Say the words “American” and “whiskey”, and most people will say “Bourbon”.
This is the style that we have long loved: big, sweet whiskies made from corn and aged in charred American oak barrels, perfect for a Manhattan or a Mint Julep.
This style was invented by Scots and Irish settlers to Appalachia who brought distilling skill from the old country but turned it to the local produce, corn.
Corn whiskey is the classic American spirit – but the distilling business is changing fast as the celebrated alcoholic beverage undergoes nothing less than a full-scale revolution.
Right in the heart of corn country – Nashville, Tennessee – there’s a small distiller called Corsair turning out whiskey made from malted barley just as they do in Scotland.
Sounding a bit unpatriotic? Don’t worry, it’s dubbed the Triple Smoke because the barley is smoked over cherry wood, beech wood and peat, and then aged in charred oak to create a whiskey that’s as American as a monster truck. It won Malt Advocate magazine’s Artisan Whiskey of the Year in 2013.
Down in Texas, Ranger Creek distillery dries its barley over mesquite smoke to create a whiskey with a frontier twist. Yeehaw!
Unlike the Scots, American single malt distillers aren’t hidebound by hundreds of years of tradition and pages of rules from the Scottish Whisky Association. You can see this in the packaging: Triple Smoke has a very craft beer Reservoir Dogs-inspired label.
The craft beer movement is a major inspiration for the new wave of American whiskies. Sons of Liberty on Rhode Island make a whiskey using a dark toasty malt like you find in a stout. They’ve given it the none-more-American name of Uprising. Not to be outdone, Corsair make a Citra Double IPA whiskey that reeks of hops. It’s all about bringing out big flavors.
Whereas Scottish single malts tend to be aged for at least eight years (though legally only have to be aged for three) American whiskies age faster as the climate is hotter. Balcones Single Malt, winner of best American Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards last year, is “yard-aged”- in other words left out in the baking heat of Texas where it matures extremely quickly.
One year in the heat of Texas equals about seven in rainy old Scotland. Quicker maturation time means American distillers can bring their products to market sooner therefore they are more responsive to trends.
But it’s not all barley innovation; exciting things are happening with good ol’ corn.
Whiskey Acres in Illinois produces a spirit made entirely from corn growing around their distillery. It offers the complete journey from grain to glass. The cocktail boom has seen the revival of another classic American spirit, rye. Spicy Koval Rye from Chicago is the spirit of choice for some of the country’s top barmen. And Corsair produce a whiskey made with buckwheat as well as malt. It’s name… Buck Yeah.
After years of conservatism and consolidation, American distilling of all sorts is on something of a roll with new producers opening the whole time. It goes beyond moonshine being rebranded as “white whiskey”.
There’s Square 1 rye vodka from Idaho which is a favorite of Oprah Winfrey. Brooklyn Gin in New York has become immensely successful with their focus on the quality of their botanicals such as hand-cracked juniper berries. Then there are more obscure spirits: America now makes serious brandies to rival France, amari (bitter drinks like Campari) to rival Italy and aquavits that make the Swedes very worried indeed.
It’s not just in the independent sector; the big boys are doing interesting things too. Maker’s Mark produce a 46 whiskey which is aged partially with French oak rather than the usual American. It has amazing tobacco and leather flavors like a particularly powerful brandy, and makes a mean Boulevardier – essentially a negroni with Bourbon in place of gin.
I asked Bill Owens from the American Distilling Institute what is driving this innovation. He thinks it is due a lot to the internet.“You can watch very accurate videos showing you how to distill and you can pick up a good still for $18,000” he told me.
Mr Owens went on to say that now “you have different people moving into distilling such as bored corporate types and trained engineers.” Therefore all the sort of spirits that the first Americans would have made, often quite badly, in their farmhouses are now being made with added refinement by workplace professionals with a new lease of life, crafting drink by day rather than consoling themselves at their corporate zombiedom by drinking at night.
Bill Owens has some advice for anyone wanting to get into distilling. “Put your heart and soul into it and most importantly don’t drink whilst distilling,” he says.
Artisan spirits are in the same place where craft beer was twenty years ago. The crucial difference being of course is that distilling is a whole lot more dangerous…