By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel
Most drinkers, regardless of their own personal tastes, would identify whiskey as the quintessential American spirit. Though it was not invented here—and it was pushed from the top of the best-seller’s list decades ago by vodka—there’s something distinctly American about whiskey. But whereas vodka is like a frontier, with virtually limitless new products and flavors (and no shortage of gimmicks) appearing almost daily, there’s something staid about whiskey—something permanent.
This might suggest that innovation isn’t welcomed in the whiskey industry, but from the new “white whiskeys” to single-grain distillations to experimental aging, whiskey is definitely in a period of expansion.
September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, so we should first toast to that noble spirit. Bourbon has traditionally been the province of Kentucky whiskey makers. Indeed, many people believe (falsely, as it happens) that bourbon made outside of Bourbon County, Kentucky, is as much of a fraud as Champagne made outside the Champagne region of France. Though the federal government has specific rules about what constitutes whiskey labeled bourbon, one thing it does not specify is where in the United States it must come from. So from the Texas Hill Country to points far and wide, distillers are changing people’s perceptions about what can be made where.
In the tiny Texas town of Hye, Garrison Brothers Distillery is producing a small-batch Texas bourbon that will hit the shelves in late 2010 or early 2011. Terroir is generally referred to when discussing wines and coffee, but with Texas-grown corn, the climactic effects of aging whiskey in Texas and, no doubt, the native spirit of its distillers, Garrison Brothers Texas Bourbon Whiskey promises to reveal a definite sense of place.
Waco, with its famous Baptist university and high church-to-citizen ratio, may seem an unlikely setting for innovative booze making, but that’s exactly what is going on at Balcones Distillery (Click here to read the story.). Owner and head distiller Chip Tate views the growth of the craft-distilling movement as an obvious extension of the movement toward artisanal, local foods. Tate currently has three products on the market, all of them innovative. Rumble, a spirit made entirely from Texas ingredients (Mission figs, wildflower honey and turbinado sugar), defies categorization, but is usually found in the rum section of the liquor store. Tate also makes two whiskeys: Baby Blue, a single-grain spirit made from Hopi blue corn specifically grown for the production of this whiskey, and True Blue, the cask-strength version of Baby Blue. Whereas most whiskeys are made from a blend of grains usually consisting of some combination of corn, wheat, barley and rye, Baby Blue and True Blue are both made entirely from Hopi blue corn.
The most striking thing people notice when drinking one of Balcones’s blue corn whiskeys is that they actually taste like corn. Tate explains that wine awareness in the United States started with varietal awareness—instead of ordering a “red,” drinkers began to learn about cabernet and then malbec, and so on, with varietals
becoming the building blocks of understanding. This applies to distilled spirits, too, as drinkers discover the subtle influences of certain grains, malts and woods. Tate has other products in mind that are sure to alter perceptions of the Texas spirits industry: an un-aged “white dog” (or in his case, “blue dog”) and a single malt.
Regardless of what comes out of the distillery, Tate promises that just as a farmers market puts you in touch with your food, craft distilleries will put you in touch with your whiskey.
Innovations in whiskey are not just limited to small-scale independent distillers. None other than Maker’s Mark—the venerable Kentucky bourbon house—recently released its first new product in decades. Maker’s 46 starts its life as the same mature bourbon that carries the Maker’s Mark label, but in the last few months of aging it undergoes a transformation known cryptically as “process 46,” in which specially aged, seared oak staves are inserted into the barrel. This imparts a distinctive spiciness and, bottled at 94 proof, Maker’s 46 is a different face of an old friend—a familiar but heartier expression of its mellower counterpart.
Whether you are just beginning to explore whiskey or are a long-time enthusiast, there’s never been a more exciting time for trying new whiskeys, as the options are seemingly endless. From the Unites States to Scotland to Japan, whiskey distillers are opening up, bending some rules and breaking others. New ideas are in abundance, and the future of this traditional spirit is wide open.
Whiskey or Whisky?
The word whiskey derives from the Gaelic uisge beatha meaning “water of life.” Traditionally, the distinction is that whiskey from Scotland—its birthplace—is whisky, and whiskey from neighboring Ireland is whiskey. In North America, Canadian producers spell it the Scottish way and American producers, with some exceptions, spell it the Irish way.
Two major types of Scotch whisky are consumed in the United States: single-malt whisky, made from malted barley at a single distillery (think Glenlivet or Macallan), and blended Scotch whisky, a blend of grain whisky made from mostly wheat, and single-malt whiskies sourced from multiple distilleries (e.g., Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker). Blended Scotch accounts for the vast majority of Scotch sales in the United States, but single-malts are generally the choice of connoisseurs.
Whiskey makers in the United States have their own vocabulary to describe the major American styles: Bourbon and Tennessee are the most common, and are very similar with a few minor distinctions. Both Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey consist of at least 51 percent corn, though the percentage may be much more than that, and are rounded out by wheat or rye or both. They are both “sour mash” whiskeys, which means that a small amount of previously distilled mash has been added to the fermentation process. Both are required by law to be aged in new charred oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey must be made in Tennessee, and before barreling it undergoes a final filtration through charcoal, which mellows the spirit. Rye whiskey, once the preferred style of American whiskey, is making a comeback with the cocktail revolution of the last decade. Rye production is similar to that of other American whiskeys, though the whiskey consists of at least 51 percent rye, and has a drier, spicier character than corn-based American whiskeys.