American whiskey is often used as a catch-all term for spirits made outside of the more stringent regulations for both bourbon and rye. That said, there are still a few specific requirements for producing whiskey under this umbrella term. There are a small number of exceptions (state to state variation), but American whiskey must be: distilled to less than 95% ABV; stored in oak containers; bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and (and this is where the flexibility comes in) – must possess the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky. As with both bourbon and rye, to be labelled as ‘straight whiskey’ the liquid must be aged at least two years and contain no additives.
Several different styles of whiskey can fall under the ‘broad church’ of American whiskey. And people often get confused about the wide variety of terms which both exist, and are being introduced under the ‘craft distilling’ banner - which the American Distilling Institute and American Craft Spirits Association have tried to control and limit to the size and ownership of the distillery. Sensible - no one benefits from increasingly vague categorisation - least of all the consumer.
Both bourbon and rye have production and maturation requirements which look a lot like the catch all American whiskey – though of course, their mash bills are specified in minimum terms, their distillation ABVs are limited to 80% and not 95% (thus changing what can and can’t be done in a column stills), and also, the oak containers need to be both charred and new. Small, but important differences.
If you’ve particularly new to US whiskey, I’d not overly worry yourself about the do’s and do nots of distillation and maturation methods – they’re variable – some regulated on a national basis, others by state. But, what you should take away from this diversity is the huge range of aromas, flavours and styles it’s possible to create. America is fairly vast both in terms of its geography and, its multiplicity of whiskey.
We’re into the final twists and turns of the 2019 Boutique-y Whisky Advent calendar - and there’s time for one more trip State-side before the close. Batch 1 of the bottlers Heaven Hill 9 year old is described under the broad church of American whiskey and is delivered at 48.4% ABV. 1,177 bottles were produced and can be purchased from Master of Malt for £44.95.
Nose: Oak-forward with sawdust, balsa and park bench. Running throughout – toffee and burnt caramel alongside monkey nuts, tonka and vanilla beans and pepperiness. In the background, maple syrup, green pepper/almost chilli pepper and a pinch of salt. Water adds an expressive mineral dimension – Andrews Liver Salts with chalkiness, limestone, cashew nuts and citric powder.
Taste: Communicative toffee and salted caramel together with a big slab of wood. Planed oak, sawdust and pencil shavings steadily move into a wall of building spiciness – allspice and pepper. Fruits re-emerge in the mid-palate, Cherry Tunes with apple and raisin pastries. Finally a hit of dried earthiness – hot, cracked soils, and dusty salt-licked dunes. Reduction again pushes the minerality envelop – table salt, granite and piquant chill spices.
Finish: Medium in length with buttered toast, popcorn and fading allspice.
Boutique-y’s maiden batch of Heaven Hill offers rather the unique experience – the sweet corn notes which you’d expect from most styles of American whiskey are eschewed here for some thought-provoking salty minerality. This sits somewhat uneasily with the fruits and spicing – with each element showing signs of peaks and troughs rather than feeling like an integrated, consistent whole. As such, flavours either feel restrained, or let off the leash – with no particular structure. Interesting, but a little too woody and a little too left-field for my liking.