When it comes to making it loud and proud, the Yanks are leading the way.
The differences between Scotch whisky and American whiskey can often be simmered down to the differences between the countries they originate from. One is full of history, heritage and character, while the other is seen as young, brash and not afraid to speak its mind. However, this description is likely too simplistic, with each style proudly linked to its territory.
The American Whiskey industry was founded in the 18th century by Scottish immigrants, who brought their knowledge and expertise to the New World. From here, the American product has developed its own distinctive identity, forging its own path as dictated by its surroundings. The distinctions are subtle, yet numerous – including the base ingredients used, how the liquid is matured, and what it can be called.
Over the years, standards were laid down by the federal and state governments, making the US government the guarantor of whiskey’s authenticity. Scotland has similar rules and regulations, although those laid down by the Scotch Whisky Association are currently seen by many as stifling innovation, allowing our cousins across the pond to gain an ever-larger foothold in the spirits market.
However, in this battle between the Old and New Worlds, there is no reason consumers cannot savour the fruits of their efforts. With this in mind, over the following pages, you will find three American whiskies that I would be proud to have sitting alongside my Scotch whisky collection.
Balcones Baby Blue Corn Bourbon
Balcones might have started out in an old welding shop but it has since moved its distillery to the old Texas Fireproof Storage Co. building in downtown Waco. Since opening, the distillery has been showered with awards and accolades for its ingenuity and willingness to experiment and this approach resulted in the first-ever Texan whiskey as well as the first bourbon ever produced using blue corn.
Balcones’ head distiller, Jared Himstedt, who has been with the company since its inception, is credited with growing Balcones to the brand it is today – and he was named Master Distiller/Blender of the Year in 2019 and is currently president of the Texas Whiskey Association.
The Balcones Baby Blue Corn Bourbon Whiskey is, as the name suggests, also made from blue corn which is native to the southwestern United States and is usually only found in food products such as blue corn chips. After production, the whiskey then spends its maturation time being exposed to new, charred wood is 225-litre casks. The bourbon is bottled at 46% ABV.
But Balcones offers much more than mere novelty; soft vanilla and notes of candied peel mingle with caramelised bananas, toasted oak and a little creamy cereal sweetness before baking spices and salted butter pave the way to a sweet, spiced finish.
£50 from masterofmalt.com
Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey
In the days before Prohibition, farm distillers could be found throughout the state of New York, with the number estimated to be pushing the one thousand mark. After almost being wiped out by Prohibition Laws in the early 20th century, distilling is firmly back on the agenda in New York state, with Tuthilltown Spirits bringing the tradition of small-batch spirits production back to the Hudson Valley in 2005.
Like many start-up distilleries, Tuthilltown makes a whole range of spirits, including vodka, gin and whiskey, although the Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey is one of their best. Legally, bourbon must be made with 51% corn, but the Baby Bourbon is made with 100% Empire State Corn, which has been sourced from within five miles of the distillery.
After being double distilled, the liquid goes through a unique maturation process. Firstly, its four-year maturation is spent in petite new American oak barrels, which only hold two gallons – compared to the industry standard 53 gallons – which results in a massive wood-to-whiskey ratio. Bizarrely, the casks are then ‘sonically matured’ with the help of large bass speakers, which is believed to agitate both the casks and the liquid, further increasing the interaction between the spirit and the wood. Even opening the traditional wax seal on the bottle only adds to the mystique of what is held within.
And what is inside is just what you would expect from a liquid that has had this much contact with wood – lots of oak, with hints of vanilla pushing through as well. These flavours transfer to the palate, adding a bit of caramel and honey sweetness, along with some bursts of spice. Coupled with the smooth texture, many of the Baby Bourbon’s characteristics are in line with what you would experience in a Scotch matured in American oak, with the brand new wood adding that extra bite.
£45 from whiskyshop.com
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old
Unlike young upstarts Hudson and Balcones, Pappy Van Winkle – as the name might suggest – has a whole lot of history behind it. The story of the Old Rip Van Winkle stretches back four generations to the end of the 19th century, when travelling salesman Julian P ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle Snr purchased a bourbon distillery which would remain in family hands right up until 1972. His son Julian Jnr was forced to sell both the distillery and all of the brands that came with it, except one: Old Rip Van Winkle. Julian Jnr then used the whiskey stocks from the old distillery to supply his brand.
To this day, the brand still does not own its own distillery, instead entering into an agreement with Buffalo Trace in Kentucky to produce its liquid, under the same strict guidelines the family has always followed. In recent years, the bourbon has become a ‘must-have’ brand, after a number of celebrity chefs and whisky/whiskey lovers began to sing its praises.
Only around 7,000 bottles hit the market each year, which is viewed as enough volume to generate interest but not enough to flood the market. Such is its popularity, an empty bottle recently sold on eBay for more than $300.
Of the limited range, I would recommend seeking out the 20 Year Old, which has been rated the best bourbon whiskey in the world at the World Spirits Championship. Van Winkle distinguishes its bourbons by making them with corn, barley and wheat, rather than corn, barley and rye, to give it a much softer and smoother taste. Boasting aromas of caramel, cream and raisins, the mouthfeel is like silk. It has got a lot of citrus for a bourbon, along with some sherry notes and those deep, oak and vanilla flavours, which couple with a long and elegant finish. An American classic if there ever was one.
£1,820 from Amazon