top of page

Whiskey 101 - Part 2: An entry level guide to American Whiskey...

With the state of affairs, we'd wager that you could probably use a drink, or three. Just be sure to do so responsibly - which for most of the world currently means, by yourself.

We are in fairly uncharted territory politically, economically, and socially. So, we thought we'd take a moment to sail through the beautifully brown waters of American whiskey - which is territory we know pretty well.

You've probably heard this old chestnut before: "All Bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon." While that is quite true, what does it really mean? In this blog post, we're going to tell you. Also, in case you missed our first installment (which was an entry-level guide to Scotch) give it a look, because in this installment we're going to be sticking with the brown liquor from this side of the pond.

First off, bourbon IS whiskey. However, it is whiskey that has to follow a certain set of rules in order to be legally referred to as "bourbon."

These are the rules that a whiskey has to follow in order for it to say "bourbon" on the label:

1. It must be distilled from a mash of at least 51% corn

2. It must be aged in charred new American oak barrels

3. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)

4. It should not be barreled at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume - although not everyone adheres to this rule)

5. It must be aged for a period of at least four years

6. If it is not aged four years, the number of years it was aged must be indicated on the label

7. If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle

8. Only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon

The word "bourbon" comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it was first made and bourbon is special primarily because it is the only spirit that was first made in the United States. However, unlike Champagne which absolutely does need to come from the Champagne region in France in order to be legally referred to as such, whiskey does not have to be from Bourbon County, or even from Kentucky to be called bourbon. (That said, a lot of it is.)

Now that we've established what a bourbon is, there are also a lot of award-winning American whiskeys that are not bourbons including the 2013 Icons of Whisky "Craft Distiller of the Year" Corsair's flagship product Triple Smoke, and the multiple medal-winning Texas Single Malt from Balcones. One well-known brand among whiskey connoisseurs, WhistlePig, doesn't even make a bourbon. All of WhistlePig's offerings use rye as the primary grain in their spirits. Some are even 100% rye, and their "Farmstock" series is actually an incredible "farm-to-glass" phenomenon where they grow the rye on the grounds of the farm/distillery as well as (sustainably) cutting down trees on their property from which they make the aging barrels.

The WhistlePig portfolio does not have a single bourbon in it, but prices range from approximately $55 per bottle for their "Piggy Back" to nearly $500 for their newest edition of "The Boss Hog." Here at The Firehouse, we carry their 10-year-aged rye whiskey for $16 per pour, making it the most expensive American whiskey we carry. You can see all of their current products on their website right here.

As mentioned in our previous blog entry about Scotch, the primary (and often only) grain used in the whisk(e)y over there, is malted barley. Here in the USA we're not nearly so monogamous with our whiskey ingredients. We've already mentioned corn and rye, and in addition to those two ingredients it is also common to see malted barley and/or wheat in American whiskey. Wheated whiskeys are fairly rare, but Maker's Mark is one, as are the exalted Van Winkle products. While no one will say how much wheat they use in the Van Winkle lines, it is generally speculated that it is between 16-18%. Below is a visualization of what Wild Turkey uses for their mash, and here on Modern Thirst you can find a large list of whiskeys - many showing their makeup, the producer, the char level, and the proof at which they enter the barrel for aging.

In closing, we'll run you through some tasting notes on the American whiskeys we keep on hand here at The Firehouse, sorted by price from lowest to highest.

George Dickel No. 12 - From: Tennessee. Cost: $8 - A simple, smooth sour mash made from 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley. This 90 proof offering has notes of oak and vanilla, spice and leather. Great for cocktails like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned.

George Dickel Rye - From: Tennessee. Cost: $8 - Notably "spicier" than the No. 12, due to its mashbill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley. Matured in barrels with a #4 char and heads with a #2 char, the rye is "charcoal mellowed." Also 90 proof, herbaceous notes of eucalyptus, spearmint, dill, clove and white pepper jump out followed by hazelnut + dried berries.

Jack Daniel’s - From: Tennessee. Cost: $8 - You probably drank too much of this one night and may still regret it, but it's one of the most popular whiskeys in America for a reason. With a mashbill of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye, the tradition started by Jack himself is still going strong. Limestone-filtered water and a starter mash (sour mash) from previous batches is added for fermentation to allow for consistency. The new whiskey is also charcoal-mellowed through 10 feet of maple charcoal prior to aging. Aged at least four years in new, charred American oak barrels which the distillery makes itself. Hints of banana, vanilla, yeast and a strong corn profile. Finish has some heat even at 80 proof.

Maker’s Mark - From: Kentucky. Cost: $8 - One of the most recognizable bottles around with its unique shape and red wax seal, Maker's Mark is a wheated bourbon made from 70% locally-grown corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. It is aged in char #3 new American oak barrels for 6-7 years and bottled at 90 proof. Notes of vanilla and crème brûlée, with a touch of spicy oak and a dose of spearmint, give way to wheat bread, and a little bitterness like dark chocolate, rounded out by tannic oak towards the back.

Wild Turkey 101 - From: Kentucky. Cost: $8 - This one certainly brings the heat. The 101 in the name is the proof at which it's bottled. But conversely, Wild turkey is actually distilled and barreled at a lower proof and then only mellowed slightly with water for bottling. Your best bet is to employ the "Kentucky Chew" (see below and go to the one-minute mark) to get the flavors of toasted wood, caramel, vanilla, and rich chocolate maltiness out of this whiskey.

Buffalo Trace - From: Kentucky. Cost: $9 - Buffalo Trace has recently purchased many of the greatest bourbon brands in the nation including Blanton's and Pappy Van Winkle. Their distillery is one of the oldest in the nation and this, their original offering, is a solid one for the price. Sweet aroma with vanilla, Heath bars and barrel spice. Palate is very sweet with a mixture of corn, brown sugar, and tobacco. The finish is quick, sweet and full of corn.

Bulleit Rye - From: Kentucky. Cost: $9 - Mint and rye spice both jump out on the nose with this 95% rye offering from the self-proclaimed purveyors of "frontier whiskey." Cedar, pine needles, and vanilla make this a tasty "go to" when ordering a sipper on the rocks. Baking spices on the palate plus canned pumpkin, burnt toast, coconut, oak sap, and Tootsie Roll. A moderate length finish shows astringent oak, medicinal-minty notes and plenty more spicy rye.

Bulleit Bourbon - From: Kentucky. Cost: $9 - Very corn forward with a mash bill of 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley you'll get the corn, vanilla, and cinnamon on the nose. Taste is rye spice with burnt sugar and tobacco. Medium finish with cinnamon and rye on the tongue and the breath.

Lost Republic Rye - From: Healdsburg, CA. Cost: $9 - With the same mash bill as Bulleit Rye, this one has more cherries, tobacco and lemon zest. Sweet and quite spicy (it's only aged 2-3 years), you'll get green apple, raspberries, toffee, cloves and ginger on the palate with a strong finish that will leave you with some vanilla. Sip straight or mix an intriguing cocktail like a Manhattan or Old Fashion.

Basil Hayden’s</