started by Colin Spoelman, a native of Kentucky, and David Haskell, the grandson of a prohibition-era bootlegger. Their distillery occupies 325 square feet of a 2nd floor room where they use five 8-gallon stills to make their current product offerings. (With 600 square feet, they could change the world!)

Type: Bourbon

Tasting Notes: More impressive still are the fledgling releases of the lightly barrel-aged whiskey, with the dill-like, almost piney tang of New American oak embracing the grain, rather than masking it. (NYT)

Distillery: Kings County Distillery

Price: $24.99/200 ml

Other Products: Kings County Moonshine

McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey – Made in Portland, Oregon

You Ought to Know: If Portland were a city in Scotland, McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey would be called McCarthy’s Single Malt Scotch. It is a whiskey in the Islay tradition, most closely resembling the peaty Lagavulin. (If this sounding like a foreign language, you are probably not a serious scotch drinker.)  It is made from peat-malted barley from Scotland, fermented/distilled and then aged in old sherry casks, as well as barrels made from air-dried Oregon Oak. The current bottling was aged 3 years with a new release planned for May 2012.

Type: American Whiskey

Tasting Notes: Thick body, sweet and dry balance is sensational here, strong peat in the mouth, salty, a hint of citrus, and a strong backdrop of oak. The complexity is lovely.  Finish is strong, long, and delicious. Peat, wood, salt, malt, all stay long in the mouth (WC)

Distillery: Clear Creek Distillery

Price: $44/750 ml

Other Products: Eau de Vie – Pear, Apple, Kirschwasser, Blue Plum, Mirabelle Plum, Framboise, Douglas Fir; Grappa MoscatoMarc de GewürztraminerGrappa of Oregon Pinot NoirGrappa of Pinot GrigioCavatappi GrappaNebbioloCavatappi Grappa Sangiovese; Oregon Pot Stilled Brandy; Liqueurs – Cranberry, Blackberry, Loganberry, Cassis, Cherry, Raspberry, Pear

Mitcher’s 25 year old Single Barrel Rye – Made in Louisville, Kentucky

You Ought to Know: American’s first whiskey distilling company, Michter’s has always taken a “cost be damned” approach to its craft. Perhaps that is why Michter’s was General George Washington’s choice to fortify his troops at Valley Forge. (Ah, for the days of sensible government spending!) Today their very small batch whiskey is made of hand-selected grains, is barreled at a lower proof, and is aged in special heat-cycled warehouses. The result? Michter’s loyal following, particularly for its aged Rye, often leaves it in short supply.

Type: Rye – Aged 25 years

Tasting Notes: Entry is sweet, corny, breakfast cereal-like, sap- and maple-like; midpalate reinforces the broad menu of entry tastes and adds toasted flavors of honeywheat toast, honey and vanilla bean. Concludes long in the throat, bittersweet, oaky/woody, and gloriously toasty/warming. (SJ)

Distillery: Michter’s Distillery

Price: $350/750 ml

Other Products: Michter’s US1 Single Barrel Rye, Michter’s 10 year old Single Barrel RyeMichter’s US1 Unblended American Whiskey, Michter’s US1 Small Batch Bourbon, Michter’s 10 year old Single Barrel Bourbon, Michter’s 25 year old Single Barrel Bourbon

OYO Whiskey – Made in Columbus, Ohio

You Ought to Know:  Brady Konya and Ryan Lang founded their company on the principles that small batch distilling produces the best quality and local ingredients are the best ingredients. In Columbus, Ohio they found access to a ready-supply of local ingredients, like the Soft Red Winter Wheat used in their whiskey (which is made of 100% wheat), and a community that embraced its first micro-distillery. (Sounds like the community is a key ingredient!)

Type: Wheat Whiskey

Tasting Notes: Creamy spirit with a subdued bite, lightly sweet with aromas of honey, vanilla, coconut and cinnamon spice. (D)

Distillery: Middle West Spirits

Price: $45/750 ml

Other Products: OYO Vodka, OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka

Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey – Made in Umatilla, Florida

You Ought to Know: Marti and Dick Waters, owners of Florida Farm Distillers, make their micro-batch, young whiskey on their Florida farm. Their whiskey is non-chill filtered, mellowed with toasted orange and oak woods, and finished in charred oak barrels. It is also limited to 500 cases per year. (You know you love exclusivity!)

Type: Florida Whiskey

Tasting Notes: Tasting much like a rich bourbon – has sweet tones matched with rougher flavors brought on by the charred barrels. (D)

Distillery: Florida Farm Distillers

Price: $54.99/750 ml

Other Products: (none at this time)

Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey - Made in Santa Fe, New Mexico

You Ought to Know: Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey is an Englishman’s interpretation of an American classic. Combining Scottish yeast, European and American malts (instead of corn), traditional distilling techniques, and precision-crafted equipment, Colin Keegan has created a cutting-edge white whiskey that marries the American spirit making tradition with a more European palate.

Type: White Whiskey (European and American malts)

Tasting Notes: A subtle spirit. Hints of fruit and malt with a subtle mouth-feel. The sweet malty notes gradually yield to a smooth dry, earthy finish. (D)

Distillery: Sante Fe Spirits

Price: $28/750 ml

Other Products: Santa Fe Apple Brandy, Single Malt Whiskey (coming soon)

Templeton Rye Whiskey – Made in Templeton, Iowa

You Ought to Know: In 1920, when Prohibition outlawed the legal production of spirits, some enterprising Iowa residents from the small town of Templeton (population 350) began making a high-caliber whiskey called Templeton Rye or “The Good Stuff.” Word quickly spread (in hushed tones, of course) and soon the little town and its bootleg liquor found fame. Templeton Rye was Al Capone’s whiskey of choice and it sold for $5.50 a gallon ($70 in today’s money). In 2006, the (in)famous spirit returned to a new generation of fans.

Type: Rye

Tasting Notes: Deep amber copper color. Dense and intense aromas of cinnamon bark, mincemeat, cashew butter, milk chocolate, and peppery spice. A soft, silky entry leads to a dryish medium-to-full body of creamy vanilla custard, cola nut, spicy caramelized nuts, and honeyed rye toast flavors. Finishes with a long sweet grain, peppery spice, and white ash fade. A fun, flavorful rye. (TC)

Distillery: Templeton Rye Spirits, LLC

Price: $39.99/750 ml

Other Products: (none at this time)


Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

I hope that have enjoyed this mini-series on spirits. It has been fun and educational for me to write.

If you try any of these spirits or mixers, please post a comment and share the experience.

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