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July 20, 2024

America’s history is intertwined with its whiskey

By Nikhil Agarwal
What comes to your mind when you think of the United States of America?  For me, I think of grandness, innovation, larger than life thinking and of course big portions! 
 When it comes to their whiskies, I see some similarities here. The oak must be charred before putting the spirit to give big complex flavours, for instance. They like to bottle their whiskies at high alcohol strength to give each sip extra depth. 
 Very few countries can say that the history of the country itself is linked to the culture of distilling spirit. This makes distilling and USA intertwined in its very identity.  
 American Whiskey is indeed unique. Nowhere else in the world do you have a version of Bourbon, and whiskies made from rye is a very North American thing. 

 

 
Made in America
The history of American Whiskey can be traced to the beginning of the colonial period in what is now known as the United States. George Washington, the first President of the United States, was a distiller. He began producing American Rye Whiskey in 1797 and his recipe is still used today to distill whiskey at the original site in Virginia. 
 For centuries, American distillers have experimented with a range of grains such as corn, wheat, barley, and rye to create uniquely American Whiskeys that are cherished around the globe. Today, a global resurgence of cocktail culture and interest in premium and super-premium spirits have helped U.S. distillers export spirits to over 130 countries around the world. 
 
Types of American Whiskies 
 From mash bills to char levels, production can be a complex process, as far as American Whiskey is concerned.
 Grain
Many American Whiskeys use multiple types of grains which gives rise to the the mash bill, that is the whiskey’s recipe. American Whiskey can have 100% of one type of grain, or a combination of other grains. Corn provides creamy sweetness. Rye a  spicy/peppery flavor, while wheat gives a soft mellowness. Distillers will list their mash bill on the bottle to hint at the spirit’s flavor. 
 Yeast 
Each distillery uses a unique proprietary yeast strain to make their whiskey. 
These secret processes can either be sweet or sour. In the sweet mash process, fresh yeast is added to the mash for fermentation, while the sour mash process mixes leftover mash from previous distillation with new mash instead of yeast 
 Water 
Many US distilleries are located near natural water sources that they use in their whiskey distillation. Local reservoirs provide distilleries with water that is naturally filtered and rich in minerals. Water in states like Kentucky and Tennessee is naturally filtered through limestone rocks and completely iron-free. 
 Barrel 
Barrels provide the vibrant color and some of the flavor of American Whiskey. The barrels are first toasted, allowing the heat to pull the wood sugars to the surface which are charred. This transforms the surface sugars into dark caramel. Different degrees of charring may be preferred by specific distillers. 
  
In 1964, the American Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as “a distinctive product of the United States.” It is also recognized as a “distinctive product” of the U.S. by 44 countries. 
It must be distilled to no more than 80% or less than 40% alcohol by volume. Bourbon must be aged for some time in new, charred oak barrels and cannot include coloring, flavoring, or other spirits. 
Bourbon that has been aged for at least two years may be further designated as “straight. 
 Tennessee Whiskey is characterized by charcoal filtering called the “Lincoln County Process.” Like Bourbon, it is recognized as a “distinctive product” of the country. 
 In the “Lincoln County Process,” the whiskey is filtered through a column of sugar maple charcoal. Like Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey must be aged for some time in new, charred oak barrels and cannot include coloring, flavoring, or other spirits. Each distillery has its own technique in producing and filtering whiskey through sugar maple charcoal. 
 American Rye Whiskey largely disappeared after the 1921 resurgence over the past decade. 
  American Rye Whiskey, as with bourbon, must be aged for some time in new, charred oak barrels with no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits. American Rye Whiskey that has been aged for at least two years may be further designated as ‘straight’  as in Straight American Rye Whiskey. 
 Two styles of American Rye Whiskey blossomed during the colonial era: Pennsylvania or Monongahela-style, a full-bodied, spicy American Rye Whiskey, and Maryland-style rye, which was believed to be a mellower, sweeter American Rye Whiskey. Today, distillers can source grains from farms throughout the United States allowing them to create unique and innovative American Rye Whiskeys. 
 Over the past decade, the popularity of American Single Malt Whiskey has grown considerably among whiskey connoisseurs around the world. Definitions or qualifications have yet to be officially determined. 
 American Whiskeys are typically aged fewer years than Scotch and Irish Whiskies because the greater fluctuation of temperatures in the United States (hotter summers and colder winters) increases the interaction between the whiskey and the wood thus enhancing the ageing process. 
 
Wild Turkey 
In the early 1900’s the first distillery springs to life in Lawrenceburg on the banks of the Kentucky River. The Ripy Brothers began bottling on the very site where Wild Turkey’s current facility stands today. The Ripy Brothers distillery becomes the nursery from which Wild Turkey is born, setting the foundation for our proud bourbon tradition. The distillery changes hands and is renamed Anderson County Distillers. A fateful turkey hunt deep in the Kentucky woods introduces a new bourbon, so bold and unforgettable that it instantly gets its own name —Wild Turkey. One member of the hunting party, from the Austin Nichols family, loves the bourbon so much he forges the first agreement to sell it commercially. Wild Turkey Bourbon is trademarked, and the first bottle was sold by Austin Nichols Fine Wine and Spirits in 1942. 
Templeton Distillery 
Templeton Distillery is built on the shared experiences of our community. The roots of whiskey in our town can be traced back along family lines to the bootleggers of Prohibition. To this day, this rebellious and entrepreneurial mindset still holds true, where residents of our hometown unite together under a shared rallying cry of “A Strong Community Spirit.” A community that respects one another, that supports each other, and who comes together with a revived spirit. That was the town of Templeton, Iowa a century ago, and it’s the very same town today. We are following in the footsteps of our forefathers and crafting whiskey in their tradition. A whiskey that respects the past yet is inspired by the future. We call it Templeton. 
Maker’s Mark 

Maker’s Mark® began with one family’s quest to create a bourbon they enjoyed drinking and sharing with friends. As the world’s first premium bourbon, it changed the industry in 1953. Bill Samuels Sr., the engineer turned craftsman who elevated bourbon with his flavour vision. Margie Samuels created packaging that would honour her husband’s handmade bourbon. The shape of the bottle, the look of the label, the signature red wax and even the Maker’s Mark®’s name are all thanks to Margie. Margie is also credited for inventing bourbon tourism. Bill Samuels Jr. brought the brand from a Kentucky favourite to an American icon. His pioneering wood staves finishing set the course for Maker’s Mark innovation today. Rob Samuels has been making his mark through the land as an 8th-generation distiller. 
Jim Beam 

In 1740, the Boehm family came to the 13 colonies, determined to live the colonial dream. 48 years later, they moved to where Kentucky is now and changed their name to Beam. Hot summers, mild winters and a nearby limestone spring made their new home ideal for – you guessed it—growing corn. By the late 1700s, German, Scottish and Irish settlers were making rye whiskey in Western Pennsylvania. With government incentives to move west and grow corn, many moved to the Kentucky region. Among them was Jacob Beam who used his father’s whiskey recipe to distill corn into a new, sweeter kind of whiskey. And just like that, our bourbon was born. 
Basil Hayden 
Crafted in 1992 by Booker Noe as part of the Small Batch collection, Basil Hayden introduced a more subtle side of bourbon compared to its counterparts. This style of bourbon was inspired by 1792 whiskey pioneer Meredith Basil Hayden Sr., a rye farmer from Maryland who moved to Kentucky and began distilling. He chose to distil his bourbon with a higher percentage of rye, and Booker set out to create a similar high-rye mash bill that would offer the same refined, approachable taste profile. Today, this bourbon stands as a tribute to Meredith Basil Hayden Sr.’s high-rye mash bill ingenuity, as well as to Booker Noe, a true innovator who sought to welcome new drinkers into whiskey. 
Evan Williams 
Evan Williams was a natural-born leader, innovator, and entrepreneur. He worked in numerous trades as a businessman, politician, and most notably a whiskey distiller. In 1783, he founded Kentucky’s first commercial distillery on the banks of the Ohio River. Many years and barrels later, our master distillers are still producing Bourbon the right way, using the same time-honoured methods. 
Elijah Craig 

Reverend Elijah Craig was a Baptist preacher, an educator, and an entrepreneur who built the first paper and wool mills in Georgetown, Kentucky. But for all his industries, it was his gift as a distiller and an innovator that brought him his greatest acclaim. While we draw inspiration from parts of Elijah Craig’s story as a distiller, a critical component of this history is the enslaved people who made major contributions to Bourbon. Elijah Craig was an enslaver, relying upon enslaved people to run his distilling and broader business operations. Uncovering the identities and roles of these labourers, how they contributed to the birth of the Bourbon industry and the legacy their families left is a critical mission of our brand today. 
Jack Daniels 
The oldest registered distillery in the United States is home to the world’s best-selling individual whiskey brand. Jack Daniel’s, the best-selling individual whiskey brand in the world, was originally crafted by Jack Daniel himself. Jack Daniel’s premium Tennessee whiskey is still made using iron-free cave spring water and is charcoal-mellowed and matured at America’s oldest registered distillery, established in 1866 in Lynchburg, Tennessee. 
Woodford Reserve 

Inspired by Bourbon’s history. The art of making fine bourbon first took place on the site of the Woodford Reserve Distillery, a National Historic Landmark, in 1812. You get that sense of history. The history of bourbon is the history of Kentucky, is the history of the United States. 
Buffalo Trace 

In Kentucky, buffalo carved a pathway that was followed by America’s early pioneers. On the spot where the buffalo migration route crossed the Kentucky River, we’ve been making legendary bourbon whiskey for over 200 years. Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in America. During Prohibition, the distillery was even permitted to remain operational, to make whiskey for “medicinal purposes”. In tribute to the mighty buffalo and the rugged, independent spirit of the pioneers who followed them westward, we created Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Within the past decade, Buffalo Trace has won more awards than any other distillery in the world, including an unmatched seven “Distillery of the Year” titles. Still American family-owned and located in Franklin County, Kentucky, the distillery’s rich history includes such legendary distillers as E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp and Elmer T. Lee. The distillery sprawls impressively over 130 acres and is home to four centuries of architecture – all still fully operational. 
Sazerac Rye 
With almost 400 years of rich history, we have a storied past and an even brighter future. From the beginning, our evolution has been driven by several key components – an entrepreneurial spirit, a desire to grow and prosper, coupled with an enduring will to survive. Our business was rooted in the Cognac business in France, which in turn led to the creation and popularity of coffee houses and bars in New Orleans, the Sazerac Cocktail, and eventually, to the Sazerac Company, we are today. Since its origins in the Cognac region of western France, the Sazerac family name has elicited recognition and respect in the spirits industry. The namesake brand, Sazerac de Forge et Fils was the original spirit used in the Sazerac Cocktail and by the mid-19th century became a natural choice for the name of the original Sazerac coffee house. 

Nikhil Agarwal is the CEO of All Things Nice

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