The world of whiskey is highly regulated, and in order for a bottle to be labeled Scotch, Irish, bourbon, straight, or rye, the qualifying characteristics are quite precise. In order to be called an American whiskey, on the other hand, a spirit must be produced in America and distilled from cereal grains. That's it! Think of American whiskey as the whiskey world's bloomin' onion outpost—no rules are just right! With such tremendous latitude allowed to distillers, there are a wide variety of styles and interpretations of the spirit. Want to explore the options a bit? These are three bottles worth seeking out.
The Perfectionist: Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey
Stranahan's is one of the vanguards of the purist approach to craft whiskeymaking in the USA. Using a locally grown four barley blend, they ferment and then filter their distiller's beer to create a purer distillate, whereas a majority of whiskey producers leave the spent grain in the mash during distilling. This practice evolved from their infancy of distilling beer from nearby Flying Dog brewery (it's no coincidence that George Stranahan is the founder of both Flying Dog and Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey).
The result is a wonderful spirit with the malt character front and center, with a honeyed sweetness and spice up front tempered by oiled leather and a vegetal bite in the finish. It's a masterful balance between sophistication and strength.
The Innovator: Corsair Triple Smoke Single Barrel
Corsair Artisan Distillery is a larger micro distillery, with two locations: one in Tennessee and one in Kentucky. They have quite a range of out there booze, from moonshine spiked with pumpkin to a hopped whiskey, but the Triple Smoke stands out as an American single malt whiskey. Corsair takes malted barley and divides it into portions to be smoked by three different fuels: beech, cherry, and peat.
At first sniff, it's reminiscent of a Scottish single malt in its cereal character and hint of peat, but it takes a sudden turn into uncharted territory with a cherry sweetness and toasty, spicy wood notes. Sitting somewhere between a bourbon and a Scotch, the Triple Smoke is an interesting example of how innovation can lead to unexpected success.
The Experimentalist: Balcones Brimstone Whisky
This whisky (this spirit drops the typically American 'e') from Balcones distillery out of Waco, TX, has three immediately interesting characteristics right off the label:
1. It's 100% corn.
2. It's not just corn, it's blue corn.
3. It's Texas scrub smoked whisky (meaning they smoke the whisky, not the corn.)
An experimental pedigree to be sure, but how does it play out? This whisky is definitely a smoke bomb, but it's not typical Scotch smokiness. The scrub smoke has a character more akin to a campfire or liquid smoke—it's heavy and thick. Once you dig past the smoke there's a hint of blue corn tortilla chips, raisins, chocolate, and a fair amount of alcohol burn left at the end. It lives up to the name, though some might wish for a bit more balance and nuance. If you like your booze like a kick in the teeth, look no further—this is a frontier whisky in every sense of the word.
The wonderful thing about American whiskey is that every distillery's offerings are different than the last, so get out there and start tasting! Have you discovered any particularly good bottles lately?