Gentle, green hills with sheep scattered here and there, quaint pubs and the unmistakable sound of a bagpipe – the typical images of Scotland often come to mind when thinking about whiskey. However, Scotland is not the only place that has a long tradition of producing the delicious, amber-colored spirit. For centuries, American distillers have experimented with a range of grains such as corn, wheat, barley and rye to create uniquely American Whiskeys that are cherished around the globe. In fact, 65 percent of all U.S. spirits exports are whiskey, and more than half of the whiskey is shipped to Europe. So how did whiskey find a stronghold in the United States and what should every whiskey lover know?
Whiskey, bourbon or scotch – what’s the difference?
When it comes to whiskey, the different terms related to the drink can cause some confusion. However, with a closer look and a brief explanation, the whiskey language is quite simple to decipher. Whiskey is the umbrella term for a spirit distilled from grain mash. Whether the whiskey is called scotch or bourbon depends on the region or production style. A Scotch is – as the name reveals – distilled, stored and bottled in Scotland. Bourbon, on the other hand, is produced in the United States. The differences regarding the taste are mainly caused by the use of different types of grain as well as different demands regarding the aging in wooden barrels.
Tracing back the history
The original knowledge of distillation was brought to the United States by Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants. From this point on, the United States became part of the history of whiskey.
“American Whiskey has held an important economic, cultural, and social function in the history of the United States, dating back 400 years ago when English colonist George Thorpe distilled the first batch of corn whiskey in Virginia.”Distilled Spirits Council
In the early days, distilling whiskey was not only a way to satisfy the settlers thirst for alcohol, but also a smart way to use spare grain before it spoiled. By the late 1700’s, thousands of small grain distilleries could be found in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. With their surplus of rye, barley, wheat, corn, or fermented grain mixtures, American farmers were in the midst of the booming whiskey business. The popularity of producing whiskey didn’t end there. Even the nation’s founding father George Washington joined the industry and soon ran the largest whiskey distillery. In 1799, his distillery in Virginia produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey.
Although there was a clear influx of whisky producers, the industry had to cope with both ups and downs over the decades. For instance, both the “Whiskey tax” in 1791 and prohibition in the 1920’s made for difficult times. However, after each rough patch, the whiskey business was able to recover and flourish again. Today, famous brands and small manufacturers offer Whiskey lovers a wide range of complex and distinctly American products. Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, American Rye Whiskey, and American Single Malt Whiskey are just a few popular choices from a list of varieties.
The year 1964 made it official: Bourbon is recognized as a distinctive product of the United States. Not only must the whiskey be produced in the U.S. with a minimum of 51 percent corn consistency, but it must also be aged in new, charred oak barrels in order to count as a Bourbon.
The use of corn is crucial for the character of this specific whiskey. It gives the bourbon a soft, mild and sweet flavor. Corn became the main ingredient of Bourbon due to the weather circumstances in Kentucky, where most of the distillers settled and favored corn over rye.
Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon have almost identical rules. However, it must be produced in the state of Tennessee it is that it is filtered through maple charcoal before aging in new charred barrels. This is known as the “Lincoln County Process”.
American Rye Whiskey
It is important to note that not every American whiskey is a Bourbon. Lately regaining some attention, American Rye Whiskey is another tasty option. Since rye was the most prevalent grain in colonial America, American Rye Whiskey was the most popular whiskey until the period of prohibition.
Similar to Bourbon, this whiskey must meet certain requirements in order to earn its name. American Rye Whiskey must be made of at least 51 percent rye and also has to age in new, charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The drink is described as having spicy, sharp notes and a more distinctive, dry aroma than Bourbon.
Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, and American Rye Whiskey
Additives, coloring, and flavorings cannot be added to Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, or American Rye Whiskey. The flavoring and coloring come entirely from the grains and the aging process.
There is no minimum aging requirement for Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, or American Rye Whiskey. However, they must be stored, for an undefined period, in new charred oak barrels. If they are aged for a period of 2 years or more, they may optionally be designated as “straight”.
The Whiskey Revolution – Craft Distilleries
Most American whiskey found in Europe is produced by a handful of internationally recognized producers with long and storied histories. However, in recent years there has been quite the revolution in U.S. whiskey production: the rise of small, even microscopic “craft” distillers. As recently as the early 1980s there were no more than 100 registered distilleries of any kind in the United States. By 2020 the number has risen to over 2,000 distilleries.
What is fascinating about this development is that small distilleries have historically dominated in the U.S. before. Prior to Prohibition (1920-1933), which made all production, transportation and sale of alcohol illegal, there were actually tens of thousands of small distilleries spread throughout the country – tracing all the way back to the original settling of the land by European immigrants. Each region in the U.S. has its own tradition of distilling, linked to the European origins of its original settlers as well as the land and climate of the local environment.
Enjoying U.S. Whiskey in Europe
While craft distilleries have made their mark in the States, many craft American whiskey brands remain a mystery to European whiskey lovers. However, there are some whiskey experts and distributors in Europe that have made it possible to enjoy craft U.S. whiskey abroad. To name a few, here are some U.S. whiskey providers in Europe:
From Online shops to locally based stores, the United Kingdom is full of whiskey opportunities. Amongst the American whiskey distributors in the UK are Urban Drinks, Master of Malt and Whisky Exchange. In the center of London’s vibrant Soho, Gerry’s Wines and Spirits offers a variety of American whiskeys both in store and online. Similarly, the fine wine and spirits boutique, Hedonism, stocks over 250 U.S. whiskeys, which can be enjoyed at their Mayfair location in London or delivered home.
As Bulgaria’s thirst for distilled spirits continues to grow, U.S. whiskies are increasingly popular and Bulgarian imports of U.S. whiskey are on a rise every year. Bulgarian consumers consider U.S. products to be of very good quality, especially in premium segments, and are receptive to modern and innovative products. The whiskey culture in Bulgaria is still moderate, but various promotional events and education activities help increase the knowledge and develop consumers’ taste and whiskey culture. There are several whiskey-dedicated bars in Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria), Plovdiv, and Varna (second and third largest cities). The two most popular and iconic bars in Sofia are Caldo and Masterpiece. In Plovdiv, you can taste and enjoy hundreds of whiskey varieties in bar Sandak and in The Whiskey Library. If you are in Varna, don’t miss Tasting Room bar.
The Beavis.bar and its online shop, Beavis.shop, are dedicated to unveiling the mystery and giving Berliners and Europeans access to craft whiskey from the United States. Amongst over 1,000 craft spirits from small, artisanal producers there are 100 different U.S. craft whiskeys that can be found on the shelves of the Beavis.bar in Berlin-Mitte. For those curious about buying U.S. whiskey online, the German shops Urban Drinks and Bottle Rocket have a wide assortment of beverages that can be delivered throughout Germany.
While some of these shops deliver their products to various European countries, there are plenty of other online and offline shops throughout Europe that are passionate about sharing high-quality U.S. whiskey abroad.
In Russia, whiskey belongs to the premium alcohol segment. Imports account for about 98 percent of the market.
One of the largest and most famous whiskey brands in Russia is Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey. Other well-known U.S. whiskey brands sold today in Russia are Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark from Kentucky. American whiskey is available in almost every bar and restaurant in the country. A large assortment is presented at Metro C&C and Luxury Wine & Spirit. You can also try assorted whiskey based cocktails in Noor bar.