American whiskey is much more than whiskey produced in the USA. Indeed, it’s defined by its own rich culture, history, and influences that helped it evolve over the centuries. In this introductory guide, you will learn everything you need to know about American whiskey as a whole:

Use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all. You’ll find more guides that focus on different types of American whiskey in the menu below.

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What Is American Whiskey?

American whiskey is far more than just whiskey that’s distilled in the USA. In fact, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Federal Standard of Identity for Distilled Spirits has outlined specific requirements to follow in order to qualify as American whiskey.

Firstly, whiskey is a composition of grain that’s fermented into what’s known as a mash. The proportions of different types of grain used is referred to as a “mash bill” and certain types of whiskey will need to respect minimum quantities.

The vast majority of American whiskey is required to distil the mash to a maximum of 80% ABV. However, generic American whiskey that doesn’t use a qualifier described in the types below may distil as high as 95% ABV.

Nevertheless, anything that will be sold as aged whiskey must respect the lower proof. This requirement has been included as a safeguard to ensure that the distillate retains the flavour of the original mash.

Although there is no minimum length, the whiskey must be aged in newly charred oak barrels at no more than 62.5% ABV. Afterwards, it is then bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

As mentioned earlier, there are additional rules to follow when making other types of whiskey. However, the above outlines the basic requirements of standard American whiskey.

Different Types Of American Whiskey

What Is Bourbon Whiskey

The way different types of American whiskies are divided into groups varies according to the way it’s made, how it’s aged, and the ingredients that are used. We’ve explored each separately under the following sections:

Most of these categories are independent of one another and can be combined. For instance, it’s entirely possible to produce a blended straight bourbon whiskey. However, some types of whiskey will exclude additional labelling such as grain whiskey.

American Whiskey Varieties

Whiskey Grains - Wheat, Barley, Rye, Corn

Left To Right: Wheat, Barley, Rye, Corn

The primary types of whiskey are categorised by the main ingredient in the “mash bill”, which is the composition of grain fermented before distillation. The US Code of Federal Regulations has outlined the following varieties of whiskey:

  • Bourbon Whiskey
  • Corn Whiskey
  • Malt Whiskey
  • Rye Whiskey
  • Wheat Whiskey

In all of the above cases, the whiskey must contain at least 51% of the labelled ingredient in its mash bill. The exception to this rule is corn whiskey. Given that bourbon already features at least 51% corn in its mash, corn whiskey requires at least 80% in order to differentiate itself.

Malt whiskey requires 51% malted barley in order to qualify for the name. Other whiskeys may also be labelled as malted rye or wheat, too. In this case, the mash must consist of 51% of that malted ingredient instead.

Currently, Bespoke Unit features a full series of guides on bourbon whiskey, which explores its history, techniques, and the best ones to buy. We also cover rye whiskey in detail!

Blended Categories

Occasionally, American whiskey can be mixed with other ingredients, which results in various types of blended spirits. As long as they adhere to certain requirements, they can still be considered whiskey, but they’re rarely regarded in the same light as aged varieties.

Blended Whiskey

Blended whiskey is a mixture that must at least feature a minimum of 20% straight whiskey. Otherwise, it may also include neutral spirits and young whiskey of any type. However, if it wishes to use one of the above variety qualifiers, the blend must contain at least 51% straight whiskey of that type.

Straight Blended Whiskey

Unlike regular blended whiskey, the additional “straight” qualifier indicates that it only contains straight whiskey. In this case, no neutral spirits may be used. Indeed, the term is normally used to indicate a blend that is composed of several straight whiskeys from different US states.

Interestingly, regular straight whiskey can be blended, too. However, it must only use straight whiskey sourced from within the same state or it will fall under the blended category. Of all the blended whiskey categories, straight blends have the potential to offer the highest quality.

Grain/Light Whiskey

A general term for whiskeys that do not fall under any specific category and has generally followed all the requirements to be regarded as just “American whiskey”. It is sometimes referred to as “light” whiskey due to its less pronounced flavour as it’s been distilled to over 95% ABV.

Grain whiskey can be aged in either used or uncharred new oak barrels. It’s typically used as an ingredient for blended whiskeys but it can be bottled on its own.

Spirit Whiskey

If a blended whiskey uses less than 20% straight whiskey but includes at least 5% whiskey of any variety, it may be referred to as spirit whiskey. As you may expect, the whiskey used in the blend may impart some flavour, but it’s otherwise dominated by neutral spirits.

Age Statement Categories

Bottled In Bond Bourbon Whiskey

Interestingly, there is no legal minimum ageing period for American whiskey and it can be bottled and sold in the USA after just a few months in the barrel. However, if exported to other territories, it may have to respect different regulations. For instance, an alcoholic spirit can only be considered as whisk(e)y in the European Union once it has been aged for three years.

The familiar straight whiskey nomenclature can be obtained after a two-year ageing period. However, it will legally have to display a numbered age statement on the label until it has been aged for four years in total.

After four years, featuring an age statement is optional and entirely the choice of the producer. If the straight whiskey is to carry an age statement and has been mixed with other batches, it must wear the year of the youngest spirit in the blend.

Should the whiskey fulfil other criteria, it may also be recognised as bottled-in-bond after the four-year period. This label was created in 1897 and was one of the first federal regulations that sought to protect the standards of American whiskey.

It requires that all the whiskey in the bottle is distilled in the same season, by the same distiller, and in a single distillery. As a result, the opportunities for creative blending to produce unique flavours are quite limited. Ageing must also take place in bonded US-government warehouses.

What Is the Oldest American Whiskey?

How Bourbon Is Made Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace George T Stagg Distillery

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the oldest American whiskey! Indeed, there are many brands that can claim the title but each one comes with a caveat.

Firstly, Old Overholt was first introduced in 1810 and can be regarded as the oldest continually maintained brand of whiskey. Thanks to its ties to the secretary of the treasury at the time, it even secured a permit to produce whiskey for chemists throughout Prohibition.

While Old Overholt is still produced today, its Pennsylvania factory ceased production in 1958 and is now abandoned. In fact, it has been produced at the Jim Beam distillery since 1987.

Like Old Overholt, Brown-Forman was one of six distilleries to obtain a license that allowed its distillery to operate throughout Prohibition. It was first founded in 1870 with the creation of Old Forester.

Although it was first based in Tennesse, it still operates from its original 1882 building in Louisville, Kentucky. Furthermore, it has rebuilt several historical distilleries such as the 1812 Labrot & Graham distillery used for making Woodford Reserve.

Similarly, both Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark claim that their whiskies are produced in the oldest continuously running distilleries. Buffalo Trace is made at the old George T. Stagg distillery where production began in 1775 and the current building was constructed in 1812.

Although the Stagg distillery’s production started sooner, the nearby Burks’ distillery used to make Maker’s Mark was built in 1805. The Stagg distillery managed to obtain one of the six permits to continue production during Prohibition whereas the Burk’s distillery was sold and abandoned. Nevertheless, both buildings have been recognised as National Historic Landmarks.

Finally, George Washington’s 1797 plantation distillery was rebuilt in 2007 following extensive archaeological research. It is an authentic reconstruction of the distillery, which was demolished in 1850.

American Whiskey Vs. Scotch Whisky

Laphroaig Warehouse & Whisky Casks

Laphroaig Scotch Whisky Warehouse

Having now read this guide, you can directly compare it with our introduction to Scotch whisky. However, can also break down the difference between American and Scotch whisky here, too.

Firstly, you’ll have noticed that Scotch whisky omits the letter “e”. Meanwhile, “whiskey” that includes the letter is the historical spelling of the word in Ireland. For cultural reasons, the USA has adopted the Irish rather than Scottish spelling.

Initially, it was likely a linguistic choice because the proportion of Irish immigration in the USA was greater than the number of Scottish settlers. There are exceptions, however, such as Maker’s Mark, which refers to itself as a “whisky”.

While it was probably arbitrary at first, the choice of spelling may now indicate the whisk(e)y’s style. Referring to your product as “whisky” suggest it follows strict Scottish-style techniques and practices, especially with regards to how it’s aged and blended.

In the blended market, though, there are more similarities between American and Scottish whisk(e)y. Blended malt whisky isn’t unlike blended straight whiskey in that it can only be composed of single malts from different places. Otherwise, both blended Scotch and American whisk(e)y may contain other grain whiskies.

Nevertheless, single-malt Scotch whisky must contain 100% malted barley that was distilled with the same pot still. It’s then aged for a long period of time before different caskings are blended together to make the final expression. Meanwhile, whiskey can be produced from a column still from a variety of different types of grain with less emphasis on the blending process.

That’s not to say that whiskey is the wild cowboy of the two. Indeed, there are some areas where its production is much stricter. For instance, caramel colouring can be used in Scotch whisky whereas it’s entirely prohibited for straight American whiskey.

Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In American Whiskey

Bulleit-Rye-Whiskey-Review-Ashtray-Cigar

As we reminded you just above, American whiskey should contain no sugar. In fact, the use of any additives, including caramel colouring, cannot be used in the case of straight American whiskey. While grain does contain gluten, the distillation process should separate the protein from the resulting whiskey.

In most cases of gluten intolerance, there shouldn’t be any adverse effects. That said, some people with more severe conditions like Celiac’s disease may rarely report some issues. Generally speaking, though, any distilled spirit should be gluten-free.

Otherwise, you’ll be delighted to know that American whiskey contains no carbs and is very light in calories. Don’t expect more than 70 calories in a single 1 Oz (30 ml) shot!

Top 10 Best American Whiskey

In this section of the guide, we present you with our selection of what we perceive as the best examples of American whiskey to buy online.

The top 10 American whiskeys are as follows:

  1. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon
  2. Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon
  3. Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Small Batch Rye
  4. Balcones “1” Texas Single Malt Whiskey
  5. High West Double Rye
  6. Four Roses Small Batch
  7. George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey
  8. Bulleit Rye Frontier Whiskey
  9. Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey
  10. Dry Fly Straight Wheat Whiskey

You can use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to discover them all.

1. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon

Maker's Mark Cask Strength Bourbon
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This bourbon may be regarded as somewhat mild as a cask-strength whiskey. However, Maker’s Mark has produced an elegant and flavoursome bourbon that performs as an excellent ambassador for American whiskey.

Its flavour profile is a harmonious balancing act between sweet and spicy characteristics. It offers a rich array of flavours ranging from caramel to cinnamon with hints of spice and cooked fruit throughout its palate.

"An emlematic American whiskey that represents much of the best the country has to offer."
Bespoke Unit Rating: ★★★★★

2. Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon

Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Distillery: Old Forester Distilling Co.
  • Region: Shively & Louisville, Kentucky
  • Age: Straight NAS (4 Years Min.)
  • Casking: Virgin White Oak
  • ABV: 57.5%
  • Pricing:
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Old Forester represents the Brown-Forman giant’s humble origins. First created in 1870 by pharmacist George Garvin Brown, it remains the corporations more artisanal flagship products. Interestingly, Brown-Forman was one of just six distilleries that received a license to continue producing whiskey throughout Prohibition (for medicinal purposes, of course).

Bottled at a higher proof, it is designed to simulate the experience of its legal Prohibition-era whiskey. It has a full body with a rich gourmand flavour profile that delivers notes of chocolate, black pepper, and grilled nuts.

3. Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Small Batch Rye

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Russell’s Reserve is produced by Wild Turkey and honours the father-son master distiller team of Jimmy and Eddie Russell. Between them, they have dedicated over 100 years to the distillery. Russell’s Reserve focuses on rye whiskey rather than Wild Turkey’s better-known bourbon expressions.

The spicy profile brought on by the predominantly rye mash bill is quite subtle and instead delivers more overt flavours of caramel and vanilla with a hint of leather. As it’s slightly subdued compared to other livelier rye expressions, it’s a great option for beginners who wish to explore the spicier variety of American whiskey.

4. Balcones “1” Texas Single Malt Whiskey

Balcones 1 Texas Single Malt Whisky
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Although American whiskey is unique and different to Scotch whisky as we explained above, US producers have been experimenting with single malts. Texan distillery Balcones has released a range of new and exciting American single malts, which each have their own personality.

The “1” single malt American whiskey is younger than any Scotch and has been aged for only 24 months. Similarly, it’s aged in new oak rather than ex-bourbon barrels. Nevertheless, it offers a rich and unique experience thanks to its 100% malted barley composition. It offers deep savoury notes of cacao and walnuts with a hint of bitter almond.

5. High West Double Rye

High West Double Rye Whiskey Square
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High West Double Rye is produced by blended two-year-old and seven-year-old straight rye whiskey. They were produced from different mash bills with an extremely high rye content. The first features 95% rye while the second is 80% rye and 20% malted rye!

Its herbaceous nose reveals notes of hay and pine with only mild hints of spice. Meanwhile, the palate remains light thanks to its youthfulness with notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and honey. Given its very affordable price point, it’s a highly recommend rye whiskey for every drink cabinet.

6. Four Roses Small Batch

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Distillery: Four Roses Distillery
  • Region: Lawrenceberg, Kentucky
  • Age: Straight NAS (6 Years Min.)
  • Casking: Virgin White Oak
  • ABV: 45%
  • Pricing:
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This small-batch bourbon consists of four mashes of two bills fermented with two different yeasts each. They were aged for at least six years before being blended together by master distiller Brent Elliott.

The process results in an expression with a smooth a creamy mouthfeel that’s bursting with caramelised flavour. It opens with a gentle bouquet of fruit before a rich lingering finish that reveals hints of oak and spice.

7. George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey

George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey
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Although it technically ticks all the boxes as bourbon whiskey, distillers in Kentucky’s neighbouring state tend to prefer to distinguish themselves with the label “Tennessee Whiskey”. However, Tennesse does have one distinguishing feature whereby the distillate is filtered through maple wood charcoal chips.

George Dickens Barrel Select is produced by blending 10 and 12-year-old bourbon in small batches. Its whiskey is derived from a high-corn mash and is cold filtered to 5°C (so not chill-filtered) before it’s aged. Available at an attractive price point, Barrel Select is an accord of honey and vanilla that results in a syrupy sweet backbone but a slightly spicy finish.

8. Bulleit Rye Frontier Whiskey

Bulleit-Rye-Whiskey-Square-2
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Distillery: Bulleit Distilling Co.
  • Region: Shelbyville, Kentucky
  • Age: Straight NAS (4 Years Min.)
  • Casking: Virgin White Oak
  • ABV: 45%
  • Pricing:
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Revived by his great-great-grandson in 1987 who continues to use the same recipes, this whiskey brand was first created by Augustus Bulleit. Since he was a tavern keeper at the time, Bulleit has opted for a “frontier” whiskey image.

Bulleit is a great specimen of spicy rye whiskey. It features a candied citrus opening reminiscent of marmalade that’s extended by additional notes of ginger. Meanwhile, the overall experience can be defined by caramel and vanilla with a long leather finish.

9. Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey

Buffalo-Trace-Feature-Square-Bottle-Back-Bourbon-Whiskey-Review
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Produced at the historical George T. Stagg Distillery, Buffalo Trace is an iconic whiskey that was actually only introduced in 1999. Nevertheless, it has gone on to become one of America’s most cherished libations.

Retailed for a song, it’s an inexpensive whiskey but offers a wonderfully complex experience for the price. If you’re on a budget and want to enjoy a reasonable whiskey, you can do far worse than Buffalo Trace.

10. Dry Fly Straight Wheat Whiskey

Dry Fly Straight Wheat Whiskey
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Distillery: Dry Fly Distilling
  • Region: Spokane, Washington
  • Age: 3 Years (Straight)
  • Casking: Virgin White Oak
  • ABV: 60%
  • Pricing:
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Wheat whiskey is a rarity these days, especially one composed of 100% wheat. The Washington-based distillery, Dry Fly, used only local soft white wheat when creating this whiskey. It results in a uniquely soft expression and despite a 60% ABV, its character is present but gentle.

Expect a flavour profile consisting of candied fruit and toffee with a buttery finish that extends a vanilla essence. Make sure that you opt for the higher-proof version to really make the most of this rather unusual whiskey.

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