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State of the Union: American Whiskey
Over the last few months here at Serious Eats, I've covered bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye. I thought it would be helpful to close out this series with a quick(ish) overview of some American whiskey styles I've yet to cover.
I'll try to refrain from making any Billy Idol jokes. White whiskey, also known as white dog, is a relatively popular category right now. The distinctive color of whiskey comes from barrel-aging (and, sometimes, some caramel coloring to fudge things), so a white whiskey is one that's spent no time in a barrel.
White whiskeys give microdistilleries the opportunity to get some product to market while waiting for their whiskeys to age. Taking your only product and socking it away in a barrel for two, three, or eight years requires a significant investment of capital, and so white whiskeys offer new distilleries an immediate return on investment.
But now, even the majors are getting involved. As Andrew Strenio pointed out recently, Jack Daniel's is launching a white whiskey—in this case, an unaged rye. Jim Beam is following up soon with its Jacob's Ghost release, which Strenio reviewed this week. Beam's product is unique in that it's not actually unaged. As is the case with many white rums, Jacob's Ghost is barrel-aged, but then has its color stripped out through filtration. The result should be a smoother-tasting product than most white dogs, which are often harsh.
Blended American Whiskey
Earlier this year, I looked at the difference between single-malt Scotch whisky and blended Scotch whiskey. In Scotland, a blended whisky must, by law, contain a mix of malt whisky and grain whisky, and the grain whisky must be at least as old as everything else in the bottle. In other words, even the grain whisky that goes into Scotch blends has its own barrel-aged character. I had a chance, some years ago, to taste a couple of aged grain whiskies, and I found them to be surprisingly pleasant, although nothing I'd care to sip solo.
In America, however, blended whiskey is a different beast. Here, a blended whiskey is a mix of either bourbon or rye with neutral-grain spirits. In other words, as David Wondrich has said, American blends are essentially "whiskey-flavored vodka."
After the Second World War, and up into the 1980s, blended American whiskeys were atop the whiskey category, in terms of sales. The American palate preferred a lighter, milder taste. This, for example, was the era in which vodka rose to become America's top-selling spirit.
Some brands, in fact, switched sides after the War. Four Roses, famously, started life as a straight bourbon, but when Seagram bought the brand, they switched it over to a bottom-shelf blend. In Japan, however, where American blended whiskey never really caught on, Seagram continued to sell a straight-bourbon bottling of Four Roses, which grew to become the leading bourbon in Japan. When Seagram disbanded, the Japanese corporation Kirin bought up Four Roses. After the handover, Four Roses's master distiller begged to buy back and destroy all bottles of the blended product, so they could reintroduce the straight bourbon to the American market; he got his wish, and about 10 years ago, Four Roses reintroduced its straight bourbon to the U.S. market.
Blended American whiskeys include Seagram's 7 Crown, Beam's Eight Star, and Calvert Extra.
I'm saving the best and most interesting category for last. Some American distillers are making whiskeys unlike anything else on the market. They aren't bourbons, they aren't ryes, they aren't neutral-grain blends; they're unique products that don't fit a niche.
I don't have space to mention them all, and if history's any judge, I expect to hear about the ones I don't bring up. (Now this? This is a complete list.)
From Colorado, there's Stranahan's, a barley-only whiskey, currently available only in Colorado. Stranahan's is rich and malty.
In Texas-barbecue style, there's Balcones Brimstone Whisky, made of 100% blue corn and smoked after distillation.
A Rhode Island distillery is making an American single-malt whiskey, similar to Scotch. Unlike Scotch, though, Sons of Liberty Uprising isn't aged in barrels but rather is flavored with oak staves. The distillery does have plans, though, to eventually release a barrel-aged product.
If you're looking for a full-on wheat whiskey, there's Dry Fly Wheat Whiskey out of Washington State.
In Tennessee, the people at Corsair Distilling are trying all sorts of crazy things. For example, they have a bourbon ... now, I know I said I was focusing on things that aren't bourbons or ryes, but this bourbon is interesting. They start with corn (naturally), rye, wheat, and barley, but then add buckwheat, triticale, spelt, oats, and quinoa to spice things up. They have whiskeys based on triticale and quinoa. And finally, like Texas's Balcones, Corsair is also experimenting with smoked whiskeys.