These days, thanks to the craft whiskey renaissance of the last fifteen years, the variety of whiskey styles made in the United States is as diverse as our great nation’s population. Historically, though, the landscape has been dominated by two categories: bourbon and rye.
Both styles have several things in common. Chief among their similarities is that they must both be aged in new, charred oak barrels, a major source of flavor and aroma in America’s native whiskeys (remember that scotch is always aged in used barrels).
Bourbon, which is by far the more popular category, is historically associated with Kentucky, which remains the seat of the American whiskey industry. Contrary to the popular imagination, however, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn, with the remaining 49% being some combination of other grains—typically malted barley and either rye or wheat. It’s a good entry point to whiskey for many drinkers, as its flavor profile tends to be sweet, leaning toward caramel, vanilla, soft spices, and wood.
Rye whiskey is bourbon’s northern counterpart, and although it’s long played second fiddle to bourbon in terms of sales, it’s been making a comeback in recent years. Rye, as you probably guessed, has to be made with at least 51% rye, with the remainder, again, being up to the distiller, but usually consisting of malted barley and corn. Rye grain imparts distinctive spice and fruit notes, making rye whiskey more assertive than its mellow southern cousin. There are a number of other categories of American whiskey. They include Tennessee whiskey, which is essentially bourbon that’s made in Tennessee and filtered through charcoal. Wheat whiskey is, you guessed it, made with mostly wheat. And blended whiskey—well, that’s a whole different thing.
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