The art of distilling and making whiskey was exported to the Colonies from the British Isles even as the American colonies themselves were growing. Here the spirit of independence and rebellion marked the departure of American whiskeys from their British cousins in both technique and taste.
In the late 18th Century, American farmers who distilled whiskey rose up against the federal government in the new nation”s first large-scale protest, the Whiskey Rebellion. They opposed the levying of a tax on spirits merely to raise revenues (although it was purportedly intended to curb excessive drinking). In 1794, President George Washington marched into western Pennsylvania leading an army of 13,000 to quell the rebellion, a move that many Americans saw as an unnecessary show of force. In the end, two people were convicted of treason, but later pardoned by President Washington.
In the beginning, Americans made use of a native cropcornin the production of their brews. If you had offered one of the cask-aged blends of the modern American whiskey to an 18th century home-distiller, he”d have had difficulty recognizing it as his favorite drink. On the other hand, if you offered him some Russian vodka, his face would break into a smile of recognition. As well it should, since rye distillation developed in Russia and even though other grains were available, the rye imported by the Eastern Europeans to the New World was the grain of choice. Ironically, three hundred years later, many Irish and Scotch distillers are also using rye as a grain of choice.
Bourbon and Rye Whiskey
Two of the major American blends are bourbon and rye. The principal difference between the two is that rye is made almost exclusively from rye grain while bourbon is made from three grainsbut never combinations of wheat and rye. Use one, or use the other; that is the tradition. While most of the bourbon comes from Kentucky, it”s not one of the requirements to be labeled a bourbon.
The other major American whiskey type is the distinctive Tennessee whiskey (which must be made in Tennessee). While Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon, the Tennessee whiskey must undergo the “Lincoln County Process,” which requires the whiskey to be filtered through approximately 10 feet of maple charcoal. This process takes about ten days and gives the whiskey a unique flavor and aroma. It also tends to mellow the whiskey.
Two major distillers represent this class: Jack Daniels and George Dickel. Both of these distillers use a process called “sour mash.” The yeast from previous batches of fermented mash is used in the new batch much like the way sourdough bread is made, hence the name sour mash. The corn, barely, and rye mixtures of these sour mash products give them a unique flavor.