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American Whiskey

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American Whiskey   Recommended Products  Whiskey Recipe  Whiskey Styles   Labels Decoded   Who Made My Whiskey?

American Whiskey

As bold and unapologetic as its frontier heritage – American whiskey stands apart from other world whisky styles, especially when compared to the whiskys of Canada or Ireland which tend to have lighter profiles. If you are new to the category your first taste will likely greet you with big, rich flavours of vanilla, caramel, honey or dark fruit, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or clove. 

This intensity of flavour is due to most American whiskeys being aged in virgin oak barrels, and the warmer climate of places like Kentucky and Tennessee, which speeds up the interaction between wood and spirit. The result is a robust, wood forward experience unique to America, one well worth exploring if your whisky journey has yet to stray from the Dewar’s, Jameson’s or Canadian Club’s of this world. 


Fun Fact

Because bourbon can only be aged in new oak barrels, American distilleries produce a high volume of used casks which are then happily snatched up by whisky and rum producers around the world. That fine Scotch or Irish whiskey that you are enjoying? Chances are that some – or all – of it was aged in “ex bourbon” barrels.



Recommended Whiskeys

Legent Bourbon
Bulleit Bourbon
Basil Hayden's Bourbon
Woodford Reserve
Maker's Mark


Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Four Roses Bourbon
Jack Daniels
Wild Turkey Bourbon
Knob Creek Bourbon


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Notable American Whiskey Styles

Although synonymous with Kentucky, bourbon is actually produced throughout the U.S. To be called bourbon, a whiskey’s mashbill (recipe) must be comprised of at least 51% corn, and be aged in charred new oak barrels. The law does not specify a minimum aging period. Distillers will then blend the corn with other grains such as rye, wheat and/or malted barley to give their whiskeys different flavour profiles – with each grain imparting its own signature contribution. Although it’s always dangerous to generalize (and people taste things differently), higher corn bourbons such as Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s tend to be sweeter, higher rye whiskeys (Wild Turkey, Basil Hayden’s) tend to be spicier and higher wheat whiskeys (Makers Mark, Weller’s) tend to be softer and more mellow.

Tennessee Whisky
Even though any straight bourbon produced in Tennessee can be called Tennessee whiskey, most whiskeys produced in the state add an additional step called the Lincoln County Process for which the style has become identified with. Under this method the “white dog” or new make spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before it enters a barrel for aging. This filtering process is said to remove some of whiskey’s harsher compounds for a mellower final product. Good examples of the Tennessee whiskey style that employ this process are Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel.

Rye Whiskey
American Rye whiskey follows the same rules of production as bourbon with the exception that it must be made of at least 51% American rye. Typically, a blend of American corn and/or malted barley complete the mashbill, although 100% rye whiskeys are not unknown. Try Bulleit Rye Whiskey or Knob Creek Rye Single Barrel to sample this style.

Corn Whiskey
To earn the label corn whiskey, an American whiskey must have a mashbill of at least 80% corn and, if aged at all, spend time in used or uncharred oak barrels.

Tasting Tip

American whiskeys are frequently bottled at higher strength with ABVs of 45%, 50% or even 60% not uncommon. While it is perfectly acceptable to sip these higher strength whiskeys as they are poured, try adding a drop or two of water to see how it affects the taste. Frequently the additional water will open up flavours and aromas that would be hard to notice otherwise.

Decoding the Label

Decoding the label header - bottle shown on side with label

 Straight Whiskey
Straight Whiskey LabelThe designation “straight” is used to identify any whiskey that has spent a minimum of two years in charred new oak barrels. There can be straight bourbons, straight ryes and straight Tennessee whiskeys. If a straight whiskey is less than four years old, its age must be stated on the bottle. Otherwise, there is no requirement for an American producer to identify a whiskey’s age (see age statement).



Bottled in Bond
Bottled in Bond LabelThe most stringent whiskey designation in the U.S., bottled in bond whiskeys must be produced by one distiller during a single distillation season (January–June or July–December), be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and be bottled at 50% ABV. The products label must also clearly state the distillery and where it was bottled (if different).


Age Statement
Age Statement LabelMany whiskeys will have an age on their label. The listed age is for the youngest barrel used to make up the batch. For example, a bourbon may carry an age statement of six years but also have older whiskeys of eight and ten years contributing to the blend.



Single Barrel
Single Barrel LabelBottles carrying this designation are truly from a single barrel, typically selected from the warehouse by the distiller for specific quality and flavour characteristics. Because whiskey barrels normally hold between 150 and 200 bottles at time of bottling, the single barrel designation represents the ultimate small batch.



Proof LabelProof is simply another way of expressing the amount of alcohol in a bottle, with 100% equaling a proof of 200. For example, a bottle at 80 proof would be 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).




Barrel Proof / Cask Strength
Cask Strength LabelA whisky designated barrel proof has had no water added to it before bottling. As such, they tend to have ABVs around 55% to 60%, or even higher. Whisky lovers will often seek out cask strength bottles as they offer the purest expression of a brand. Besides, water can always be added once the whisky is poured according to the drinker's preference.




Small Batch
Small Batch LabelNot a legal term, small batch is typically used by distillers to indicate that a smaller number of select barrels have been used to create the whisky in the bottle. There is no industry standard for the number of barrels needed to use the term.



Sour Mash

Sour Mash LabelTo control the growth of bacteria, and promote the growth of yeast, distillers will often use the spent mash from a previous distillation to condition a new mash. The resulting mixture is called  “sour mash” and has no effect on the flavour of the final product. Most American whiskey is produced using this method, even though it is not indicated on the bottle.



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Who Made My Whiskey?

Map of Kentucky & Tennessee and prominent distillery locations


If you are new to bourbon you may not realize that many of the brands that you see on the shelf are produced by the same distillery. For example, the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, not only makes a range of whiskies under the Jim Beam brand, but also Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s and Baker’s bourbons. But just because brands are made by the same distillery, doesn’t mean that the same whiskey is in each bottle.

Whisky makers have a multitude of options available to them when developing a distinctive style or flavour profile for each brand – including different mash bills, barrel char levels and time spent aging. Even where the casks are placed within a warehouse may be particular to a brand, as cask location can significantly affect a whiskey’s development. So if you find yourself enjoying the quality of a particular brand, it may be worth trying other brands made by the distillery, if only to discover the range of flavours a single distillery is capable of.


Buffalo Trace
Buffalo Trace
Eagle Rare
George T. Stagg
Col. E. H. Taylor
Pappy Van Winkle
W.L. Weller
McAfee's Benchmark 
Jim Beam
Jim Beam
Knob Creek
Basil Hayden’s
Old Grand Dad
Very Old Barton
1792 Bourbon
Kentucky Gentleman
Kentucky Tavern
Heaven Hill
Heaven Hill
Evan Williams
Elijah Craig
Henry McKenna
J.T.S. Brown
Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey
Russel’s Reserve

Buffalo Trace Bottle


Basil Hayden's Bottle

1792 Bottle Larceny Bottle Wild Turkey Bottle


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