Frontier Psychiatrist

Frontier Mixology: What We Talk About When We Talk About Whiskey Vol. 1, American Whiskey

Posted on: March 25, 2011

It sure does.

As a general matter, whiskey is liquor distilled from cereal grains that has been aged in wooden barrels.  The word comes from usquebaugh, the Medieval Irish term for “water of life,” which was the catch-all term for all distillates at the time, e.g. aqua vitae.  The Scots leave out the “e”, but modern day Irish and Americans leave it in — hence the whole “whisk(e)y” signage phenomenon you may have noticed at liquor stores. But, Scotch and Irish whiskey are for another day.  American exceptionalism compels examination first of our native whiskeys – bourbon and rye.

First off — all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.  As a matter of law, bourbon is distinctively and exclusive American.  Many will tell you that bourbon must be made in Kentucky.  Not so.  Although over 90% of bourbon is indeed from the Bluegrass state, it need not be, e.g. Tuthilltown’s Baby Bourbon from New York.  In fact, the legal requirements for bourbon are that it be made in America, from a mash of no less than 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, and then bottled at no less than 80 proof.  To be straight bourbon, which is what you want, the spirit must be aged for at least two years.

What does all this mean?  Well, the process starts with the mash, a porridge of milled grain, water and yeast that is fermented to produce an alcoholic brew.  For bourbon, the grain in the mash must be at least 51% corn, but may — indeed should — contain other grains such as rye, malted barley, and sometimes wheat.  Distillers also add a “starter” portion of mash from from an earlier distilling, which then makes a “sour mash” whiskey, but the term has nothing to do with the taste of the final product.

Bourbon aging in a rickhouse

Getting back to production, the fermented mash, known as the wash, is then distilled.  The resulting spirit, i.e. unaged corn whiskey, is clear, and is what people mean when they talk about white dog.  If you triple-distilled it and then charcoal filtered it to remove all flavor, you’d have vodka.  But bourbon distillers want flavor.   To get more of it, and to mellow the spirit, the unaged whiskey is then put into charred wooden barrels, which are put up in a rickhouse for aging.  With the changing of the seasons, as temperature and humidity fluctuate, the alcohol is drawn up into the wood where it acts as a solvent, drawing out compounds from the charred wood that flavor and color the liquor.  It also evaporates and undergoes other chemical changes.  Thus, at essence, Bourbon whiskey is a holy trinity of America, corn, and wood.

While Bourbon must have at least 51% corn, the remaining 49% is where the interesting differences begin to arise.  The ratio of grains used, known as the “mash bill,” is highly determinative of the resulting spirit.  The use of more rye produces a spicier whiskey, whereas the inclusion of a greater proportion of wheat tends to soften the whiskey.

In the spirit of learning by doing, conduct the following experiment.  Order a shot of Bulleit Bourbon (rye heavy) and another of Maker’s Mark (wheated).  Sip them side by side.  Repeat as necessary.  The differences should become manifest.

What about rye whiskey, you ask, given that it seems to be in half the cocktails featured in this column?  Well, if the mash bill is at least 51% rye, then you’re dealing with rye whiskey instead of bourbon, but the production process is the same.  Pre-Prohibition drinkers tended to favor rye whiskey, which came from Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Following Prohibition, however, bourbon became more prevalent.

Rye’s comeback is well-documented, and it’s a must for classic cocktails that were originally made with rye, e.g. Manhattan and Sazerac.  The spirits are pretty similar, but cocktails made with rye tend to be drier.  As for Jack Daniel’s, well, its manufacture meets the definition for straight Bourbon, but the company chooses to call it Tennessee Whiskey.  It’s certainly smooth, and I don’t mind a dram now and again if my options are limited.

Clearly, a bottle of either a bourbon or a rye whiskey deserves a place on your shelf for making cocktails.  If I’m going to have just one bottle, I like Wild Turkey 101 for the bourbon and Rittenhouse for the rye.  If you want to branch out and have another bottle or two on hand for drinking neat or on the rocks, the great thing about American whiskeys is that you can get a number of well-made ones at reasonable prices.  Bourbon is far cheaper than a good Scotch, although more to come on Scotch, including a couple of great ones that are worth the splurge.

Drink up,


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