American whiskey has a long history, even older than the nation itself. Brought by settlers when America was still a relatively small collection of English colonies, whiskey distillation spread across the country wherever people went. As a cottage industry, whiskey helped shape the way Americans are and can be taxed and played a pivotal role in determining the size and role of the federal government. Whiskey is so embedded in American history, that distillation was the chosen post-presidential activity of George Washington himself. However, bourbon has always overshadowed other American whiskeys. While bourbon is the most well-known style whose name has become synonymous with American whiskey, not all American whiskeys are bourbon. In fact, the single most famous and best-selling American whiskey of all is not bourbon, but is Tennessee whiskey. Rye whiskey, an early popular favorite of Americans, fell in popularity with most old brands falling behind or out of the picture altogether, but in recent years has re-emerged and is becoming more popular and being made by more distillers. Tennessee whiskey is also now being made by a growing number of distillers. In order to embrace the current wave of enthusiasm for American whiskey, one should first take a look at what American whiskey is.
Early American settlers drank little whiskey. The first drink to really dominate the landscape of the American Colonies was rum, but in the very early days, the Colonists favored beer, cider, and applejack, which is distilled cider. It is unclear how widespread the knowledge of distillation was among the earliest English settlers. As Gary and Mardee Regan point out in “The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys,” applejack was often “distilled” by being left outside overnight during winter. In the morning, the water in the cider would have frozen while the alcohol and other compounds with freezing points below 32F would still be liquid. What is clear is that there was not any commercial distilling industry at the time, so distilled spirits would generally be uncommon. When, according to Peter Krass in “Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel,” Captain George Thorpe developed an alcoholic beverage from American corn that he often preferred over English beer, he may have created the first American whiskey. As corn is the primary ingredient of American whiskeys, Thorpe was certainly on to something, but it is unknown if Thorpe distilled his corn drink to make whiskey or was simply referring to a kind of corn beer. Either way, Thorpe can definitely be called a pioneer of American whiskey, though it would be a long time before whiskey really became widespread in the Colonies.
The 18th Century saw a tremendous amount of Scots-Irish and Scottish settlers coming to the American Colonies. When they came, they brought their taste for whiskey and their knowledge of how to make it. While rum in the 18th Century dominated the drinking establishments of coastal and Northern towns, whiskey was being made by the farmers in the South and settlers on the frontier. As the Scots-Irish moved south and west, they took their stills with them. In the latter part of the 18th Century, settlers were moving west through Pennsylvania, south into Kentucky – which was then part of Virginia – and west into the part of North Carolina that would become Tennessee. The Western frontier became filled with mills and distilleries. At first, farmers turned to distillation as a way to use excess grain from a bumper crop, by turning the grain into what W.J. Rorabaugh in “The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition,” called “liquid assets”. Liquor simply had value that surplus grain did not have and for that reason was a wise thing to make. Whiskey became such a valuable part of frontier American life that the Western settlers making it viewed their right to in extremely rigid terms. To them, whiskey represented a part of their livelihood and a part of their wealth. When the new federal government taxed whiskey, while leaving other beverages alone, many farmer/distillers in Western Pennsylvania rebelled. For them the whiskey tax was not simply a tax, but was an attack on their way of life. More to the point, many people were so dependent on whiskey for a living that they were genuinely concerned that the new tax might drive them into poverty, causing them to lose their homes and farms to foreclosure. However, the issue for Washington D.C. at this time was paying down the debts of the War. There were veterans who needed to be paid for their wartime service, lest they lead an armed revolt; there were foreign governments that needed to be paid if the new United States was going to have any credibility among nations; there was a new capitol to build and there was little or nothing available to pay for anything. Taxes had to be raised and some in government were insistent on establishing, early on, the right of the federal government to levy taxes as it needs to. The tax on whiskey was just one part of some very complicated financial maneuvering by Alexander Hamilton, but it was enough to be the catalyst of an open rebellion against the government. The Whiskey Rebellion was eventually put down in 1794 when President Washington sent 13,000 federal troops to Western Pennsylvania to quash it, while at that very time he was building his own distillery.
George Washington built a distillery at Mount Vernon that was one of the biggest commercial distilleries in the United States at the time. In “Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry,” Dennis J. Pogue explains that Washington hired a Scotsman named James Anderson to oversee Mount Vernon and take charge of the whiskey operation. The whiskey that Anderson made was rye, a classic American style. The distillery burned down in 1814 and was never rebuilt or re-opened. However, another opportunistic distiller began making rye under the name of Mount Vernon Rye, which enjoyed an erroneous association with George Washington for more than a century. Whiskey is finally being made at the real Mount Vernon again, though, as a replica of the original distillery was built on the old site. Today it is the only place in America where whiskey is made as it was in the 18th Century, and the whiskey they are making is the same rye whiskey formula that George Washington made.
American rye whiskey, as opposed to Canadian, is whiskey that is made from at least 51% rye. The rest of the mash bill can be comprised of any mixture of corn, wheat, or barley. Rye whiskey cannot be distilled at higher than 160 proof, aged at more than 125 proof, and it must be aged for at least two years in charred, new oak barrels. These rules are exactly the same as the rules governing bourbon with one exception: rye has taken the place of corn. Rye was an extremely popular type of whiskey before Prohibition, to the point that it was even more prevalent than bourbon. However, rye’s popularity dropped off after repeal and has only recently begun a real comeback. There are only a few old rye labels that have been in continuous production over the decades, Old Overholt for example, but new rye whiskeys seem to be emerging all of the time now. Some of the resurgence is coming from small “craft” distilleries – which are a fairly new thing themselves – though much of it is also coming from large distillers with established bourbon brands like Jim Beam, Bulleit, and Knob Creek. Rye whiskey is generally characterized as being spicier or hotter than bourbon. However, that is also how bourbons with a particularly rye-heavy mash bill are described. For that reason, there are some straight ryes that taste very much like bourbon and could be mistaken for bourbon without embarrassment. On the other end of the rye spectrum are whiskeys with a relatively high proportion of rye; these whiskeys are significantly more distinctive from bourbon and possess an unmistakable rye flavor, almost like liquid rye bread. It is important when buying rye to make sure whether it is American or Canadian. American rye is subject to the strict laws mentioned above. Canadian whisky, as seen in an earlier article, only needs to possess the flavor, aroma, and characteristics associated with Canadian whisky, so it really may not have much rye in it; the proportion of rye is often as low as 10%.
Another major American style of whiskey is, of course, Tennessee whiskey. Given the small number of distillers that have been making it over the years, Tennessee whiskey has some seriously outsized influence, most of which can be attributed to one man: Jack Daniel. Jack Daniel’s is the oldest registered distillery in the United States. Jack Daniel’s is the single most famous and best selling whiskey made in the United States. It is ubiquitous at bars and liquor stores around the world and is one of the most recognizable brands, of any type of product, in the world today. Jack Daniel’s is, however, very similar to bourbon. In fact before 1941, when the Motlow family (sons of Jack’s nephew Lem Motlow, who inherited the distillery upon Jack’s death) successfully lobbied the federal government to recognize Tennessee whiskey as something separate from bourbon and unique to Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s was labelled as bourbon. So why isn’t it bourbon? Tennessee whiskey is made using the Lincoln County Process. The Lincoln County process is simply the process of filtering the whiskey through charcoal, specifically sugar maple charcoal. The process is time consuming, but Tennessee distillers consider it worthwhile because it gives the whiskey a head start on the aging process and makes for a smoother flavor than is typically found in bourbons. The development of the Lincoln County process is generally attributed to Alfred Eaton in 1825. However, according to Mark Waymack and James Harris in “The Book of Classic American Whiskeys,” there is evidence to suggest that charcoal filtering was actually being done in Kentucky first. At any rate, it is a requirement for a whiskey to be called a Tennessee whiskey and the two big Tennessee distillers have their own ways of going about it. For instance, George Dickel chills the whisky (that’s how Dickel spells it) before filtering while Jack Daniel’s doesn’t. Jack Daniel’s filters Gentleman Jack twice, the second time after it has been aged, which no one else does.
Rye and Tennessee whiskeys share an important place in the catalog of American whiskey. Bourbon is still the king, but more distillers, like Prichard’s for instance, have begun making Tennessee whiskey; it is no longer the sole province of only two distillers. Rye has been making a very impressive comeback lately. Only a few years ago rye was very difficult to find in most of the country, but today one can find many good examples at nearly any good liquor store. In addition to bourbon, it is important that other types of American whiskeys endure so that they can continue to be enjoyed well into the future. After all, whiskey is a part of our American heritage and we can be be proud that our whiskeys, of all types, are particularly good and stand up well wherever they go in the world.