From young liquids, to experimental malting techniques, a renaissance of heritage grains, and new centres of production, a diverse wave of makers are abandoning the established norms of American whiskey, on a quest to create liquids that stand on their own.
Whiskey has rules. Lots of rules. Lots of different rules depending on where you make it. Such tight regulation has long kept quality high, setting out standards for makers to meet, and for consumers to expect. Bourbon for example, as we know has to have a mash of 51%-80% corn, and be aged in new, charred white-oak barrels to carry the lucrative name. Rye, Corn and Tennessee whiskey have similar specific stipulations. And so it was.
Yet we’re entering excitingly uncharted waters. The remit of what an American whiskey is or can be, is changing as new producers experiment with an ever more diverse array of ingredients, styles, malting techniques, climates for aging in, delivering a raft of genuinely new taste profiles.
A shift to subtlety
Move over white dog and take a step back, heavily wooded whiskies. Within existing styles parameters, more nuanced, delicate liquids, with compelling stories are now emerging as makers play with heritage grains, hyper-local ingredients, and new producing regions.
Jeptha Creed, a mother and daughter team from Kentucky, uniquely makes bourbon from heritage corn Bloody Butcher, giving it a red hue and an added nutty sweetness. Grown on the distillery’s land, it’s a first for US whiskey, and delivers a genuinely distinctive taste profile.
New York state’s McKenzie makes a pot still whiskey made unusually with oats, alongside malted and unmalted barley. Oats, which add a creamy, full mouthfeel, are having a revival, used too by distillers such as Utah’s High West in its limited run white oat whiskey.
And Nevada’s – turns out making whiskey in the desert is now a thing – Frey Ranch describes itself as farmers first, distillers second. Its 100% farm-to-glass whiskies are all malted, distilled, matured and bottled on site. Whereas other distillers experiment with cask finishes for flavour variation, Frey grows all its own grains, and so leads its experimentation from the mash bill up.
American single malt on the rise
When it comes to emerging styles, American single malts are on the rise, with currently over 200 producers and counting. It’s growing so much so that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is currently working to define them.
So far, their definition is just a proposal. It outlines that similar to Scotch, the liquid has to come from one distillery, and use 100% malted barley. But unlike Scotch, it would not have to be pot distilled, aged for at least three years, nor beyond oak, have a particular cask type assigned to it.
With a lot more freedom than Scotch producers, US malt makers are imbuing their products with a unique sense of place. For Seattle’s Westland distillery, that means using local brewer’s yeast – an increasingly common practice in line with a trend of breweries switching to whiskey production – instead of distiller’s yeast, local barley and barrels made from a local oak species.
Another Seattle producer, Copperworks, has similar links to brewing. Its twice-distilled whiskies are made from un-hopped craft beer, itself made from local barley. Though aging varies by batch, Copperworks promises no less than 32 months. And that’s a key point.
Innovation through the ages
With such a diverse and extreme array of geography and climates, that affect liquid maturation differently, the range of flavours that US producers can produce seems both limitless, and as yet, relatively unexplored. Though what goes into the barrel is undoubtedly important, one area where producers have a little freedom to experiment – and are doing so – is with the length of time it should sit in wood.
Whiskey Del Bac in Arizona is created in a hot – and sometimes extremely cold – climate, resulting in accelerating aging. So much so that its products are generally aged for little more than a year in unseasoned casks, because the brand has found that’s when it tastes best. Similarly keen to express a sense of place, it uses local mesquite to smoke the barley for its Classic American Single Malt, which is then used as mesquite charcoal to filter its rye.
Producers such as Whiskey Del Bac are most interesting for their divergence from both Scotch and indeed, established US whiskey norms. With a wave of innovative producers fast emerging, who are not afraid to break the rules and approach whiskey from a flavour-first perspective, the possibility for even more new liquids seems guaranteed. There’s exciting things happening in American whiskey, with products emerging that are as varied as the American landscape itself. Watch this space.
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