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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 - From: Kentucky. Cost: $10 - Another in the small batch portfolio of Jim Beem, this one has a high rye content, with pepper, rye, and honeysuckle on the nose. Palate is dry and easy with light notes of brown sugar and leather. Smooth, quick finish with honey and some warmth.

Belle Meade - From: Tennessee. Cost: $10 - Charlie and Andy Nelson discovered the site of their great-great-great grandfather's distillery during a family trip and decided to start up the family business again. The bourbon is made in very small batches, only 4 barrels each, and has a high rye content, based on the original family recipe. The horses on the label are a tribute to the Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. Balanced and smooth, caramel corn sweetness, orange, vanilla and just the right touch of leather. The percentage of rye makes for a spicy finish, with lots of allspice, pinecone and black pepper.

Corbin Cash Merced Rye - From: Atwater, CA. Cost: $10 - Corbin Cash delivers a deliciously spicy whiskey with their Merced Rye. With a 100% rye mash bill, that's not surprising. That spice is very nicely balanced by sweet notes of butterscotch and vanilla, with secondary hints of dark chocolate and stone fruit. It's hard to know if the Merced rye varietal is what sets this whiskey apart, but it's a quality spirit; rounded enough for sipping but with an assertiveness to show well in cocktails.

Four Roses Small Batch - From: Kentucky. Cost: $10 - Four Roses is consistently one of the best whiskeys around for the price.This one is a is a straight bourbon made from 4 of the 10 recipes that Four Roses uses. They use an equal measure of two mash bills: (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% barley and 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% barley). They also use yeast strains which highlight both a light and spicy profile along with a rich and fruity one. Toffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, pit fruits and oak on the nose. Velvety mouth-feel along with raspberries, mild honey and cinnamon. The finish is moderate with more honey, cinnamon and vanilla.

Knob Creek - From: Kentucky. Cost: $10 - Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon is part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon Collection along with Basil Hayden, Booker's, and Baker's. This Kentucky straight bourbon is bottled at 100 proof and is a go-to for people who like it. Complex nose has oak, orange, butter, corn, burnt sugar, leather and hints of vanilla. On the tongue, pepper, corn, caramel and oak with some of that 100 proof heat on the finish.


Woodford Reserve - From: Kentucky. Cost: $10 - Nose runs the gamut of vanilla, sweet corn, orange, and oak. Palate begins with strong notes of oak-y almost Old English furniture polish smell then follows with charred orange, brown sugar and dried fruits. The finish is long and brings back some of that smell of varnish.

George Dickel Barrel Select - From: Tennessee. Cost: $11 - One of the hidden gems on our list and an absolute steal at $11/pour, this whiskey is a small batch Tennessee whisky that comes from ten different barrels, aged 10-12 years. Get ready for oak, cocoa, and a little banana. Taste is sweet but not overpowering, nicely balanced by a warm rye spice. You'll get the perfect amount of char (goes perfect with a steak) then cherry, and vanilla. Dry with a nice, warm finish characterized by caramel and juicy tropical fruit. For the price, the very definition of an exceptional "go to" whisky.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select - From: Tennessee. Cost: $11 - First introduced in 1997, Single Barrel Select is just that--selected single barrels of Jack Daniel's bottled at 94 proof. Notes of oak, honey, and cinnamon. Palate continues with more woody aromas but also includes the classic banana note typical in Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 along with rich vanilla. The finish is long and spiced with pink peppercorn standing out.

Jefferson’s Reserve - From: Kentucky. Cost: $11 - One of our favorites for classic cocktails, this one has popcorn, fruit, and honey suckle plus acai berry, mint, basil and a nice subtle finish. Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon is made from four different bourbons all with different ages.

Sonoma No. 2 - From: Sonoma, CA Cost: $11 - Berry jam, maple syrup, and grape nuts are the first things, then light barbecue smoke. Cinnamon, allspice, clove and sandalwood follow the burn into the finish. Mash bill of yellow corn, un-malted rye and cherrywood-smoked barley. Double-distilled in alembic stills by direct flame, which requires a very watchful eye.

Booker’s - From: Kentucky. Cost: $12 - If you're not yet at the level of intoxication you'd like to be, Booker's will take you there. This small batch production from the master distiller at Jim Beam is America's favorite barrel-strength whiskey and was first given out to friends as a gift by Booker Noe, before being made available to the public in 1992. Bottled at 120-130 proof you'll want to add a little ice or water to get the most out of it. Notes of oak, leather, and hints of fruits with a pleasant burn that gives way to more leather, oak, vanilla, and spice. Very long finish, with a little cherry that feels like breathing fire, in a good way.

High West Campfire - From: Park City, UT. Cost: $12 - High West does not distill their own spirits, but they do an incredible job aging what other people make (in a really nice setting too). This one is a blend of bourbon and rye distilled at Indiana's MGP distillery as well as a peated, blended malt scotch whisky. A very unique product, notes include dried peaches, Heath Bar, and peat initially with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, leather and a dry finish.

Old Potrero - From: San Francisco, CA. Cost: $13 - Made originally by Anchor Distilling (the same people behind Anchor Steam beer), the beer company has since been sold and the distillery renamed Hotaling & Co. This is actually an American Single Malt, but it's made from 100% malted rye - not barley. Notes of coriander and oregano, and oak sap. Have it on the rocks or with a splash of water to get the rich texture/mouth-feel from the malted barley.

WhistlePig 10 Year Rye - From: Shoreham, CT. Cost: $16 - A beautiful amber gold in color you'll get a nose of honey and burnt caramel. Vanilla/caramel initially with a big blast of rye spice behind it. A little tangerine, and then allspice and cardamom on the finish. A fairly easy-drinking dram for a 100% rye, 100-proof whiskey. (That's what the 100/100 means on the label.)