I confess: I used to be a whisky snob. I always spelled whisky without the "e" — as they do in Scotland, land of elegant single malts.
I was willing to acknowledge that Ireland has begun to distill a few good spirits. Also Japan — hard to believe as that may be for those of us old enough to remember when "Made in Japan" suggested transistor radios and underpowered motorcycles.
But when I thought of American whiskey, what came to mind was a cowboy strutting through the swinging doors of a saloon, ordering a shot of rye, downing it in a gulp, and then grimacing like he'd swallowed a cockroach dipped in Tabasco. Or cloying bourbons suitable only for mixing with sugar and mint and serving to ladies wearing oversized hats on Derby Day. Or Canadian Club, a libation favored by Mad Men — guys interested only in a speedy alcohol delivery system.
Back in the day, my snobbery was justified. No longer: American craftsmen are now making world-class — one might even say Scotland-class — premium and ultra-premium whiskies. And even many of those that don't sit on the top shelf — inevitably the lion's share of what most people drink most of the time — represent good value.
These products are virtually flying off the shelves. For example, last year, for the third year in a row, over 1 million barrels of bourbon were filled. By contrast, in 1999 production totaled less than half a million barrels.
That's the news. Now for the analysis: Two distinct and rival schools of American spirits-making have emerged. On one side of whiskey creek you'll find the traditionalists or, more precisely, the restorationists. Sticklers for old-time recipes, tools, and methods, their goal is to re-create the libations Americans imbibed in days gone by. On the other side are the innovators. They're using science, technology, and energetic experimentation to develop spirits unlike any ever tasted by anyone in history. Who is right and who is wrong? I say, let a hundred corn, rye, wheat, and barley flowers bloom!
And blooming they are, all over the country: Over the past half decade, the number of artisanal distilleries has more than doubled to close to 700, turning out a wide variety of spirits, brown and white alike — and many of the latter are worth drinking as well. One important reason: federal and state laws that had made it expensive and complicated for wannabe entrepreneurs to open distilleries have been — and are being — reformed. (At last, some government agencies are doing something right!)
The quintessential American whiskey is bourbon. Which raises a question: If Scotch must come from Scotland, doesn't bourbon need to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky? The answer is no. You can make bourbon anywhere in the U.S. so long as you stick to the basic recipe: a minimum of 51% of the mash that is fermented into beer and then distilled into spirits must be from corn. The remainder of the mash can be a creative mixture of other grains — rye, malted barley, and wheat among them. The resulting spirit must age in charred new oak barrels before bottling at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol). Age it for at least two years and it can be called "straight bourbon whiskey." (If it's aged less than four years, the date of the distilling must appear on the bottle.)
So yes, bourbons are being made all over America but, truth be told, 95% of the world's bourbon is still Kentucky born and bred. The Bluegrass State remains the capital of American whiskey-making — a distinction it shares with neighboring Tennessee.
You may wonder: What is the difference between bourbons and Tennessee sour mash and "sippin' whiskies"? I will tell you: The latter are charcoal-filtered (usually — I'll note an exception in a moment). That makes them smoother. Some drinkers like that. Some like it hot.
Try this experiment: Ask your favorite local bartender to set you up with a shot of Jim Beam bourbon and a shot of Jack Daniel's sour mash — just the basic booze from the bottles on the lower shelf. Make it a blind tasting. See which you prefer.
Both bourbons and Tennessee whiskies are aged in charred American white oak barrels. Over time — a minimum of two years — the spirits draw tastes, aromas (more formally known as congeners), and colors from the wood. Other variables include the quality of the water (in Kentucky, a limestone shelf beneath the soil provides pure, iron-free H2O for Jim Beam and other bourbon makers; Jack Daniel's water has always come from an underground spring); the temperatures in the cellars or warehouses where the whiskies mature (because of the southern climate that process is much faster than in Scotland); and the yeast used to convert sugar into alcohol — each distillery has its own special strains, some of them dating back a couple hundred years.
Which allows me to segue to a little history: European immigrants, the Scots Irish in particular, brought their distillation skills with them from the old country, and were not long on American soil before they began turning their grain harvests into liquids with a long shelf life and a bit of a kick.
In 1791, President George Washington decided to help reduce the debt incurred during the American Revolution by taxing these products. That set off what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. When 500 armed men attacked the home of a tax inspector in western Pennsylvania, President Washington saddled his horse and led 13,000 militiamen to suppress the insurgency.
The rebels, many of whom had fought the British under Washington's command, high-tailed it back home before he showed up. Epilogue: The whiskey tax was repealed after Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party came to power in 1801. Today, however, up to 50% of the cost of a bottle of whiskey is tax. (Forget what I said earlier about the government doing something right!)
Upon his retirement, Washington was unable to command the big speaking and book fees available to former presidents in the modern era. So he returned to farming. He also built what, at the time, may have been the country's largest distillery. He wisely hired an immigrant from Scotland, James Anderson, to run it for him. Whiskey sales were soon bringing in more cash than any other activity on his spread.
In 2007, with the financial support of DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Washington's still was re-created. So if you're taking the kids to see the Founding Father's restored plantation at Mount Vernon, you might want to make a slight detour and buy yourself some beverages said to be identical to those Washington made, sold, sipped — and taxed.
Also worth visiting are the many distilleries along what's known as the American Whiskey Trail that winds through Kentucky and Tennessee. Let me tell you about a few of them.
The Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, claims to be the oldest working distillery on its original site. Rob Samuels, the CEO, told me and a small group of other drinkers with a writing problem that he comes from a family that began distilling in Scotland in the 1500s. "My ancestors made really bad whisky for several hundred years," he said with pride.
His American forebears both rebelled against King George and fought in the Whiskey Rebellion. One way or another, his family continued to transform grain into spirits because, he said, they couldn't make a living any other way. "All the distilling families distinguished themselves by their incompetence in everything but the whiskey business," he acknowledged.
His grandmother advised him to become a whiskey craftsman, not a businessman, and his goal has been to produce "a full-strength bourbon you can hold on your tongue and not have it blow your ears off." Mr. Samuels' grandfather was good friends with Col. Sanders — a fact that has nothing to do with the subject at hand but which he couldn't resist mentioning and neither can I.
Just outside Nashville is Fontanel, a grand estate formerly owned by country singer Barbara Mandrell. It now has lodging and dining, mansion tours, concerts, shopping and even zip lines. More to the point, it is here that Phil Pritchard has set up the first new craft distillery in Tennessee in half a century. It features a beautiful, brand-new, custom-designed, French-style, swan-necked, 400-gallon alembic copper pot still (created by the highly skilled artisans at Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky), sitting on a base of bricks salvaged from an old school house. Adjacent is a log cabin converted into a tasting room.
Pritchard comes from a long line of master distillers. Some of them, he says, even worked within the law. "I'm also related to David Crockett," he tells me. "In Tennessee, we don't call him 'Davy.' That's a Disney term." Live and learn.
Mr. Pritchard is now turning out not only hand-crafted Tennessee whiskies (that are not charcoal-filtered), bourbons, ryes, and single-malts, but also fine brandies and rum. The rum is made from high-grade Louisiana molasses and, to my considerable surprise, I find even an un-aged sample remarkably smooth and flavorful.
"America was the largest rum-maker in the world prior to the American Revolution," Pritchard instructs. "Near Boston, there were 100 stills making rum. Thomas Jefferson called rum the 'poor man's brandy.'" Pritchard sees the production of such rums as a "lost American art form" — one he intends to restore.
About 87 miles south of Pritchard's is Cascade Hollow in Tullahoma, Tennessee, the bucolic home to George A. Dickel & Co. Here, the distillers hew to tradition, handcrafting their Tennessee whisky (they use the Scottish spelling) exactly as it was made in the 19th century — same methods, same tools — no computers.
Let me now take you beyond the Whiskey Trail to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where you'll find Wigle Whiskey, named for "a man who was sentenced to hang for his love of whiskey" — that is to say he was a leader of the Whiskey Rebellion. Wigle Whiskey's goal: to restore "a tradition championed by these rebellious distillers."
By contrast, take Darek Bell and Andrew Webber, proprietors of the Corsair Distillery in Nashville. They began their careers home-brewing beer in a garage but they've developed "a passion for alternative grains." Among their products: a spirit distilled from "red and white organic, food-grade quinoa from South America." Corsair also produces "barrel-aged gin" and a rum spiced with "several types of citrus peel as well as whole vanilla bean."
Cleveland Whiskey, made on the shores of Lake Erie, prides itself on innovation. Founder Tom Lix boasts: "I make bourbon whiskey in a radically different way. No excuses. I don't put it in a barrel and wait eight, 10 or 12 years for the whiskey to slowly age. I'm not that patient. Instead, I developed a technology that uses pressure to literally squeeze the wood like a sponge. I wanted faster, but I also found it makes a richer bourbon, a darker, more flavorful bourbon."
The distillers at Angel's Envy in Louisville, Kentucky, combine both restorationist and innovative tendencies: "We're restless creators who respect and celebrate bourbon tradition, but try not to shackle ourselves to it." Lincoln Henderson, the late patriarch of the family behind their brand, is described as both a "revered bourbon conventionalist and renegade bourbon provocateur." Among other things, he has experimented with bourbon finished in barrels previously used for sherry, rum, tequila, brandy, and port. Angel's Envy bourbon and rye are both, in my opinion, superior beverages.
Steven Grasse, founder of Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile on the edge of New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest, told me that his goal also is to simultaneously "restore tradition and innovate." Grasse is a spectacularly successful former advertising executive. Among his accomplishments: turning Sailor Jerry from a clothing line based on the work of a tattoo artist into a spiced rum and combining cucumber and rose petals with juniper to make Hendrick's Gin. Both are now established global brands.
With a state-of-the-art still built by our friends at Vendome, and a 72-acre organic farm, Grasse sees himself as the "Willy Wonka of booze." He views his spirits as agricultural products: "farm to table, grain to glass." His goal is to create a "utopian farm community" in the New England Transcendentalist tradition but, he assures me, "I have enough business savvy to connect to commerce and sell what we produce." He adds: "Craft distilleries generally make one thing. We're making so many things — some very weird, some very cool. We're experimenting with mushrooms, we're fermenting milk, we're seeing what we can do with forest moss. The idea is to be in a place where we can forage. We try a few barrels and see what happens."
Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana is a co-owner of House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon, which is best known for making Aviation American Gin. Flavored with a variety of botanicals including Indian sarsaparilla and lavender, it has developed something of a cult following.
Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee makes rum, gin, and Kinnickinnic Whiskey, a blend of hand-crafted Wisconsin malt and rye whiskies and "hand selected barrels of bourbon." Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio, makes Oyo Whiskey from "soft red winter wheat." The Bloomery Plantation Distillery in Charles Town, West Virginia, produces "farm fresh cocktail liqueurs."
And on a recent visit to Big Sky, Montana, I sat down in Buck's T-4, a restaurant I heartily recommend. A cocktail menu offered "Montana Whiskey Flight: A rotating, hand selected flight of 4 half shots of Montana's finest hand-crafted whiskeys." I wasn't disappointed.
I could go on but let me instead recommend a few other whiskies that you won't be sorry to have on your bar (or in your desk): Four Roses sounds like something you'd drink out of a paper bag but its Single Barrel is an extraordinarily smooth, flavorful, spicy bourbon. Breckenridge Bourbon "made at 9,600 feet with snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains" is worth bringing back from your next Colorado ski trip. Anything from Pappy Van Winkle is going to be superlative (the Family Reserve 13-year-old rye is ambrosia of the gods but most remaining bottles are in someone's private collection — I have maybe two shots left in my bottle). 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select bourbon is pleasantly peppery. Think of Knob Creek Smoked Maple bourbon as liquid desert.
Little known but more than worth sampling: Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge hand-crafted "Alabama-style" whiskey. I'm no kin to former moonshiner Clyde and his son, Kenny, "who took his dad's recipe legit," but if I should attempt to persuade them otherwise can I count on you to keep your mouth shut? Also: Can you please not tell them that I used to be a whisky snob?