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Whisk(e)y in the USA

words and photos by Hans Offringa, 09/06

Hans Offringa is a well known Dutch author and whisky expert. He has written and translated eight books on whisky including The Road to Craigellachie, three novels and four historical books. With his American wife Becky he gives whisky tastings and presentations in Europe and the US. Together they write articles about whisky for several magazines. You can read more about Hans and Becky at

Part I: Bourbon, Scotch and Whisk(e)y?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature on the growing interest in Scotch Single Malts in the US, which spread over three full colour pages. The Distilled Spirits Council in Washington was quoted as saying that in 2003 wholesalers sold a total of $223 million worth of whisky, but in 2004 it had grown to $266 million - a 20 per cent growth. Predictions for 2005 showed further growth was to be expected.

But much as north Americans clearly love their Scotch, this feature for is concerned with the USA's own product: whiskey with a "e".

Whiskey or Bourbon?

If you ask for a whisk(e)y in the US, you almost automatically get a blended Scotch. The bartender assumes you will ask for a Bourbon if your preference is American whiskey.

So where does the word "Bourbon" originate? Remarkably, not from the US, but from Europe; France to be precise. As a 'thank you' for helping the Americans free themselves from the British yoke in the Revolutionary War (1776-1791), many villages, towns and counties were given French names. Bourbon County refers to the name of the French Royal Family that was in power during those days.

American whiskey is made from a blend of grains, following a specific recipe. Every distillery wrote it down in a so-called 'mash bill.' Bourbon is often wrongly used as the generic word for American whiskey. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, though almost all of it is made in Kentucky. Elijah Craig (1772) is considered the 'inventor' of Bourbon and is said to have been the first to apply charring to the inside of a barrel, giving Bourbon its trademark sweet taste.

Evan Williams (established in1890) is thought to be the first whiskey made by a commercial distillery in the US, and a Bourbon by this name still is produced by Heaven Hill, in Louisville and Bardstown in Kentucky.

Some of American whiskey's biggest names come from the state of Kentucky, also famous for its racing horses: Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Maker's Mark, and Jim Beam are just a few.

The whiskeys being made in Tennessee are not allowed to be called Bourbon, since they are filtered through a thick layer of sugar maple charcoal before maturation in oak barrels. They are therefore called 'Tennessee whiskey.'

   The best known is Jack Daniel's, also labelled 'sour mash' whiskey, referring to the habit of adding residue from a previous batch into the new one. However, that is done with almost every Bourbon, too, and is not specific to Jack Daniel's. Each year 'JD' fans from all over the world meet in Lynchburg, home of Jack Daniel's, at the World Championship Invitational Barbecue in October.

JD's smaller neighbour, George Dickel, has been operating in Tullahoma since 1958. George Dickel plays a minor role due to JD's huge marketing power, but it also produces a beautiful Tennessee whiskey. There are two versions of it: No. 8 (80 proof, 40% alcohol) and No. 12 (90 proof, 45%).

Crucial differences

In the US, distillers blend the grains before distilling, contrary to their Scottish counterparts who only blend whisky after distillation and a period of maturation that typically takes 10 to12 years. Most American whiskey, however, matures in a relatively short time, typically four to six years. A straight Bourbon is made of at least 51 per cent corn (maize), supplemented with malted barley, rye and/or wheat.

The origins of whiskey

European pioneers brought their distilling techniques with them when they emigrated to the New World. The Speedwell left Delfshaven in the Netherlands in 1620 and set sail to the shores of southern England to join the Mayflower. Together they went on their journey over the Atlantic, but soon the Speedwell started leaking seriously. Both ships returned to England, where cargo and pilgrims on the unlucky ship were taken aboard the Mayflower and the journey started anew.

In December of the same year the pilgrims landed at Cape Cod. The Native Americans presented the pioneers with corn, an indigenous grain that grows well in the US. It was immediately put to use for distilling, with rye, wheat and malted barley following later.

The first president of the US, George Washington (1732-1799) earned extra income by distilling and selling whiskey. He owned a distillery on his plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia. At that time the hills of Kentucky were crowded with illegal stills, operated by 'moonshiners,' so called because they performed their unlawful trade mainly during the night.

The industry was dealt a severe blow by Prohibition (1920 - 1933). According to many, the industry is still recovering from it, and the consequences of this 13-year phenomenon were disastrous. Many distilleries were closed or demolished, crime increased by the day, and many died from drinking whiskey that was diluted with cleaning products and other poisonous liquids. But more on that, in part II.

go to part II: prohibtion and beyond


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