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American Whiskey On The Rise by Timothy Buzinski & Mei Ying So, owners of The Artisan Wine Shop, Beacon

Looking to thaw this icy Hudson Valley winter? Try this recipe: in a saucepan, mix a bit of gunpowder with some whiskey, and set it ablaze. In the early days of American distillation, this process was not used to spice up a quiet evening at home; it was how distillers would discern the proof of their product based on the qualities of the flame that ensued. With an integral role in shaping this country’s history, American whiskey has come a long way since moonshine was forced down with a shudder. Single malt Scotch whisky has dominated the category of fine whiskey in the last few decades, but with renewed interest in local and regional products, American distillers are gaining more and more attention for producing artisanal spirits that offer distinction as well as pleasure.

Whiskey Labeling

Whiskey labeling is regulated by law according to type(s) of grains, percentages of these specific grains, aging requirements and levels of proof. Common whiskeys are bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, rye whiskey, corn whiskey and straight whiskey. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, is made of at least 51% corn and is aged in new charred oak barrels, while Tennessee whiskey must be produced in Tennessee with the same requirements as bourbon but with the added step of being filtered through sugar maple charcoal. Right now, there are only two producers of Tennessee whiskey: Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. The charcoal filtration is meant to create a more mellow whiskey. Rye whiskey has the same regulations as bourbon, except that it must be at least 51% rye. The word “straight” can be added to any of the aforementioned labels (for example, straight rye whiskey) with the added requirement that aging in charred oak barrels be two years or more. Corn whiskey must be at least 80% corn and must be stored in oak, but never charred oak. Straight whiskey can be a blend of any types of grains, but must contain less than 51% of any one of them.

Bourbon and Rye, the Major Players

The success of single malt Scotches has forced American distillers to play catch-up, and whiskey producers across the country have taken up the challenge with gusto. Artisanal bourbons have been widespread for over a decade now, and most restaurants and retail stores offer a good selection of small batch bourbon. Bourbon is how most people discover that there is quality whiskey beyond single malt Scotches; even so, many occasional whiskey drinkers still think of bourbons as second-class whiskeys, alternatively as rough-and-tumble aged moonshine or simple spirits with single-note sweetness. But the choices available these days are numerous and fine, from smaller brands such as Black Maple Hill to ones attached to larger corporations, such as Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve.

Although bourbons make up the bulk of the American whiskey market, rye whiskeys have recently been the hot “new” thing. Small batch labels such as Michter’s and Old Potrero (from San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling) have renewed interest in this category. A focus on traditional recipes and paying homage to the origins of American distilling has made rye trendy again. The Manhattan and the Sazerac are two historic cocktails originally made with rye. It is also a mix of romance and a return to authenticity at work here; rye whiskey evokes the colonial and frontier life, when rye was the grain of choice for early distillers. There are a number of theories as to why rye was shunted to the wayside in favor of corn and bourbon. Some point to the Whiskey Rebellion, when distillers wanting to avoid taxation moved from the east, where rye was plentiful, to places like Kentucky, where corn reigned. Others talk about Prohibition: since whiskeys have to be aged, there was a dearth of American whiskeys available at the time of the repeal. Canadian whiskeys were imported and the American palate became used to these softer and sweeter profiles, segueing perfectly to a national preference for bourbon versus the spicy, dynamic and edgy character of rye. It is only logical that rye has made a comeback, as American tastes have become more and more sophisticated.


In the spirit of microbreweries, it is the small, regionally minded distiller that seems to embody the new direction of American whiskeys today. The Hudson Valley’s own Tuthilltown Spirits, which operates in a converted gristmill on the National Register of Historic Places, is one example. The introduction of its Hudson Baby Bourbon jumpstarted a phenomenon, followed by their Four Grain Bourbon, Single Malt Whiskey, River Rum and Rye Whiskeys. Batch variation and distinctiveness are part of the charm of these local whiskeys and rum.

Across the country, microdistilleries are creating whiskeys that don’t fall into the well-known categories of bourbon and rye. For example, Tuthilltown’s single malt whiskey is made from malted barley but is not peat-fired, thus distinguishing itself from the smoky peaty-ness of single malts from Scotland. It might be useful to think of these whiskeys the way you would wine. Single malt Scotch and bourbon are established categories with many producers, so their flavors are familiar to many. In much the same way, many people identify with the taste profiles of California chardonnay or Australian shiraz. Think of these new American whiskeys as you would regional grapes that you’ve never heard of, for instance, prieto picudo from Spain or Italy’s lacrima grape. These wines are not “like” any other, they are not like merlot or cabernet sauvignon, but are distinct with their own characteristics. Their similarity to merlot ends at “red wine.” In the same way, taking that first sip of Tuthilltown’s single malt whiskey may be a new taste sensation that is hard to categorize. Take the second sip, and you’ll come to appreciate its unique characteristics, but you’ll also be able to reference taste memories: here is the malt, here is the smoke, here is the caramel, here is the spice, here is the oak. By the third sip, you’ll think, “This is just like Tuthilltown single malt whiskey, but it is as smooth as x, with complexity you’d find in y.” It’s time to join the new whiskey revolution.

Whiskey’s Historical Highlights

In 1791—shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War—the newly formed Federal government placed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help pay for war debts and ensure steady federal revenues. The tax burden was on the distiller, and smaller distillers were often also farmers who used whiskey as currency since it was easier to transport than grain. Impassioned and violent protests turned into the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, but there were also those who simply refused to pay the tax in regions further away, such as Kentucky, where tax collectors were hard to recruit. The effects of the Whiskey Rebellion and the subsequent military response set precedence for many issues, such as the federal government’s right to assert its power over the states. Whiskey also changed the early landscape of the country as distillers moved further west, out of the reach of the federal government. To hide from tax collectors, bootlegging became an industry of its own, reaching a crescendo during Prohibition. At that time, bootleggers would supercharge cars and hire skilled drivers to evade and outrun law enforcement. The logical evolution: drivers would race these cars and the races became spectacles; whiskey is responsible for today’s NASCAR.

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