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An all-in-one guide to whiskey

An all-in-one guide to whiskey

Bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey, oh my! Whether you’re new to craft whiskey or a seasoned connoisseur, interest in distilled spirits continues to trend upward for both craft alcohol enthusiasts and distillers alike. As interest for brown spirits continues to boom across the U.S., it’s natural for things to get confusing, particularly for those who are just beginning to dabble. "You go into a bar and it's not just Jim Beam and Jack anymore," Sean Josephs, co-owner of Char No. 4, a whiskey and bourbon bar in Brooklyn, New York told Men’s Health. How does bourbon differ from rye? What’s the best way to drink it? Are there trends to be aware of? Because there are many classifications, styles and origins, the all-in-one guide below can help you understand whiskey, where it comes from and what’s next for this beloved booze.

American Whiskey Guide

The U.S. government requires that all whiskeys, whether it’s bourbon, rye or Tennessee, include the following characteristics:

  • Made from grain mash
  • At least 80 proof when bottled
  • Aged in oak barrels (unless it’s corn whiskey)

Popular types of American whiskey are bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey. What separates bourbon from rye? And how does Tennessee differ from the two?

Bourbon 

  • Made from at least 51 percent corn
  • Overall taste is similar to toffee or a spicy oak

Rye whiskey

  • Made from at least 51 percent rye grain
  • Overall taste is very dry, spicy and grainy

Tennessee whiskey

  • Made in Tennessee from at least 51 percent corn, filtered through sugar-maple charcoal
  • Overall taste is clean, smooth and the closest to bourbon

Blended American whiskey

  • Usually only 20 percent straight whiskey and less quality than the above three
  • Overall taste varies by brand 

Three Ways to Drink American Whiskey

If you want a taste that is just straight up booze, ordering your whiskey neat is the ticket. If that’s not your speed, there are three other ways to savor whiskey. Turn yourself into a connoisseur with these taste-testing rules for drinking. Even though there are many different types of whiskey to taste, these ways of drinking it can be applied to any kind.

On the Rocks

“A cube or two of fresh ice lets you enjoy the evolution of flavors as the ice melts,” says Josephs. Just keep in mind that small chunks will melt quickly, diluting your whiskey faster. In this case, the bigger the ice, the better.  

With a splash of water

There’s a reason water is a key ingredient in how whiskey is made. A splash of water releases hydrophobic (water repellent) elements in the liquor, which allows more aromas to come to the surface. At the same time it also lowers the alcohol content giving you more flavors to taste. “The high alcohol content of whiskey can obscure complex aromas in the glass,” Josephs added. “A bit of water opens up the flavors.” 

In a cocktail

Novice whiskey drinkers may like this option the best as it eases them into acquiring a taste for the bold spirit. Trying a classic cocktail is also preferred for people who simply don’t like the taste of the whiskey by itself. Josephs recommends a cocktail like The Nor’easter for a whiskey newbie. And it’s a great recipe for fall. Pour 2 oz. whiskey, ½ oz. pure maple syrup and ½ oz. fresh lime juice into a shaker. Fill with ice, shake and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with ginger beer and garnish with a lime wheel. 

Whiskey Trends to Watch For 

An article for Liquor.com suggested that as popularity for whiskey continues, we'd be flooded with whiskey innovations. "It seems like every whiskey has a bazillion line extensions coming down the pike: limited editions, experiments with mash bills (wheated whiskeys seem to be coming into favor, for example) and fancy barrel finishes, overproof variations that burst with flavor yet are almost too hot to drink." So, what are the craft whiskey trends to watch for?

Trend #1: Single malts capturing attention

“American single malts are gaining more and more attention, and will be a category all on its own in the next few years. We’re starting to distill more and more of this, and in 2020 we plan to lie down the most barrels of American single malt we’ve ever made. We’re excited this category is gaining in popularity and are betting it will be for many years to come!” — Ryan Thompson, 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co. 

Trend #2: Getting local craft distillers on the shelves at area bars and establishments 

“We are working a grassroots effort with local mixologists to get unique flavor offerings at the bar level. Through social media and our website we encourage bars and restaurants to add cocktail menu items with local craft spirits like ours. This allows the mixologist to set themselves apart from all of their competitors. We will continue to encourage our partners to use this idea as a base for their creative efforts.” — Heath Schneider, Iowa Legendary Rye

Trend #3: Experimentation is key 

“On finishes, I think the sky’s the limit. The level of experimentation is really exciting right now, and drawing more exploratory drinkers in from other categories like wine. At Bardstown Bourbon what sets us apart is the attention to quality and detail in the finishing process. We don’t just buy brokered barrels that are all dried out. Instead, we work directly with fellow wine and spirits makers to dump, gas, seal and deliver partner brands’ barrels to us as soon as physically possible after they are emptied at the source. We leave in all the stems, seeds and residuals in order to impart as much of the characteristics of the wine or spirit in the finish. 

I was in a retailer the other day and counted a dozen different bourbon brands that had the word ‘Old’ in the title. You just have to wonder how exciting that is to a 20-something consumer. While we absolutely respect the tradition and heritage of bourbon, we’re laser sharp focused on the future and what it can become, from our brand aesthetic to our distillery experience, and that seems to be drawing in a much younger, more diverse set of consumers.” — Herb Heneman, Bardstown Bourbon