Barley is definitely not the only cereal of choice in the USA when it comes to whiskey making, corn is indeed the key ingredient of bourbons, but rye and wheat are also quite popular around there. Maturation in new oak barrels as well as varied raw materials made American whiskeys quite unique, sometimes complex but always interesting to look into.
As I know it may be a bit of a challenge to pick the right American whiskey to suit your taste (
and purse) amongst the hostile jungle of brands & recipes, I decided to be your personal tour guide through this special discovery journey, bringing you from popular Kentuckian juices to rare old nectars you may only have the opportunity to sip once in a lifetime!
Please seat back, relax and enjoy the ride !
The first step of our spirited trip is taking you to some common whiskey landscapes populated by famous brands and easy-drinking beverages :
Maker’s Mark : Maker’s Mark has the advantage of a middling proof of 90 (45% abv). The bourbon is also one of the easier brands to get, both in the United States and abroad. Finally, the whiskey is one of the most familiar brands around that uses a wheated mashbill, where red winter wheat replaces rye in the grain recipe.
Woodford Reserve : Part of the argument for using Woodford Reserve is the same as with Eagle Rare: it is very popular stuff. Another part is the same as Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey 101. Drinkers in U.S. should never have trouble finding it, and internationally it has a good presence as well, if not as good as Turkey and Maker’s.
The final reason is that Woodford Reserve is the only major bourbon around made using Scottish style pot stills, instead of the more efficient column still. The argument goes that column stills usually take some of the taste out of the whiskey, and most experts agree that the use of those Forsyth’s copper pots to distill Woodford has a real impact on the flavor.
Basil Hayden’s : This member of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection is noteworthy within that group as the one with the lowest proof (80, or 40% abv) and the lightest body, two qualities that will make it more approachable to the novice drinker. Another selling point for making this a starter bourbon is that it is an example of a “high rye bourbon,” or bourbon with a boosted rye content in the mashbill (30% in this case). As part of a starter flight, Basil Hayden is a good candidate for showing how the grains used in making bourbon play out in the flavor.
Jim Beam Black Double Aged : As the label notes, Jim Beam’s new Black Label is “double aged” — double the age of Jim Beam White Label, that is — spending eight years in barrel instead of four.
The result is an intense and surprisingly hot bourbon (though just 86 proof), and after a caramel burst on the nose, it’s hefty with alcohol. Add some water and things open up nicely, showing big wood notes, orange, and a spicy bits of incense. Similar to Beam’s house style, on the whole, but just more of it. Worth a try.
We’re now progressively climbing Mount American Whiskey with those 4 interesting nectars :
Jefferson’s Chef’s Collaboration : What started out as “an excuse to eat delicious food and drink exceptional bourbon with a friend” turned into a limited edition whiskey that’s designed to pair well with food, says Trey Zoeller, the founder of Jefferson’s who worked with his buddy Chef Edward Lee, of Louisville, KY’s 610 Magnolia and MilkWood, to develop the recipe.
On the palate, it’s got a savory showing with in-your-face spiciness from the rye that’s added in (**this one’s technically a bourbon-rye blend that makes it part of a category some in the industry are starting to call a “bourye”). It finishes smoothly, though, with vanilla and caramel notes from the bourbon.
High West Whiskey – Campfire : High West has managed to “mingle” (Jim Rutledge term) global whiskeys into something that stands on it’s own. It’s not overly complex, but it works well together. I know what you may be thinking. This is a gimmick right? No, it’s not. Rather than be heavy handed with the peat, High West has shown a great deal of restraint with Campfire. The result is a whiskey that is livened up and made far more interesting with a kiss of peat. Unlike the name implies – there’s no fire here, just great whiskey
Angel’s Envy : Finishing its bourbon in port wine barrels is what differentiates Angel’s Envy, a craft distiller based in Louisille, KY, from the pack. Whiskey distillers refer to the 5% of liquid lost to evaporation every year as the “Angel’s Share,” and this distillery’s name is based on the idea that “what’s left behind after we’re done is truly worthy of envy.” The 60-gallon ruby port barrels made from French oak give the hooch a sweeter flavor and impart a smoothness that makes it go down easily.
Booker’s : which has always been cask strength (meaning it’s bottled at the same alcohol percentage at which it comes out of the barrel, unlike other bourbons that are diluted with water)—was originally created by Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson. Noe gave bottles to his friends and family at first, and eventually began selling it to the public in 1992. Since the ABV varies between 60 and 65 percent, this is one whiskey you may want to cut with a few drops of water.
You made it to the top ! Discover 4 collectable, rare, old & very special American whiskeys :
Elijah Craig 23 : If there’s one thing bourbon connoisseurs love, it’s bourbon with an age statement. While many distillers move away from letting you know how old the juice in their bottles are, Heaven Hill continues to annually release “extra-aged” limited edition goods like Elijah Craig 23. This single barrel expression should satisfy both collectors of rare releases and those who work their way through a bottle quickly as well, as the extra-age adds nicely to the overall flavor and experience of a dram. It’s a bourbon old enough to drink itself that won’t be around very long.
Pappy Van Winkle 20 : Pappy Van Winkle makes some of the most coveted bourbon whiskies the world has ever seen. Aged for 20 years, PVW20 is the No. 1-rated bourbon whiskey in the world, with a score of 99 out of 100 from the Beverage Tasting Institute. Drinkers enjoy a taste of the south with notes of caramelized pecans, fudge, and spices.
Orphan Barrel Rhetoric : Rhetoric is the third Orphan Barrel release from Diageo, which bottled this offering at its George A. Dickel & Co. distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The whiskey spent 20 years maturing at the Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville, KY (which are now the site of Diageo’s Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience), and was distilled at the Bernheim distilleries in Kentucky. It’s rare—and old. Oak predominates, but there is a subtle sweetness that helps to balance it out.
Parker’s Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey – 13YO : This 2014 Parker’s Heritage Collection release is a Wheat Whiskey, technically not a bourbon at all. For this edition of the highly anticipated PHC, Heaven Hill is going back to basics. The bottles on offer are from the very first run of what would later become Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey — hence “Original Batch” in this expression — only this bottling is considerably older than Bernheim, at 13 years of age to be exact, aged on the top floors of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse Y, and bottled at barrel strength. The mash is predominantly winter wheat, plus corn and malted barley to round things out. Oh, and this year, $5 from each bottle sold will go to ALS research.
The woody nose, studded with vanilla and gentle baking spices, could herald the beginning of any solid bourbon. As with all of the Parker’s Heritage releases, it’s blazing with alcohol, and it can handle substantial water to bring out its true spirit. With some time, this whiskey’s unique and sophisticated nature becomes clear. Silky caramel and honey notes ooze out of this whiskey. Hints of apple pie, a touch of red pepper, and a little gingerbread — veering into cinnamon roll territory at times — dominate the finish.
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