Deep Dive: The Many Types of American Whiskey

With sales of American whiskey increasing by more than 41% between 2005 and 2018, there’s no doubt about the fact that Australian consumers are growing ever more interested in the spirit category.

If you’re all too familiar with Scotch whisky, however, taking your first steps into the wide and wonderful world of American whiskey can prove to be quite a daunting experience.

Whilst there are definitely a number of critical differences between them, not the least of which is their use of the letter “e”, both are, at the end of the day, distilled grain spirits that spend a minimum amount of time ageing in oak before being bottled and sold to consumers.

The fact that they are, at their core, very similar in nature, it makes it possible to find a bottle of American whiskey that would appeal to even the most ardent of Scotch whisky advocates.

In this article, we delve deep into what the various styles of American whiskey are, including how they’re produced and how they typically taste, as well as provide you with information about what are some of the top brands and bottles to look out for when looking to start your American whiskey tasting journey.

For those who wish to develop a quick understanding first, we recommend that you visit our American Whiskey Complete Guide For Beginners, which gives you a perfect summary, with graphics, of many of the broader concepts required to start drinking this spirit.

If you want to develop a more in-depth understanding, however, then keep reading to explore what makes American whiskey so unique.

The Big Two: Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskey

Two Glasses of American Whiskey
Two Glasses of American Whiskey

Somewhat similar to how the big four banks occupy most of the space within the banking sector here in Australia, the American whiskey industry is dominated by just two main styles, being bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

Collectively, these two styles hold most of the shelf space allocated to American whiskey in Australian bottle shops, with it being very difficult to find more unique products, such as corn whiskey, anywhere else except online.

If you’ve ever been to America, however, then you’ll know that there’s certainly much more to the category than popular bottles by brands such as Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam, even though they control most of the market share elsewhere overseas and particularly here in Australia.

Considering the important place that these two styles hold in the market, however, it’s obvious that any investigation into American whiskey should start with them.

Bearing that in mind, let’s start with bourbon.

Bourbon Whiskey

Glass of Bourbon Whiskey Over Ice
Glass of Bourbon Whiskey Over Ice

Arguably one of the most recognisable products to ever come out of the United States, bourbon whiskey is exported and has found incredible success all over the world, with this perhaps being most apparent in Australia.

When looking to understand what makes it so special, it’s vital to begin with the most important and basic rules applied to its production.

Similar to Scotch whisky, bourbon is a distilled grain spirit that has seen some amount of time spent ageing in oak barrels before it is then bottled and shipped.

Where bourbon is firstly unique, however, is that it is made with a mash, which is another term for blend or mixture, of at least 51% corn alongside other grains, with whatever other grains used in the remaining mixture being completely up to the distiller to decide upon.

In addition to this rule, bourbon whiskey must only be made by a distillery in America (not just the State of Kentucky like many think), it has to be aged in new charred (burnt) oak barrels, and it cannot contain any additives, except water, prior to being bottled.

General rules aside, let’s go into a step-by-step process of how it’s produced.

Step One - Grain Selection: In this first step, the distiller chooses the proportion of grains that they will use in order to make up what is called the mash bill. Even though American law only requires the use of at least 51% corn, most producers use substantially higher amounts of the grain, typically around the 60-80% mark. The rest of the mash bill is usually then made up of much smaller amounts of malted barley, rye, and wheat grains.

Step Two - Grains Cooked: After the mash bill is finalised, the distiller must then cook or roast their desired selection of grains for varying amounts of time depending upon each type. Malted barley only needs to be cooked for a short amount of time before it is ready to be used, rye for a medium amount of time, and corn for an extended period of time.

Step Three - Fermentation: Once the grains have been cooked, they’re cooled down before being placed into vats or tanks alongside pure spring water and yeast. During this step, the yeast strains eat the sugars contained in the grains, producing alcohol and carbonation. This process is often stopped once the mixture reaches around 9% alcohol.

Step Four - Distillation: The next step involves placing the alcoholic beer-like substance into column stills, where it is heated at high temperatures, causing the alcohol to evaporate and rise to the top, allowing it to be separated from the water.

Step Five - Oak Ageing: After distillation, the clear white unaged spirit is placed into American oak barrels that have never been used before, with the insides having been charred or burnt on the inside, a distinction that is unique in the world of dark spirits.

Step Six - Bottling: The final step before bourbon is ready to be sold, the barrels are opened up and the liquid inside is filtered to remove any solids, after which the liquid is cut with water and finally placed into bottles.

Having explained the production process, let’s now move on to what impact this unique process has on the flavours that you can expect to find in a typical bourbon.

Ask anyone who’s tried a bottle of bourbon and, depending upon their experience, they may mention flavours and sensations of spice, heat, honeyed sweetness, or syrupy richness, all of which perfectly describe some of the typical flavours present in many bottles.

When looking for a general characterisation of the basic flavour profile, the most important factor of production that separates bourbon and say Scotch is the American distillers predominant use of corn rather than malted barley.

Utilising corn, which is further mentioned in our complete guide, imparts a somewhat syrupy-like sweet texture and taste to a whiskey, with common flavours imparted including honey, popped corn, and butter.

Where there is a significant degree of dry, bitter, or hot spice character or flavour, this indicates that the distiller has utilised a rather high percentage of rye grain in their mash bill, which is primarily responsible for producing these types of flavour in a whiskey.

Depending upon whether you like a spicy, dry, warming, and crisp flavoured whiskey with an intense flavour profile or one that is softer, sweeter, and generally a bit smoother, it will change which brand or bottle of bourbon you should choose.

Bearing this in mind, here are two whiskeys that we recommend that fit into these two categories, for those looking to venture into tasting bourbon in Australia, otherwise be sure to check out the extensive selection available online.

Recommended Bottles of Bourbon Whiskey
Recommended Bottles of Bourbon Whiskey

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee Whiskey Ageing in Oak Barrels
Tennessee Whiskey Ageing in Oak Barrels

Say ‘Tennessee whiskey’ and the first thing that will probably jump to mind is an image of a bottle of black and white labelled Jack Daniels Old No. 7, which is perhaps the most quintessential type of dark spirit sold anywhere.

Whilst it’s true that the famous brand, and its growing roster of products, is heavily responsible for pushing Tennessee, and American whiskey in general, onto the international stage, it’s not the only distillery now operating in that American state.

Before we delve into what some of these other brands are, let’s first nail down the rules required to be followed in order for a distiller to call their product a Tennessee whiskey.

Firstly, though it is incredibly similar to bourbon whiskey, which is also made in America, Tennessee whiskey, as the name suggests, can only be produced in one American state, namely Tennessee.

On top of this, Tennessee whiskey distillers must also complete one extra unique step during production, called the Lincoln County Process.

This step, by far the most important distinguishing feature of these whiskeys, is where the freshly distilled and as yet unaged white spirit is filtered or soaked through maple charcoal pieces just prior to being placed into new charred American oak barrels for ageing.

Though this is seemingly a rather simple extra rule, it is actually responsible for giving Tennessee whiskey its distinctly more mellow, sweeter, and somewhat smokier taste, which is by far its most valuable selling point.

Other than the addition of these two extra rules, however, the step-by-step process for making Tennessee whiskey is exactly the same as it is for making bourbon whiskey outlined above.

Now back to the brands operating within this space and what many bottles of Tennessee whiskey typically taste like.

Besides Jack Daniels, the most important mentions are George Dickel, Corsair, Benjamin Prichard, and Nelson’s Green Brier.

For those living in America, it is also possible to get your hands on products made by smaller craft distilleries, which is a growing international phenomenon as the world of spirits and liquor in general moves into a more craft-focused direction.

That being said, we in Australia will find it tough to locate these products, even online, as the dark spirits market here is largely dominated by Scotch whisky and bourbon whiskey.

Flavourwise, bottles of Tennessee whiskey match closely with their bourbon relatives in that their flavour profile is heavily influenced by the grains used in the mash bill, although they usually feature more mellow or sweet notes of maple and smoke.

See below for two bottles of Tennessee whiskey that we recommend that you start with when seeking to begin your tasting journey here, for those living in Australia, or view the curated range of whiskeys available online here.

Recommended Bottles of Tennessee Whiskey
Recommended Bottles of Tennessee Whiskey

Next Steps: Rye, Wheat, and Corn Whiskey

Handful of Corn Grains
Handful of Corn Grains

Having covered the two most important styles of American whiskey, it’s now time to shine the light on some of the lesser-known but equally as important styles that also exist.

Looking at the names of each of these other styles, rye, wheat, and corn whiskey, they will tell you pretty much all that you need to know in order to understand what makes them unique as the production process involved in all of them is basically the same as applied in the making of bourbon whiskey detailed above.

As you’d expect from their names, rye whiskey must use 51% rye grain in its mash bill and wheat whiskey must use 51% wheat grain in its mash bill.

Corn whiskey, however, is special in that there is no mandatory ageing requirement and, if it is aged, it must be aged in un-charred or previously used oak barrels, ensuring it does not actually become a regular bourbon whiskey.

When it comes to their respective flavour profiles, the type of grain used is by far the most important indicator of what sort of tastes you can expect to find in the bottle.

Rye whiskey is known for its distinctly spicy, dry, and often bitter flavour profile that has an intense degree of warmth or heat about it, making it more of an acquired taste.

Wheat whiskey, on the other hand, often has flavours described as being slightly more fruity, with common mentions including stewed apples and fresh bananas.

Finally, corn whiskey is known for being fairly similar to traditional bourbon whiskey in its taste, particularly when it is aged before bottling, although much lighter in both sweetness and body when bottled unaged.

All of these styles are far less common and incredibly difficult to get your hands on, particularly in Australia, making them a bit of a niche and definitely only for the most dedicated of whiskey drinkers to pursue.

For some of our recommended picks, see our graphic below, which highlights some of the bottles of these available in Australia, or consider the curated range of whiskeys available online here.

Recommended Bottles of Other American Whiskey
Recommended Bottles of Other American Whiskey