A cheatsheet to American whiskey (and 6 great bottles)

American whiskey has never been as popular in this country as it is today, and thanks to the craft distilling revolution in the USA there’s more styles of whiskey being produced than there was even 10 years ago.

And it’s American whiskey which is the big passion of the team at The Gresham in Bribsane, our guest editors for the May issue of Australian Bartender.

“We don’t try to specialise in any one thing, we’ve always wanted to be a bar for everyone,” says The Gresham’s general manager Ryan Lane. “But we do have a lot of American whiskey,” he says.

Whether or not that’s because it’s what people have asked for, or because it’s Lane’s spirit of choice, well, it’s a little bit of both he says.

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“Mat Hewitt, who was the original GM, he and I both love American whiskey a lot so we decided that we would have hopefully the best collection of American whiskey in Australia,” says Lane.

Before we get into The Gresham’s favourite whiskey cocktails, though, let’s discuss a few things you need to know when we’re talking about the category.

First up, American whiskey has an identity all its own — and quite different, for the most part, to those of their cousins across the Atlantic in Scotland and Ireland — thanks to the heavy use of corn and rye as the base grain.

Your quick American whiskey cheat sheet

Bourbon making differs from Scotch whisky making in a few ways: first, 51 per cent of the grains used must be corn; the remainder is often made up of rye, malted barley and wheat. Second, it can’t be distilled to higher than 80 per cent ABV, and lastly it by law must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels. To be labelled “straight”, it must have been aged for a minimum of two years.

For rye whiskey making, take the rules for bourbon but make the mash bill at least 51 per cent rye.

What is sour mash? This refers to the acidic residue of previous distillations, called backset, which is added to the new wort before being distilled. It ensures consistency and gives greater character.

There’s a few different styles, too.

Kentucky Straight Bourbon is whiskey that has been distilled in Kentucky, aged for at least two years, and with a mash bill of at least 51 per cent corn.

Tennessee Whiskey is made just like bourbon except that it is filtered through maple wood charcoal in what is known as the Lincoln County Process. Jack Daniels is the famous example and the charcoal process imparts a sweet smokiness.

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon
This Kentucky Straight Bourbon is aged for a minimum of 10 years and is bottled at 45% — classic, rich and proper bourbon to be enjoyed. Campari Australia

Cyrus Noble Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Here’s a bourbon with a high corn content in the mashbill — there’s 75 percent in there — with 17 percent rye and 8 percent malted barley; it is aged for five years in new American white oak casks. Cerbaco

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon
The Old Forester brand was America’s first bottled bourbon, and known for its healthy rye character, a delicious drop. Brown-Forman

Buffalo Trace
Buffalo Trace offers a complex aroma, and is pleasantly sweet to the taste with notes of brown sugar and spice that give way to oak, toffee, dark fruit and anise, finishing long and smooth. Southtrade

Koval Four Grain Single Barrel Whiskey
With a mash bill of oat, malted barley, rye and wheat, it offers banana on the nose, a creamy palate, and a spicy finish. Noble Spirits

Hudson Manhattan Rye
This was the first rye whiskey to be made in New York in some 80 years; with peppery spice up front, with a honey-cinnamon palate and a lingering butteriness. William Grant & Sons

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