American whiskey has its day

12 November, 2015 by Stefanie Collins

Bourbon may be the face of American whiskey but it is just the start in a long line of products penetrating the hearts and minds of whisky drinkers worldwide. Jacob Stern takes a closer look at the flourishing category.

The ease of access to global markets has seen whisky go from strength to strength in the last decade. Where previously limited offerings kept hype at a minimum, expanded and varied stockists have taken the buzz around whisky drinking to new heights. Leading the pack is American whiskey – which has reached a crescendo within the international conversation.

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The category has been taking massive strides, gaining a firm foothold in areas that were once the stomping grounds of ‘traditional’ whisky producing nations. Ryan Lane, general manager at The Gresham, puts it simply:  it is the “booming category in the alcohol industry at the moment”.

That idea that American whiskey starts and ends with bourbon is quickly being blown out of the water; as consumers and stockers alike realise there far more to America than a classic bottle of Jack.

FAMILY HISTORY

Although the alcohol industry may appear to have a checkered history in America, the reality has been relatively smooth sailing. Prohibition lasted only a decade – and certainly adds to the charm of the drink today.

While the earliest accounts of a whiskey-like drink in America come from the East Coast in the early 1700s – it was the Irish immigration to ingredient rich areas like Kentucky and Tennessee that truly led to the birth of the drink.

Tim Ryder, the brand manager for Woodford Reserve, traces the Woodford name back these times – the year 1797 in Kentucky, to be precise. It was here that the distillery “made several landmark discoveries and innovative practises – such as sour mashing, yeast propagation, copper pot distillation and the maturing of whiskey in new, charred-oak casks”.

Fruitful times ensued as distillers appeared in increasing numbers. Through the seventeen and eighteen hundreds a minimal number of issues arose – those of note including a resistance against taxes and levies, and the introduction of legislation to fight against fraud and malpractice.

Perhaps the most poignant moment America’s whiskey history was not the ban from 1922-1933, but rather the recognition from Congress in 1964 that bourbon was a ‘distinct product of the USA’.

This acknowledgement was followed by the implementation of a legal statute that mandated the defining characteristics of bourbon – a move that sought to ensure the long-term quality of the nation’s signature drink.

EXTENDING THE BROOD

While thoughts of America naturally lead to thoughts of bourbon, this does not mean  there is a dearth of alternative offerings. An assortment of rye whiskies, white whiskies (also known as moonshine) and malt whiskies have started to gain in market share – with Sydney venue Keg & Brew’s licensee Zak Scolari noting that it is important for a good bar to have “a wide range of styles such as Kentucky, Tennessee, straight, wheat and rye, as well as blends”.

What makes bourbon so distinctive is its strict production process, and the legal requirements it must meet in order to be officially labelled bourbon. The most notable of these requirements  include corn  grain accounting for between 51 per cent and 80 per cent of the mash, and the drink itself being aged in new charred white oak barrels. It is an indication of the strength of American whiskey that, in the face of a global barrel shortage, bourbon producers are still increasing output in order to keep up with growing demand.

Within the bourbon category there are distinct styles of production, with different geographic areas leaving their own unique signatures on the drink. One such style is Tennessee, which, of course, must be produced in its namesake state. This style brings a sweeter nose, as  the drink is filtered through maple charcoal before bottling – a procedure known as the Lincoln County Process.

Then there are rye whiskies, which while trailing closely behind bourbons in terms of popularity and sales – remain renowned for being the choice drink for industry experts. Typically a bitterer drop, rye often has a heavier pepper flavour, and was heavily favoured by early European settlers who found rye the easiest crop to grow.

Rounding out the family is white whiskey, or moonshine, and although slightly less popular here in Australia, it is an old favourite in the United States. Images of glass jars and a good time are conjured around this, often stronger, product – a drink that is defined by its clear colour and pure taste. Bottled immediately after distillation, water is often added to soften the drink affectionately known to many as ‘white dog’.

JACK AND BROTHERS

The trend in the liquor industry of favouring quality over quantity has certainly been reflected in the American whiskey market. Ryder recognises that “consumers are searching for small batch, unique and differentiated offerings” – which, in turn, drives creativity and craft within the producer community.

For bar owners it is becoming increasingly important to stock a wide mix of artisanal brands behind the bar, alongside their more well-known companions. Scolari points towards the Hudson Manhattan Rye as an example  of a more niche offering, suggesting that “it’s delicious, boutique and popular among the high end American whiskey drinkers – and sits nicely alongside the big three of Jack Daniel’s, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey”.

Ryder has identified the trend too, recognising “the rise of on-premise outlets who are specialising in outstanding cocktail creations”. He points to the response of Woodford Reserve, and how the  “artisanal  process allows us to craft using all five sources of bourbon flavour”- flavours that can complement the most exotic cocktail ingredients.

BRANCHING OUT

Upswings in the popularity  of American whiskey have been pushed forward by a renaissance in quality cocktail making, and by the compilation of cocktails lists that offer both innovation as well as comforting familiarity. This is reflected in the bar culture of the modern day, with Lane enthusing that any bar owner should “get their hands on as many American whiskies as they can”.

For Rory Duncan, the general manager at The Glenmore, a “cocktail that sells extremely well [is] the Blueberry Julep, which consists of a house-infused blueberry Bulleit Rye mixed with grapefruit bitters, mint, sugar and served over crushed ice”. This echoes the position of American whiskey as the ‘right hand’ of quality bartenders across the world – a position that was given more formal recognition when Woodford Reserve took out the World’s 50 Best Bars number one whiskey cocktail for 2015.

That is not to say one should stop drinking it straight; Lane even goes as far as labelling Buffalo Trace as the ‘mothers milk’ for staff and patrons alike. So American whiskey is taking on the world, and winning – that’s a first.

5 CLASSICS WITH ROOM TO MOVE:

OLD FASHIONED: The safest bet when it comes to a bourbon cocktail. You can’t go past this mix of sugar, bitters and bourbon. Add just about anything as a signature, there have seen lot – from cider through to pumpkin flavourings.

WHISKEY SOUR: Another bankable mix that works with all manners of whiskey. Get some gomme syrup, egg white and lemon or lime juice and you’re on your way to an all time crowd pleaser.

MANHATTAN: Head to the rye whiskies for the Manhattan – add a sweet vermouth and some angostura bitters. This old favourite played a big part in the American whiskey boom, its an essential for all serious cocktail lists.

MINT JULEP: Muddled mint, sugar and water – topped off with a good helping of American whiskey. This ‘herbed up’ drink is fresh and pleasing, and can be twisted each and every way  depending  on the seasonal produce available at any given time.

IRISH COFFEE: Perfect for the winter months, perfect for any time of day. Every cocktail list needs a heart warmer; try an American whiskey chai if you’re in a more venturesome mood.