Wednesday, 28 February 2018

If You Build It: Super-Sized Freedom Edition

Why aren't there any knock-knock jokes about America?
Because freedom rings.
Welcome to the third installment of my "how to" series on building a whiskey collection. In this article, I'll focus on the Land of the Free, my homeland's neighbour to the south. 'Merica ! The United States of America is a complicated and diverse country, but I'll try to keep this simple. As always, the TL;DR version is at the end. First, some background information.

Straight Bourbon, Straight Rye or American Whiskey?

All bourbon is American whiskey, not all American whiskey is bourbon. According to Wikipedia (may my university professors have mercy on my soul)

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be:
  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
  • Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
Frank's drink of choice

There is no minimum age requirement for bourbon. Rex and Daniel over at The Whisk(e)y Vault YouTube channel have joked about putting white dog (new make spirit) into a barrel for 1 day and calling it "Technically Bourbon". If something is labeled "Straight Bourbon", it must be aged for at least two years, and it must carry an age statement if it has been aged less than four years. Also, straight bourbon can NOT contain any additives, not even E150a (caramel colouring). Bonus points for bourbon makers ! So what's "Tennessee Whiskey"? Jack Daniel's Old No.7, the best selling American whiskey in the world, meets all the criteria for straight bourbon...BUT, they don't label themselves as a bourbon because of one thing; the Lincoln County Process. The Lincoln County Process is an extra filtration step that proceeds as follows (again from Wikipedia, I'm going straight to academic hell): The charcoal used by Jack Daniel's is created on site, from stacks (ricks) of two by two inch sugar maple timbers. They are primed with 140 proof Jack Daniel's, and then ignited under large hoods to prevent sparks. Once they have reached the char state, the ricks are sprayed with water to prevent complete combustion. The resulting charcoal is then fed through a grinder to produce bean-size pellets. These are packed into 10-foot (3.0 m) vats, where they are used to filter impurities from the 140 proof whiskey. The whiskey is then reduced with water to 125 proof for aging.

What's a mash bill?

"Mash bill" simply refers to the mixture of grains that are milled, cooked and fermented to begin the bourbon-making process. In Canada, most producers  make corn, rye, barley and wheat whisky separately and blend them before bottling to achieve the desired flavour profile. Bourbon and American whiskey makers usually establish their mash bills ahead of time. Neither is better than the other, but the result is different. There are usually three grains used in a bourbon mash bill: corn, barley (often malted), and either rye or wheat. The last two are largely responsible for the flavour of a bourbon; rye-containing bourbons are usually spicier, with pepper, caraway, dill and nutmeg often showing up in the final product. Wheated bourbons are usually softer, with more vanilla, honey and (to my palate) toasted marshmallow.

American Rye Whiskey is different from Canadian Rye Whisky. Don't compare the two, as they are totally different animals, related in name only. In the United States, "rye whiskey" must be made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye. It must be distilled to no more than 160 U.S. proof (80% ABV), aged in charred, new oak barrels. American Rye whiskey must go into barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). So water might be added to some ryes before aging. American Rye whiskey that has been so aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other spirits may be further designated as "straight rye whiskey."

Enough with the technical stuff, let's get to building your American whiskey collection.

Level 1: Setting the stage

The base of any American Whiskey collection should be simple, iconic, classic. Before going over the top with fireworks and pyrotechnics, something simple is required. So which American whiskies should be the unsung heroes of your cabinet? Some may find my recommendation predictable, but I suggest keeping a bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No.7 on hand at all times. It was Frank Sinatra's favorite whiskey, Lemmy Kilmister drank it daily (with Coke) and I can't think of a better endorsement. Other iconic choices you might consider are Maker's Mark (wheated bourbon), Old Overholt Straight RyeGeorge Dickel Number 12, or Jim Beam. If you opt for Jim Beam, I would suggest you spend the extra two bucks for the Jim Beam 6 Year Old Black Label; it's a much more rounded whiskey. 

Level 2: When you need a strong arm

I'm a baseball fan and there's nothing more American than baseball. I'm amazed at the skill of outfielders, who make catching those fly balls look, well, routine. Great outfielders need excellent spatial awareness (which I lack completely), serious speed and a strong arm to make big throws. Whiskies in this category pack a slightly higher ABV punch, and are capable of some theatrics from time to time. These whiskies are not all superstars like Ken Griffey Jr, Carl Yastrzemski or Aaron Judge. Some are more "routine" like Yoenis Cespedes or J.D. Martinez. I'd recommend Wild Turkey 101, Knob Creek RyeOld Weller Antique 107Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, Rittenhouse Straight Rye or Old Grand Dad 114. 

Level 3: Speed, Agility and Accuracy

Second base and short-stop are tricky positions. They require a great deal of agility and athletic ability. Whiskies in this category are like Roberto Alomar; excellent at all aspects of the game. While Alomar could turn a double-play, produce clutch hits and steal bases, whiskies in this category work on their own, on ice or in a cocktail. Once you get to this level, you may also consider some unique whiskies that bring something special to the table. Whiskies like Balcones Texas Single Malt, Four Roses Single Barrel, High West Rendezvous Rye, Angel's Envy Port Barrel Finish and Stanahan's Colorado Whiskey fit the bill here.

Level 4: American Muscle

Serious muscle
Enough with the baseball analogies. How about muscle cars? While Europeans have produced sleek sports cars like the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, American muscle cars are big, loud and unapologetic. The 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle LS6 with its 450 Horsepower engine was at the top of the food chain. Whiskies in this category are big, bold and take no prisoners. Ye be warned ! I recommend Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Stagg Jr.

Level 5: Franchise Players

Don't ask AI about practice
We're getting near the top. The whiskeys at this level may be hard to come by, but they're worth it. They're the Aaron Rodgers, the Mike Trout, the Allen Iverson of American whiskeys. Just make sure that you've got enough practice before you take these whiskeys on. (Practice? We talkin' bout practice?) I'm talking about Michter's US*1 American Whiskey, WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye, Old Forester Prohibition 1920, Pikesville 6 Year Old Straight Rye, or Jefferson's Ocean. That last one is aged at sea, allowing the different lattitudes, temperature variations and ocean air to affect the spirit. It may seem like a stunt at first glance, but the concept is pretty cool. You can check it out here.

Threat Level Midnight: The Ultimate Level

This is where few dare to tread. These whiskeys may be difficult to find. But they are generational talents like LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Joe DiMaggio,  and Michael Scarn. Don't know who Michael Scarn is? Shame on you. Michael Scarn is THE best top-secret agent in the business. Scarn saved the NFL Pro Bowl game, the MLB All Star game and the NBA All Star game from the world's most dastardly villain; Goldenface. Later, he took one day off to run a 20K with Robin Williams, which happened to be one year after the day his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones Scarn, was killed by Goldenface at the WNBA All Star game. Michael Scarn believes he is part Bruce Wayne, part Bruce Willis and part Bruce Vilanch. OK, if you aren't a fan of The Office, that probably makes no sense. Sorry. The Unicorn, once-in-a-lifetime whiskeys I recommend are WhistlePig Boss Hog, William Larue Weller, Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old, George T. Stagg, and Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old,

A sample line-up, aka the TL;DR version

  • Jack Daniel's Old No. 7
  • Wild Turkey 101
  • Old Grand Dad 114
  • Rittenhouse Straight Rye
  • Four Roses Single Barrel
  • Angel's Envy Port Barrel
  • Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
  • Pikesville 6 Year Old Straight Rye
  • Old Forester Prohibition 1920
  • Michter's US*1 American Whiskey
  • Jefferson's Ocean
  • William Larue Weller
  • WhistlePig Boss Hog


Building a whiskey collection is a slow process. There's no need to rush. But there is something to be said for having a panoply of choices for all moods. Hopefully your American Whiskey collection is as diverse and expansive as the land of its origin. Happy collection-building !

To the United States, where everyone is protected by the Constitution regardless of whether they have ever taken the time to read it.

Slainte !

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