The whiskey renaissance is underway thanks to a growing appreciation for bolder flavors, marketing innovations, and a whiff of nostalgia. Millennials spurred the American whiskey movement as they have developed a more discerning palate for alcohol. And unlike other trendy spirits, it appears that this movement isn’t going away any time soon.
WATCH – Why is the American Whiskey Market Booming:
But What is Whiskey Exactly?
Scottish and Irish immigrants brought whiskey to America in 1710. Fermented grains such as barley, corn, rye, or wheat comprise its ingredients. Whiskey undergo aging in wooden barrels for at least two years. Location also determines the name of whiskey and the law that specifies the manner of preparation.
Whiskey is a broad category, and the differentiation is in the ingredient composition. A whiskey is a bourbon only if its mash contains at least 51% corn. The rest of the mash usually contains malted barley, and either wheat or rye. Only the US can make bourbon. Rye, another type of whiskey, contains 51% rye.
Similarities Between Beer and Whiskey
Whiskey starts off the same way as beer. Steeping grains in hot water to extract fermentable sugars produce a “mash.” If you were making beer, you’d add hops and then run the liquid, or “wort,”off the grains, and then add yeast. For whiskey production, you skip the hops and leave the grains in the sugar-rich liquid and pitch the yeast right in. This stage is the wash.
Here the processes diverge. For beer, the fermented wort goes through conditioning (a.k.a. cold-storage aging). For whiskey, the wash is destined for distillation. Some whiskeys are distilled with the grains still in the wash, while some are run off the grains before distillation.
What is the Difference In its Composition?
Scotch is made with malted barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Scotland is the only place where you can make scotch. There are also two kinds of scotch: malt and grain. Single malt is made entirely from malted grain. However, single grains do not need to be made from barley, nor does the grain need to be malted. The term single means that the scotch is from a single distillery.
Apart from these categories, there are two more classifications of whiskey: straight or blended. A fresh mash of grains aged in charred, new oak barrels plus water makes straight whiskey. Blended whiskey is a mixture of at least 20% whiskey and other spirits, flavorings, and colorings. Blended whiskey is generally a cheaper variety, but there are a number of premium brands in the market as well.
The US consumed an average of 3.7 billion bottles of whiskey between 2010 and 2015. Consumers also bought 672 million bottles of straight whiskey from 2013 and 2015, and 180 million bottles of blended whiskey.
Although there are iterations in terms of base grain, grain percentage, barrel finishes, and distillation processes, whiskey has a distinct flavor that bears no mistaking.
American Whiskey Resurgence
For a while in the 1960s, whiskey’s image was that it was as a “grandfather’s drink.” James Bond inspired young consumers, who then preferred to drink vodka, martinis, highballs, and Bloody Mary’s. Today, millennials drive the sales of American whiskey as they enjoy authentic, nostalgic craft products. In 2016, American whiskey sales rose 7.7%, totaling to $3.1 billion in revenue. There are now more American whiskey craft cocktail bars and local whiskey distilleries. Younger people, especially women, genuinely enjoy whiskey, given its new approachable price point. There is high demand for American whiskey and whiskey knowledge among the younger generation.
There has been a shift from household name distilleries such as Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s to smaller, artisanal-type companies.
In many cases, the same mass-producing distillery giants own these smaller companies. Kentucky and Tennessee are the whiskey capitals of America, and more small-scale distilleries are emerging in Ohio, New York, and Colorado.
In 2009, spirits owned 32.9% of the market share and has since surged to 35.9% in 2016. Interestingly, American whiskey’s female consumer base is growing fast. Beyond American shores, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia enjoy whiskey the most—the top importers of American whiskey. The UK alone imported 126.5 million US dollars’ worth in 2017.
Popular American Whiskey Brands
There are thousands of craft American whiskey brands, apart from Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, and Buffalo Trace. More and more distilleries and breweries are opening each year. Different brands are now innovating to produce rare and high-quality whiskey. This is further elevating its status as one of the top drinks of choice in the world. Producers are working at 100% capacity to keep up with the demand, exercising patience in storing their stock for years and decades.
The following is a list of some of the most popular American whiskey brands and distilleries:
- Breckenridge Bourbon – Breckenridge Distillery calls itself “The World’s Highest Distillery” as it sits in on the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The Breckenridge Bourbon is their signature product. It is a blend whiskey with high rye, and straight Bourbons from Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It won the “Distillery of the Year” both in 2013 and 2015 from the New York International Spirits Competition.
- Blanton’s – Its bourbon is only aged in one warehouse in Kentucky, built with steel walls and little insulation, essentially creating a rich product. Original Single Barrel Bourbon is a traditional corn-rye-barley mixture mashed in dark, charred white oak casks.
- Bulleit – Bulleit has been making Bourbon in Louisville, Kentucky, since the 1830s. Bulleit Rye is an award-winning straight rye whiskey with unparalleled spice and complexity. Released only in 2011, it continues to enjoy recognition as one of the highest quality ryes in the market.
- Hudson Whiskey – The distillery made two granaries into the first whiskey distillery in New York State since Prohibition. They won the award for best American distillery in 2010 by the American Distilling Institute. They are receive accolades and high regard for their Baby Bourbon brand.
- Michter’s – This distillery has been around since 1753 and has been following the same recipes up to this day. When people talk about a “classic rye,” they are usually referring to Michter’s as this was literally the first rye whiskey in America.
- WhistlePig – The company began when its founders bought Whistle Pig Farm in Vermont in 2017. It took them a few years of experimenting, but realized how important it is to respect tradition while embracing progress. They have since then gone on to produce five award-winning core products, with the rye whiskey as their main product.
- Widow Jane – The company is a craft distillery using the highest possible ingredients in creating a superior product. The pure, unique waters of the Widow Jane mine is what distills their artisan spirits in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
- Woodford Reserve – This distillery has been around for more than 230 years, and is known as the oldest Bourbon distillery in Kentucky. Brown-Forman, one of America’s largest wine and spirits companies, now owns Woodford Reserve. It was influential in the development and systematizing Bourbon production starting in 1780.
American Whiskey now has a growing fan base, with more millennials and women drinkers with sophisticated palates joining the fold. And with demand at an all-time high, experts say the whiskey boom will endure as producers continue to make honest and bold whiskey that consumers genuinely enjoy. It is making a bold impact on society.