As people came to the new world from so many places around the world they found a land with great potential but also great problems. It was a land that they needed to make home and tame and then go on to develop into the vast machine it is today. The land was good the crops came and small communities and isolated homesteads did what had been done in Ireland and Scotland and many other countries, they distilled. Distilling was not uncommon, in fact it was pretty standard. Those who were canny and wise saw the need to transport their goods, especially with the birth of the railroad. One family who saw this at an early stage was the Beam family. A family that not only gave birth to the mammoth Jim Beam whiskey but who played key roles in so many other distilleries.
The Americans had a range of distilling influences, the national spirit seemed to be rum and the people were a vast range of cultures and drinks. The land, however, called out to be used for cereals such as wheat, rye, and corn. American whiskey was born but like Ireland it was to experience obstacle in the form of temperance, civil war and world war.
America had something that neither Ireland nor Scotland had – American oak. Scotland had oak, and very good oak if you wanted oak trees. Scottish oak has a fine grain and lots of tannin as opposed to the American oak that has less tannin and an open grain that, when made into casks, allows the whiskey to breath and swap flavours with the cask such as that lovely vanilla oil. The Irish and the Sots had to buy second hand sherry casks at an increasing price whilst the Americans could make their own much cheaper. Then an American cooper’s union initiated legislation so that each cask could only be used once. One of the results of this was a steady supply of ex bourbon casks for the Scots and Irish at a cheaper price than the sherry casks.
For a whiskey to become Kentucky whiskey it has to be distilled in Kentucky. However, Bourbon can be made anywhere in America. Both have to meet the following along with restrictions on distillation and bottling strength.
It has to be made with between 51% and 79% corn. It is possible to vary from this but this does need to be stated such as ‘Rye’ whiskey or ‘Wheat’ whiskey
It has to be matured for at least 2 years to be called ‘straight’ and this has to be in new, charred white oak casks.
It can not have any other additives.
‘Sour mash’ refers to the practice of returning some of the fermented cereal into the next batch being made, this raises the acidity level.
To become a Tennessee whiskey it also has to undergo the ‘Lincoln County Process’ which involves the spirit being filtered through a layer of maple charcoal.
The taste of American whiskey varies depending on type and distillery and one can not generalise anymore than one can with Scotch. Having said this American whiskey tends to have a freshness in both nose and taste. This freshness is partly due to the young wood, the shorter maturation period and, of course, the choice of cereal. The taste is a sweet, vibrant and distinctive character that can linger on the palate.
America is not subject to the same regulations as EEC countries such as Scotland and as such it faces different restrictions but also different freedoms. Changes in these have recently enabled a vast increase in the number of micro distilleries bringing a vast range of characters into the whiskey world.