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How American Whiskey Is Made

How American Whiskey Is Made

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The American whiskey category can be broken down into several subcategories. They are differentiated by the proof at which they are distilled, the types of grain in the mash, and the length of time they are aged. Popular American whiskies include bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, and blended American whiskey. Most North American whiskies are made in column stills and aged in oak barrels, which can be charred or not charred.

For a whiskey to be considered an American whiskey, it must meet the following criteria as set forth by the United States government:

• Be made from a grain mash

• Be distilled at 90 percent ABV or less

• Be reduced to no more than 62.5 percent ABV (125 proof) before being aged in oak barrels (exceptfor corn whiskey, which does not have to be aged in wood)

• Have the aroma, taste, and characteristics attributed to whiskey

• Be bottled at no less than 40 percent ABV (80 proof)

Bourbon whiskey must contain a minimum of 51 percent corn, be produced in the U.S., and be distilled at less than 80 percent ABV. It must also be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels.

Tennessee whiskey must contain a minimum of 51 percent corn, be produced in Tennessee, and be distilled at less than 80 percent ABV. It must also be filtered through a bed of sugar maple charcoal and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels.

Blended American whiskey is required to contain at least 20 percent straight whiskey. The balance must be an unaged neutral spirit, or in some cases, a high-proof light whiskey. Blended whiskies have a whiskey flavor profile similar to bourbon, but lack the defining taste characteristics of a straight whiskey.

For a whiskey to be designated as a rye whiskey, it not only has to have at least 51 percent rye grain, but it must also be distilled at less than 80 percent ABV (160 proof) and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels.

While there is a small amount of rye whiskey that is bottled and marketed, most of the production of rye is blended into other whiskies to give them additional structure and character.

— Sara Kay, The

Make Whiskey at Home Tips

Whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Simply put, if distilled alcohol is made from any kind of fermented grains it is technically a whiskey. In some countries, the distilled grain spirit needs to be aged in oak barrels for a particular number of years before it can be legally called whiskey. Traditionally, unaged clear corn whiskey was referred to as moonshine, however in more modern times the term “moonshine” often refers to any kind of alcohol distilled at home.

If you’re genuinely interested in the process of making whiskey, continue reading this basic guide on how to make whiskey at home.

What's the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?

Whiskey drinking has been popular in the United States since colonial times. Even George Washington had a rye whiskey distillery. But bourbon — often called "America's native spirit" — has enjoyed a resurgence in the past decade. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, in 2018, more than 24 million 9-liter cases of American whiskey was sold in the U.S., which includes both bourbon and whiskey.

But what's the difference between the two? If you think you can use the terms interchangeably you'd be wrong. Chris Fletcher is the assistant master distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, the oldest registered distillery in the United States. He gave us the lowdown on the differences — and similarities — between the two spirits.

What Is Whiskey?

"Whiskey is any distilled spirit derived from grain not distilled to 190 proof," Fletcher says. "Once you get to 190 [or higher] you're making a 'neutral' spirit, such as vodka." He also says that whiskey must be exposed to oak. "Typically, a barrel is used for aging the spirit." So that's it: Whiskey is a distilled spirit derived from grain, not distilled higher than 190 proof, exposed to oak. And that's that, right? Not quite.

"If you think about whisky, globally," Fletcher says, "you have Scotch whiskys, Irish, Japanese and Canadian. But it's when you get to American whiskeys you find the most stringent laws that define what you can put on a label that claim a type of American whiskey."

American whiskeys are legally defined and regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. By law to be labeled as a straight American whiskey, it must be aged in new, charred-oak containers or barrels, and the grains that make up those whiskeys have to be a certain percentage. For example, straight American rye whiskey has to contain at least 51 percent rye and must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels/containers at least two years and be distilled in the same state.

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon also has strict guidelines. It can be made in any state in the U.S., though Kentucky is most famous for it. It, too, is a straight American whiskey, but the mash has to have at least 51 percent corn in the recipe, and it must be aged in new, charred oak containers/barrels. "There are other technical specifications to the process," Fletcher says.

For instance, whisky (note spelling) outside of the U.S. can be distilled as high as 189 proof, but in the U.S. bourbon can't distilled any higher than 160 proof. "That retains more of the flavor of the grains from the fermentation process, the step before distillation," Fletcher explains. American bourbon also can't be added to the barrel for aging if it's already above 125 proof. Water is usually added to the final un-aged whiskey to bring it down to the desired proof. Some brands take it down as low as 114 proof before adding it to the barrels for aging, usually for at least four years or more.

You might have heard it said that all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon, and that's why. Bourbon is a spirit, derived from at least 51 percent corn, not distilled higher than 160 proof and placed in new charred-oak barrels at 125 proof or below. It must be bottled at a minimum 80 proof.

What About Tennessee Whiskey?

Now, what's the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey? One extra step. "Jack Daniel is a Tennessee whiskey and it qualifies 100 percent as a bourbon," says Fletcher.

To be a Tennessee whiskey the spirit must be made in Tennessee — it's geographically restricted. Next, it has to qualify as a bourbon whiskey. "That means it must follow the 51 percent corn minimum," says Fletcher, "the distillation maximum of 160 proof (we're actually well below that at 140 proof at Jack Daniel). We always have to age in a new, charred oak container/barrel and it has to go in at 125 proof or below. We hit all those criteria."

Finally, the Jack Daniel Distillery adds a final step referred to as charcoal mellowing. At Jack Daniel they make their own charcoal on the premises from maple wood burned to complete coal. The coal is packed tightly into a large vat, then the freshly distilled, un-aged whiskey (still clear at this point) is filtered through the charcoal.

"If you've ever used a water filter like a Brita, there's charcoal in it, but it doesn't flavor your water," Fletcher says. "The concept is similar. The whiskey goes in clear and comes out clear and then goes in the barrels to age." Fletcher says this expensive final step, which was once used by bourbon-makers in Kentucky, is a differentiator for Jack Daniel, and meaningful to their brand. "Even though our product does qualify as bourbon," he adds, "we prefer to be identified as a Tennessee whiskey."

Why Do Bourbons and Whiskeys Taste Different?

The reason bourbons or whiskeys taste different from one another has to do with sourcing of the ingredients inside the bottle, not the label on the front. A spirit made from distilled corn will taste different from one made from distilled rye. After all, it's a different recipe.

And at Jack Daniel Distillery, for example, they inoculate their fermentation using a yeast strain that they can date back to Prohibition. "It's still grown fresh from the mother culture in our lab every day," Fletcher explains. "That yeast is a massive source of flavor for our whiskey and if we use a different yeast than the next distillery, that's a major flavor difference."

Kerri Richardson, president of the Bourbon Women's Association located in Louisville, Kentucky, says female bourbon drinkers frequently choose higher proof bourbon as their favorites, and she has medical and anecdotal data to back it up. Sensory studies done in the 1990s demonstrated that women have a genetic predisposition to picking up scents and flavors thanks to larger olfactory centers in the brain.

"When you have a very high proof whiskey, there's usually a lot of interesting things happening in that bottle and [women] really tend to go for that," she says. "We had a blind tasting a year ago of Heaven Hill [bourbon] products and I knew what would be in that lineup. I didn't know which was which, but I knew the one we would pick as our favorite — the highest proof — and I was right."

Stranahan’s New American Whiskey

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey has found itself in a pretty bright spotlight. The poster child for the next wave of “New American Whiskey”, this relatively small Colorado Distillery has more attention and buzz paid to it than almost any other craft distiller in America.

Like most great spirit companies, Stranahan’s has a great back story.

The story of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey goes something like this. Firefighter Jess Graber responded to a fire in a barn belonging to George Stranahan, a long-time liquor connoisseur.

After the fire settled, the two discovered a shared passion for the Colorado outdoors and fine whiskey – and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was born. They developed a recipe for the smoothest, most flavorful whiskey in the world using the purity of their mountain surroundings to make one of the best whiskeys around.

It’s a nice story, the kind that legendary spirits come from. The reality was, of course, much harder and less glamourous. Distiller Jake Norris had been distilling since he was very young. First obsessed with creating alternative fuel, Jake got the spirits distilling bug and made almost anything and everything that he could with a still. With Stranahan’s, his vision was to produce a whiskey that preserved as much of the core character of the base grain without the symphony of flavors that tend to accompany it. That grain was a 100% malted barley, sourced from around Colorado in a very deliberate attempt to create a specific terrior for the whiskey.

While Jake and Jess didn’t set out to create a new category of whiskey, they did, and with that they embraced distilling techniques typically not associated with whiskey. A large segment of the whiskey market depends on the flavors created from distilling the grains along with the fermented ‘beer’ that serves as the source of the whiskey. At Stranahan’s, Jake took a decidedly different approach whereas many whiskeys are fermented in open fermentation tanks, Stranahan’s uses a very specific sanitary fermentation system so that the only yeast participating in the fermentation process is the ones added to the mix (as they boil the wash to ensure no yeast that was present on the grain makes it into the fermenter).

Stranahan’s Sanitary Fermentation System

This fermented distillers beer / mash is filtered after fermentation so that none of the source grains are put in the still. Jake Norris compares this to the difference between Grappa (where grape stems and skins are present in the still) and Cognac (where they are filtered out). Also, unlike many other whiskeys, Stranahan’s does not add in any elements from previous batches (like a sourdough starter). After fermentation and filtering, the mash is twice distilled.

Stranahan’s Pot / Column Still

The first distillation goes through a custom still designed for Stranahan’s Whiskey by Vendome Copper and Brass Works from Louisville, Kentucky. The mash is distilled at a fairly low 80 proof (or 40% alcohol). The white whiskey that comes from this process is fairly soft with the slightest edge on the back palate. Like many craft distillers, Stranahan’s has made the decision to not release this unaged spirit as “White Dog“. Jake Norris compared white dog to unbaked cookie dough: “It’s just not done yet”.

From there, it’s distilled a second time in a much smaller still to 140 proof (or 70% alcohol). With distillation happening literally around the clock, Stranahan’s produces ten to twelve barrels a week, and these barrels will age anywhere between a minimum of two years to a maximum of five years before they are bottled.

Husky Gas Pump for Whiskey

One of the biggest challenges that initially faced Stranahan’s was figuring out the process of getting their whiskey into barrel. Since Stranahan’s was one of the first distilleries in Colorado, the Colorado Distiller’s Guild and a community of like-minded craft distillers didn’t really exist. Jake Norris worked with Husky Energy to custom design a gas pump made from food grade steel to use for the whiskey. After using this system for a while, Husky turned to Stranahan’s to learn the impact of high proof alcohol with their pump and ultimately used this design for their commercial ethanol pumps.

Once Stranahan’s finally gets their whiskey into barrel (which is a first time use American oak barrel) it’s stored in a climate controlled rackhouse. Because the summers are fairly warm and winters are very cold, Stranahan’s decided to create an environment to age their whiskey that was a consistent temperature throughout the year. This enables them to wait less time for their spirit to mature, as the cold winters greatly reduce the aging process. Through aging, these barrels will lose up to 17% of their spirit due to evaporation (also called the “Angel’s Share).

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

All Stranahan’s Whiskey is bottled by hand (often by volunteer bottlers) and each bottle’s label is hand signed by the distiller and often has a note from either the distiller or brewer (which is often what music they were listening to while bottling). The actual Stranahan’s Whiskey is a mingling of several ages of whiskey, with the youngest being two years and the oldest five years. Stranahan’s has a batch system that represents each unique mingling of whiskey. While we were at Stranahan’s we had the opportunity to taste two batches of the whiskey and there were distinct differences between them. “It’s kind of like Grandma’s apple pie”, explains Jake Norris. “It’ll always taste like her pie, but each one is a little different from the last”. This artisan approach to whiskey is part of what makes Stranahan’s distinct, with the final spirit a reflection of different seasons of grain, different barrels, and a mingling recipe which embraces change.

Although Stranahan’s only produces one style of whiskey, they do an extremely limited “Snowflake Series” that can only be purchased at the distillery on specific days. This series takes the standard Stranahan’s and finishes it in different barrels to give it additional flavors and character.

The importance of Stranahan’s can’t be overstated. As one of the early craft whiskey distillers in America, Stranahan’s has blazed a trail that many craft distillers now follow. Small Craft American Whiskey is poised to be a major movement in America and large spirit companies have taken notice. In December 2010, Stranahan’s was acquired by Proximo Spirits (the makers of such major brands as 1800 Tequila, Three Olives, Hangar 1 Vodka, and Kraken Rum). Again Stranahan’s is in the spotlight as other craft distillers see how a once tiny Denver distiller radically changes after being acquired.

Whatever happens under Proximo Spirits, Stranahan’s represents something very exciting: a group of people with a vision to create something unique that is a reflection of the area they are in, with an unwavering commitment to their vision.


The word whisky (or whiskey) is an anglicisation of the Classical Gaelic word uisce (or uisge) meaning "water" (now written as uisce in Modern Irish, and uisge in Scottish Gaelic). This Gaelic word shares its ultimate origins with Germanic water and Slavic voda of the same meaning. Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae ("water of life"). This was translated into Old Irish as uisce beatha, which became uisce beatha in Irish and uisge beatha [ˈɯʃkʲə ˈbɛhə] in Scottish Gaelic. Early forms of the word in English included uskebeaghe (1581), usquebaugh (1610), usquebath (1621), and usquebae (1715). [1]

Names and spellings Edit

Much is made of the word's two spellings: whisky and whiskey. [2] [3] [4] There are two schools of thought on the issue. One is that the spelling difference is simply a matter of regional language convention for the spelling of a word, indicating that the spelling varies depending on the intended audience or the background or personal preferences of the writer (like the difference between color and colour or recognize and recognise), [3] [4] and the other is that the spelling should depend on the style or origin of the spirit being described. There is general agreement that when quoting the proper name printed on a label, the spelling on the label should not be altered. [3] [4]

The spelling whiskey is common in Ireland and the United States, while whisky is used in all other whisky-producing countries. [5] In the US, the usage has not always been consistent. From the late eighteenth century to the mid twentieth century, American writers used both spellings interchangeably until the introduction of newspaper style guides. [6] Since the 1960s, American writers have increasingly used whiskey as the accepted spelling for aged grain spirits made in the US and whisky for aged grain spirits made outside the US. [7] However, some prominent American brands, such as George Dickel, Maker's Mark, and Old Forester (all made by different companies), use the whisky spelling on their labels, and the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, the legal regulations for spirit in the US, also use the whisky spelling throughout. [8]

Within Scotland, the whisky that is made in Scotland is simply called whisky, while outside Scotland (and in the UK regulations that govern its production) it is commonly called Scotch whisky, or simply "Scotch" (especially in North America).

It is possible that distillation was practised by the Babylonians in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BC, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled, [9] but this is subject to uncertain and disputed interpretations of evidence. [10]

The earliest certain chemical distillations were by Greeks in Alexandria in the 1st century AD, [10] but these were not distillations of alcohol. The medieval Arabs adopted the distillation technique of the Alexandrian Greeks, and written records in Arabic begin in the 9th century, but again these were not distillations of alcohol. [10] Distilling technology passed from the medieval Arabs to the medieval Latins, with the earliest records in Latin in the early 12th century. [10] [11]

The earliest records of the distillation of alcohol are in Italy in the 13th century, where alcohol was distilled from wine. [10] An early description of the technique was given by Ramon Llull (1232–1315). [10] Its use spread through medieval monasteries, [12] largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic and smallpox. [13]

The art of distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century, as did the common European practice of distilling "aqua vitae", spirit alcohol, primarily for medicinal purposes. [14] The practice of medicinal distillation eventually passed from a monastic setting to the secular via professional medical practitioners of the time, The Guild of Barber Surgeons. [14] The earliest mention of whisky in Ireland comes from the seventeenth-century Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas. [15] In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent "To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae", enough to make about 500 bottles. [16]

James IV of Scotland (r. 1488–1513) reportedly had a great liking for Scotch whisky, and in 1506 the town of Dundee purchased a large amount of whisky from the Guild of Barber-Surgeons, which held the monopoly on production at the time. Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, sending their monks out into the general public. Whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms as newly independent monks needed to find a way to earn money for themselves. [13]

The distillation process was still in its infancy whisky itself was not allowed to age, and as a result tasted very raw and brutal compared to today's versions. Renaissance-era whisky was also very potent and not diluted. Over time whisky evolved into a much smoother drink.

With a licence to distil Irish whiskey from 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. [17]

In 1707, the Acts of Union merged England and Scotland, and thereafter taxes on it rose dramatically. [18]

After the English Malt Tax of 1725, most of Scotland's distillation was either shut down or forced underground. Scotch whisky was hidden under altars, in coffins, and in any available space to avoid the governmental excisemen or revenuers. [13] Scottish distillers, operating out of homemade stills, took to distilling whisky at night when the darkness hid the smoke from the stills. For this reason, the drink became known as moonshine. [19] At one point, it was estimated that over half of Scotland's whisky output was illegal. [18]

In America, whisky was used as currency during the American Revolution George Washington operated a large distillery at Mount Vernon. Given the distances and primitive transportation network of colonial America, farmers often found it easier and more profitable to convert corn to whisky and transport it to market in that form. It also was a highly coveted sundry and when an additional excise tax was levied against it in 1791, the Whiskey Rebellion erupted. [20]

The drinking of Scotch whisky was introduced to India in the nineteenth century. The first distillery in India was built by Edward Dyer at Kasauli in the late 1820s. The operation was soon shifted to nearby Solan (close to the British summer capital Shimla), as there was an abundant supply of fresh spring water there. [21]

In 1823, the UK passed the Excise Act, legalizing the distillation (for a fee), and this put a practical end to the large-scale production of Scottish moonshine. [13]

In 1831, Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey still, allowing for a cheaper and more efficient distillation of whisky. In 1850, Andrew Usher began producing a blended whisky that mixed traditional pot still whisky with that from the new Coffey still. The new distillation method was scoffed at by some Irish distillers, who clung to their traditional pot stills. Many Irish contended that the new product was, in fact, not whisky at all. [22]

By the 1880s, the French brandy industry was devastated by the phylloxera pest that ruined much of the grape crop as a result, whisky became the primary liquor in many markets. [13]

During the Prohibition era in the United States lasting from 1920 to 1933, all alcohol sales were banned in the country. The federal government made an exemption for whisky prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies. During this time, the Walgreens pharmacy chain grew from 20 retail stores to almost 400. [23]

Distillation Edit

A still for making whisky is usually made of copper, since it removes sulfur-based compounds from the alcohol that would make it unpleasant to drink. Modern stills are made of stainless steel with copper innards (piping, for example, will be lined with copper along with copper plate inlays along still walls). The simplest standard distillation apparatus is commonly known as a pot still, consisting of a single heated chamber and a vessel to collect purified alcohol.

Column stills are frequently used in the production of grain whisky and are the most commonly used type of still in the production of bourbon and other American whiskeys. Column stills behave like a series of single pot stills, formed in a long vertical tube. Whereas a single pot still charged with wine might yield a vapour enriched to 40–60% alcohol, a column still can achieve a vapour alcohol content of 95.6% an azeotropic mixture of alcohol and water.

Aging Edit

Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the "age" of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been bottled for many years may have a rarity value, but are not "older" and not necessarily "better" than a more recent whisky that matured in wood for a similar time. After a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel does not necessarily improve a whisky. [24]

While aging in wooden casks, especially American oak and French oak casks, whisky undergoes six processes that contribute to its final flavour: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration, and colouration. [25] Extraction in particular results in whisky acquiring a number of compounds, including aldehydes and acids such as vanillin, vanillic acid, and syringaldehyde. [26] Distillers will sometimes age their whiskey in barrels previously used to age other spirits, such as rum or sherry, to impart particular flavours.

Packaging Edit

Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% abv, which is the statutory minimum in some countries [8] – although the strength can vary, and cask-strength whisky may have as much as twice that alcohol percentage.

Exports Edit

Whisky is probably the best known of Scotland's manufactured products. Exports have increased by 87% in the decade to 2012 and it contributes over £4.25 billion to the UK economy, making up a quarter of all its food and drink revenues. [27] In 2012, the US was the largest market for Scotch whisky (£655 million), followed by France (£535 million). [28] It is also one of the UK's overall top five manufacturing export earners and it supports around 35,000 jobs. [29] Principal whisky producing areas include Speyside and the Isle of Islay, where there are nine distilleries providing a major source of employment. In many places, the industry is closely linked to tourism, with many distilleries also functioning as attractions worth £30 million GVA each year. [30]

In 2011, 70% of Canadian whisky was exported, with about 60% going to the US, and the rest mostly to Europe and Asia. [31] 15 million cases of Canadian whisky were sold in the US in 2011. [31]


The production and labeling of American whiskey is governed by Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. Outside of the United States, various other countries recognize certain types of American whiskey, such as bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, as indigenous products of the United States that must be produced (although not necessarily bottled) in the United States. When sold in another country, American whiskey may also be required to conform to local product requirements that apply to whiskey in general when sold in that country. In some cases, this may involve stricter standards than U.S. law.

Canadian law requires that products labeled as bourbon or Tennessee whiskey must satisfy the laws of the United States that regulate its manufacture "for consumption in the United States". Some other countries do not specify this requirement. This distinction can be important, as U.S. regulations include substantial exemptions for products that are made for export rather than for consumption within the United States. [1]

Some key types of American whiskey listed in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations include: [2]

    , made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye , made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye , made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley , made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat , made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize) , made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn

To be labeled as one of these types, the whiskey must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (160 U.S. proof) to ensure the flavor of the original mash is adequately retained, and the addition of coloring, caramel, or other flavoring additives is prohibited. [3] [4] All of these, except corn whiskey, must be aged at least briefly (although no minimum aging period is specified) in charred new oak containers. These restrictions do not exist for some similarly named products in some other countries, such as Canada. American corn whiskey does not have to be aged at all – but, if it is aged, it must be aged in used or uncharred oak barrels [5] "at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof)". [6] In practice, if corn whiskey is aged, it is usually aged in used bourbon barrels.

Straight whiskey is whiskey that was distilled to not more than 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) that has been aged for at least two years at a starting alcohol concentration of not more than 62.5%. It has not been blended with any other spirits, colorings, or additives. A straight whiskey that also meets one of the other above definitions is referred to by combining the term "straight" with the term for the type of whiskey. For example, a rye whiskey that meets this definition is called a "straight rye whiskey".

Unqualified "whiskey" without a grain type identification such as "bourbon", "rye", or "corn" must be distilled at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) from a fermented mash of grain in such a manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey. It must be stored in oak containers – charred new oak is not required – and bottled at no less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof). [7] [8] To carry the designation "straight whiskey" without a grain type identification, the fermented mash must be less than 51% of any one type of grain and must be stored for a period of at least two years in charred new oak containers. [9] [8]

A straight whiskey that has been aged less than four years must be labeled with an age statement describing the actual minimum age of the product whereas, if straight whiskey is stored as prescribed for four years or more, a statement of age is optional. [10] [11] [12]

Furthermore, a straight whiskey (or other spirit produced from a single class of materials) may be labeled as bottled in bond if it has been aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse, is bottled at 50% alcohol by volume (100 proof), and is the product of one distilling season. [13]

Other types of American whiskey defined by federal regulations include the following:

    is a mixture that contains straight whiskey or a blend of straight whiskeys containing not less than 20 percent straight whiskey (on a proof gallon basis) and, separately or in combination, other whiskey or neutral spirits. For the blended whiskey to be labeled with a particular grain type (i.e., blended rye, malt, wheat, or bourbon whiskey), at least 51% of the blend must be straight whiskey of that grain type. The part of the content that is not straight whiskey may include unaged grain distillates, grain neutral spirits, flavorings, and colorings. [3][4]
  • Blend of straight whiskeys is a mixture of one or more straight whiskeys that either includes straight whiskeys produced in different U.S. states or coloring and flavoring additives (and possibly other approved "blending materials") or both, but does not contain grain neutral spirits. [3][4] is produced in the United States at more than 80% alcohol by volume and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers. is a mixture of neutral spirits and at least 5% of certain stricter categories of whiskey.

However, it is important to note that these various labeling requirements and "standards of identity" do not apply to products for export from the U.S. (under C.F.R. Title 27, § 5.1). Thus, exported American whiskey may not meet the same labeling standards when sold in some markets.

Another important American whiskey labeling is Tennessee whiskey. This is a recognized name defined under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), [14] at least one other international trade agreement, [15] and the law of Canada [16] as a straight bourbon whiskey lawfully produced in the state of Tennessee. Tennessee whiskey production is also governed by Tennessee law. Tennessee House Bill 1084 was passed in 2013 for products produced in the state labeled as "Tennessee Whiskey". It included the existing requirements for bourbon [17] [18] and further required use of the Lincoln County Process for filtering the whiskey through a thick layer of maple charcoal before placing it in barrels for aging, with an exception grandfathered in for Benjamin Prichard's distillery in Kelso, Tennessee, which does not use it. The two major brands of Tennessee whiskey – Jack Daniel's and George Dickel – are both produced using the Lincoln County Process.

What do you call ‘Scotch’ that’s made in America?

As far as Rob Dietrich is concerned, he’s found the formula for crafting the perfect whiskey, a potent recipe that calls for “very clean water” and the best malted barley he can source.

But many a spirits connoisseur would rightly note there’s nothing especially novel going on: Dietrich’s formula is the same basic recipe that goes into making Scotch — and specifically the style known as single-malt Scotch.

Except this is a whiskey made in the United States — in a former beef jerky factory in the Mile High City, no less. And that leaves Dietrich, who is chief whiskey maker at Stranahan’s, the Denver distillery in question, with a boozy dilemma.

What exactly do you call American “Scotch”?

“It’s not made in Scotland so we can’t give it that designation,” says Dietrich, 43, by way of frustrated explanation.

Dietrich is hardly alone in his dilemma. Driven in large part by a desire to bring new-school approaches to an old-school spirit, more than 40 distilleries across the U.S. are making their own version of single-malt whiskey, otherwise known as Scotland’s signature sip. (The Scottish and some others spell “whisky” without an “e.”) The phenomenon is a global one, too: Distilleries in Sweden, Taiwan, Australia and even wine-centric France, among other countries, are joining the single-malt bandwagon.

And in Japan, where the tradition of making Scotch-style whiskey actually goes back nearly a century, there’s newfound confidence the country might be beating Scotland at its own game. This past year, Jim Murray, author of the “Whisky Bible,” a leading guide for connoisseurs, ranked a single malt from Japan’s Suntory Yamazaki Distillery as tops in the world.

But with this boom in “pseudo Scotch,” as some wags have been known to call any malt-based whiskey produced outside Scotland, comes the inevitable name game. As Dietrich implies, governments and trade groups throughout the world place tight restrictions on what can be sanctioned as Scotch. In the U.S., for example, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a federal agency, clearly defines Scotch as a whiskey “manufactured in Scotland.”

Some of the new-school makers of single malt have applied their own geographic descriptor. Stranahan’s calls its product “Colorado Whiskey.” RoughStock Distillery, based in the cowboy country of Bozeman, Mont., dubs its spirit “Montana Pure Malt Whiskey.”

Others go for a more poetic label: In Arizona, Hamilton Distillers identifies its spirit as “Whiskey Del Bac” (Del Bac is an indigenous term that means “of the place where the river reappears in the sand,” according to the Tucson-based distillery).

But most of the remaining distilleries opt for the tag of “single malt whiskey” (“single” refers to the fact the product is sourced from a single distillery and “malt” refers to the grain itself). Still, that term is no less misleading than “Scotch” itself, critics argue, since it’s got a familiar ring, too.

“When you say the words ‘single malt,’ the next word you expect is ‘Scotch,’” says Steve Abt, chief executive of Caskers, an online whiskey retailer that carries a large selection of single malts from Scotland and elsewhere.

Distillers counter that there’s no other moniker that quite fits. Allison Patel, the American-based marketer behind Brenne, a French exemplar of the single-malt style, says she’s half-toyed with the idea of calling her product “Frisky” — a fusion of “French” and “whiskey.” But she thought it might send the wrong licentious message, so she goes with the safer and more predictable label of “single malt.”

Ultimately, distillers say it’s pointless to worry about what’s in a name, since the drinking public has the last word. And the public swears by the word it already knows, regardless of geographic sourcing, distillers add.

“To this day, my accountant still calls it ‘Scotch,’” says Lance Winters, master distiller of California-based St. George Spirits, which was one of the first American companies to introduce a single malt when it launched its whiskey more than a decade ago.

The situation is doubly frustrating to Winters and some other distillers because they insist that their “Scotch” isn’t very Scotch-like. If anything, they say they are re-writing the Scotch playbook – in some cases, literally so.

At the Corsair Artisan Distillery, based in Bowling Green, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., owner Darek Bell, who’s an author of two tomes on modern whiskey making, sources cherry wood from his own property for the key task of stoking the fires to dry the malted barley and impart a desirably smoky taste to the spirit. (In Scotland, distillers typically use peat smoke for the same dual purpose, though Bell mixes in some peated malt in the recipe for his Triple Smoke American malt whiskey, as he dubs the product.) Oh, and Bell doesn’t limit himself to malted barley — he likes to experiment with other grains. Quinoa whiskey, anyone?

But Bell’s experiments seem tame compared with the lengths that some other distillers have gone. Ralph Erenzo, a founder of Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, N.Y., plays recordings of rap music in the warehouse where he stores his single malt (and that’s what he calls the whiskey) and other products: He believes the thumping bass jostles the liquid inside the barrels, resulting in more interaction with the wood (and therefore more of that woody flavor he wants to impart). Erenzo admits it’s unlikely any Scotch distilleries would employ such a technique. “Maybe they’re using bagpipers,” he says, half-jokingly.

As far as Scottish distillers are concerned, American whiskey makers can experiment all they want, so long as they don’t infringe on the brand name of Scotch. The Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group, says it works vigorously to “stop any misrepresentation that states or suggests a whisky is Scotch Whisky, or comes from Scotland, when that isn’t the case.”

Otherwise, Scottish distillers say they’re bemused, even flattered by the fact so many spirits professionals are putting their own spin on single-malt whiskey. That is, up to a certain point.

An American-made single-malt whiskey is one thing. An American-made pumpkin spice-flavored single-malt whiskey — and, yes, such a Starbucks-meets-Scotch spirit exists, courtesy of the Sons of Liberty Spirits Company in South Kingstown, R.I. — is another. “I wonder if you can be so innovative that the mother ship loses its relevance,” says David Robertson, a former distiller who helps run Rare Whisky 101, a company that specializes in collectible Scotch.

Dietrich, the Denver distiller, says he’s not really looking to rock the establishment, though he admits he’s not your traditional type: Before he came to Stranahan’s, he worked as a rock ‘n’ roll roadie and manager of a clothing-optional resort.

But Dietrich says that once he started in the whiskey business, he quickly saw Scotch as a sacred benchmark — so much so that he used to put aside a portion of each paycheck to buy another bottle of the real deal from Scotland. And now that he’s risen through the ranks to become a head distiller, Dietrich has set his sights on something bigger: a first-ever trip to Scotland, so he can see how true Scotch — meaning the kind that can be called that — is made.

A Background on The History of Whiskey

Whiskey’s origin lies somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 AD when traveling monks migrating across Europe, introduced the distillation practice into Scottland and Ireland. Because of the lack of vineyards in these countries, the monasteries turned to fermenting grain mashes and then distilling them into whiskey.

For the next 400 years, whiskey spread throughout the Celtic countries, being referenced by kings and warriors in historical texts. In 1536, King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries who had been distilling the majority of whiskey up until that point. This made monks independent and required them to now make a living for themselves. They saw distilling as a way to make that living. In 1608, the first officially licensed whiskey distillery ‘Old Bushmills Distillery‘ was founded in Northern Ireland.

American Whiskey

As European settlers arrived in early America, they also brought the art of distilling whiskey with them. This gave rise to using a variety of different grains to create new and different whiskey mashes. During the American Revolutionary War, distillers used whiskey as a common form of currency as it was highly valued in the newly formed country. In the 1780s whiskey distilleries began to spring up in Kentucky and Tennesee giving birth to a bustling industry.

In 1840, the development of corn whiskey became very popular and a distiller, Jacob Spears was the first to label his batch ‘bourbon whiskey.’ From 1920 through most of 1933, the American Prohibition made owning or the use of whiskey illegal. The 18th amendment to the constitution banned all production and use of alcohol. This was a dark time for whiskey as the use of alcohol became more dangerous, the crime rate skyrocketed and was more organized. In December of 1933, the 18th amendment was repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment.

Flash forward to 1964, when Congress declared ‘bourbon whiskey’ the official distilled spirit of the country. Hooray!

Bourbon - Distillation

All American distilleries (except Labrot & Graham) use column stills for distillation . They were invented by Robert Stein (Haig Co.) in Scotland in 1826 and their pillar-like shape makes a continuous distillation process possible. The basic operation principle is simple: You set up an upright pipe with a height of 5m to 20m and a diameter of 70cm to 150cm. You insert floors with holes into the pipe so there is a connection from the bottom to the top. The edges of the holes are slightly bent upwards so no liquids can flow down through them. Then you insert small tubes so the liquid that accumulates on the floors can flow down to the next floor.

Buffalo Trace - Beer Still

The column is filled with beer in a middle position and heated from the lower end. Thus two opposite flows are created. The liquid beer runs down through the tubes, while the gaseous particles (alcohol vapours) flow upwards through the holes.

Seagram's Waterloo - Column still cut open

The temperature of the column is regulated in such a way that the alcohol is gaseous at the top (78 - 85°C / 172° - 185°F) and the beer is cooking at the bottom (95 - 100°C / 202° - 212°F).

This process can run forever as long as there's enough supply of new beer . While the alcohol is extracted at the top, the water with the fibres and remnants of the grain accumulates at the bottom. This product is called 'stillage' and is processed into animal feed and ' sour mash ', which is reintroduced into the fermentation process.

In small column stills an alcohol content of approximately 120 American Proof (60% abv ) can be reached at the top. If the columns are taller the alcohol content can be raised up to 80% and more.

After the alcohol has been extracted from the still, the steam is led through the doubler, a copper pot, where a catalytic conversion takes place which improves the taste of the whiskey . Many column stills need such a doubler since the column floors aren't made of copper. In copper pot stills, as can be found in Scotland, a continuous catalytic conversion takes place. With column stills that lack copper parts, the distillate must be brought into contact with copper externally. That's what the doublers are for.

Jim Beam Craft Distillery - Doubler

The vapour is then led into the condenser where it liquefies again and has now become raw whiskey , which the Americans call ' white dog '.

From the condenser the whiskey is led through a spirit safe into vats, from which either the barrels are filled or trucks are loaded for transport.

Maker's Mark - Vats for raw whiskey with spirit safes

The white dog is regularly tasted directly after production , for which it is diluted to approximately 20% abv . In this state the aromatic substances can be judged best.

Four Roses - Tasting the white dog

Per bushel of grain (35.24 litres) about 5 US gallons of 100 Proof Spirit are produced (9.5 litres of pure alcohol). Translated to the weight of the grain, approximately 400-450 litres of pure alcohol can be produced from one ton of grain.

What is American single malt whiskey?

When most people think of single malt, they imagine a glass of Scotch. Yet hundreds of distillers in the US are working hard to define their own style &ndash in liquid and law &ndash and it&rsquos distinctly different from Scotch, and Bourbon. Jake Emen reports.

Over two and a half years ago, a group of American distillers met at the behest of Matt Hofmann and Westland distillery &ndash the first meeting of the American Single Malt Commission. Its purpose was to hash out a set of agreed upon standards for the category of single malt whiskey made in the United States, and while doing so, to begin spreading word of the nascent category and push towards an official legal classification via the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), an agency under the US Department of the Treasury which handles matters such as the labelling of spirits bottles.

This July the Commission accepted its 100th distiller member &ndash clearly the number of single malt distilleries in the US, and those who have joined up with the Commission, has skyrocketed. The standards have now long been in place, though only informally agreed upon by its voluntary membership as the journey towards official classification has been moving at the glacially inefficient speed of bureaucracy. But with more whisky fans around the world beginning to pay attention to American single malt, how close is the industry to an official definition?

The Commission proposes that the category of &lsquoAmerican single malt whiskey&rsquo be defined as whiskey made in the US at a single distillery, with a 100% malted barley mashbill, aged in new or used wooden barrels, distilled at a maximum of 160 proof (80% abv) from either pot or column distillation, and barrelled at a maximum 125 proof (62.5% abv). The specifics of distillation and barrel entry proof conform to the American standards for categories such as Bourbon or rye, whereas the allowance for new or used casks, and woods beyond oak, leave greater flexibility than other American categories, and even Scotch.

While Hofmann and the Commission were at first hoping for rapid regulatory results, the torturously slow pace of government bureaucracy speeds up for nobody. There's also the matter of the current administration. &lsquoAt the moment, the biggest challenge is [President] Trump&rsquos executive order on regulations,&rsquo Hofmann says. &lsquoTheoretically, if you want to put in a new regulation you have to get rid of two, so that&rsquos going to be difficult to do. But when we talked to the TTB about it originally, the keys are that there&rsquos industry consensus and it&rsquos good for the consumers. It benefits them, and also distributors, people in retail, and the on-premise, to know what the category is all about.&rsquo

Something different: Deerhammer calls its American single malt an &lsquoalternative whiskey&rsquo to Bourbon and rye

The official petition has now been filed and is available online for public viewing. &lsquoThe TTB has recently sent out a list of things that they&rsquore going to be reviewing by the end of the year,&rsquo Hofmann says. &lsquoAnd we just fall into one very small subcategory of that, which is labelling standards. I want to say that I think they are going to review this by the end of the year, then the comment period would start next year.&rsquo The three-month public commenting period would allow for other voices to be heard, before a final ruling on whether to accept or deny the proposed category. Things seem to be moving along then &ndash though it must be noted that the original hope was for this same commenting period to be opened before the end of 2016. You may want to take the timeline with a grain of salt, or even malted barley, as the case may be.

Consumer education tops the list of benefits that most producers feel an official &lsquoAmerican single malt&rsquo category would help achieve. &lsquoWe believe it is very important to formalise the category as it is growing faster than consumer education can catch up,&rsquo says Gareth Moore, CEO of Virginia Distillery Company. &lsquoWe envision a formalised category helping Virginia Distillery Company specifically because while our process is very similar to traditional distilleries in Scotland, we want to make it clear that what we produce is not simply &ldquoScotch made in America,&rdquo but rather a uniquely American product that is better categorised with the wide range of fabulous single malts produced in the US.&rsquo

Stateside single malt distilleries are peppered with questions from visitors and would-be consumers along the lines of: &lsquoIs this Scotch? If this isn't Scotch, isn't it Bourbon? How can you make single malts in the US anyway?&rsquo

&lsquoThe level of consumer whiskey confusion in the US right now is off the charts, and no surprise, current government regulation of whiskey labelling isn&rsquot helping matters,&rsquo says Lenny Eckstein, co-founder and head distiller of Deerhammer Distilling Company. &lsquoDistillers are going to continue to create whiskey within their own definition of American single malt. But here&rsquos the thing &ndash our definition can be completely different from another distillery&rsquos definition and the TTB is just letting all of this slide through as &ldquomalt whiskey&rdquo.&rsquo

American style: Westland&rsquos single malt is double distilled in Vendome copper pot stills, using five different malts

Putting a definition in place sets an agreed upon standard, and also prevents backlash in the form of reactionary regulatory efforts. &lsquoThe TTB is really quick to shut down &ldquopseudo&rdquo categories,&rsquo Hofmann explains, highlighting barrel-aged gin as an example. With producers adapting the category, but no regulations in place, the TTB banned distilleries from being able to use that phrasing.

Even worse, if producers don&rsquot lead the way towards categorisation, who knows what type of standards may be put forward by somebody else. &lsquoThere needs to be producer-led momentum,&rsquo Hofmann says. &lsquoAnd if we don't put a definition in place right now that we favour, somebody else could try to come in and put in a different system, with stricter or different interpretation that we don't favour.&rsquo

While it seems as if the bulk of single malt distilleries in the US favour an official American single malt category, it&rsquos not unanimous. In fact, one of the country&rsquos very first producers of single malt, St. George Spirits, is a notable exception at this stage. &lsquoWe&rsquove intentionally stayed out of the conversation about creating an official definition for American single malt,&rsquo says Lance Winters, longtime St. George master distiller. &lsquoThe first American single malts only came onto the scene in the last 20 years, and in my view, American single malt makers need more time to explore the potential boundaries before we rein it in.&rsquo

Producers who are part of the Commission emphasise that the standards have been left with enough creative wiggle room to facilitate innovation and experimentation, but nevertheless, a standard of any kind inherently sets some sort of barrier.

For his part, Moore believes that an official legal category would actually spur innovation by encouraging more distilleries to join the fold. &lsquoThe creation of an official American single malt category will attract additional entrants into the market,&rsquo he says. &lsquoRight now, the lack of certainty of the definition of the category serves as a barrier for many distillers to producing a single malt &ndash a formal TTB definition will enable greater growth, and importantly, innovation in the category.&rsquo

Winters, though, also feels that the aforementioned benefit of consumer education isn&rsquot all it&rsquos cracked up to be. &lsquoI also think that the idea of creating yet another spirit category and definition is counterproductive,&rsquo he says. &lsquoThe average consumer has little to no understanding of the categories already in place and would be much better served by simple, truthful statements of composition, process, and origin.&rsquo

The American Single Malt Commission may not have unanimous backing, but with 100 distilleries and counting amid its membership, it seems to represent as close to an industry-wide consensus as possible. And while there could still be an eternal waiting process for official results via the TTB, producers haven't been idly sitting by, either.

&lsquoFrom a regulatory standpoint we&rsquove done everything we can,&rsquo Hofmann says. &lsquo[So] we&rsquove turned our focus to everything non-regulatory. It&rsquos just a small part of the broader mission which is category recognition and consumer education.&rsquo

Cautious approach: Dave Smith and Lance Winters of St George Spirits are hesitant to define US single malt too soon

There are also those who think that even with all of the groundwork being done, these best-laid plans won&rsquot come to fruition from a legal standpoint. &lsquoI am skeptical that we will ever get the CFR [Code of Federal Regulations] changed to add &ldquoAmerican single malt whiskey&rdquo, but we are creating the category nevertheless, and the category is driving innovation in whiskey,&rsquo says Christian Krogstad, founder and master distiller of Oregon&rsquos House Spirits distillery, producer of Westward Whiskey.

&lsquoWhether or not we succeed in creating the &ldquoAmerican single malt&rdquo category within the CFR, the campaign itself is succeeding in creating the category within retail, trade and consumer awareness, which is the ultimate goal,&rsquo Krogstad says. &lsquoThis helps all American single malt producers by educating consumers and differentiating American single malt whiskey from other categories.&rsquo

Other producers are more optimistic about the official standards being set. &lsquoI am confident we will achieve our goal of creating an official &ldquoAmerican single malt&rdquo category, and that it will be one of the fastest growing and most innovative categories of American whiskey, enjoyed by consumers both domestically and abroad,&rsquo Moore says.

What most producers of American single malt whiskey do generally agree upon though is that the consumer is smarter and more well-informed than ever, and that the quality and diversity of American single malt whiskeys have been improving and will continue to do so.

&lsquoWhether the TTB recognises the style or not, its presence will be substantial enough to garner placement alongside other more commonly recognised styles of American whiskey,&rsquo Eckstein says.

&lsquoWhat we have going now as a category is, I think, something that people find very compelling,&rsquo Hofmann adds. &lsquoSo we have 100 distillers in the Commission right now and people are embracing making American single malts that are American, but that are also reflective of their individual localities. As much as we can continue to beat the drum, that&rsquos what we&rsquore going to do.&rsquo

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