Whiskey makers thinking inside the barrel

With the advent of craft cocktails and modern mixology it is possible, even in the most remote recesses of our great nation, to get the most inventive cocktails imaginable. And if we are to believe Plato — that necessity is the mother of invention — then our necessity is that imaginative cocktails require imaginative spirits. And credit our nation for its ingenuity because that is exactly what is happening, and it is beginning in the most unlikely of places.

For nearly eight decades bourbon has been virtually synonymous with American whiskey. Bourbon by definition is made from primarily corn (at least 51 percent), stored at not more than 125 proof and then aged in charred one-use oak barrels. The further designation of “straight” can be added if the whiskey is aged in those barrels for two or more years. But things are changing.

“Consumers are more open-minded, looking for flavors they like and enjoy, and are willing to try new things,” says Susan Karakasevic, co-owner and founder of Charbay Winery and Distillery in Northern California. “It doesn’t hurt that the craft beer industry opened many to this outlook.”

Whiskey, like beer, can be made from a variety of grains — corn, rye, wheat and barley, whichis the base for Scotch and Irish whiskies, among others. Prohibition originally leveled the distilling field, virtually wiping out wheat whiskey and all but removing the previous king of American whiskey; rye, from its throne. With its repeal in 1933, many American producers went with the less-expensive corn as a base and soon thereafter bourbon was king. Important to note: it is generally accepted that the process of distillation removes gluten from all whiskey, no matter what it’s made from, even wheat. But the defining characteristic of straight American whiskey, be it bourbon, rye or wheat whiskey, aside from the grain, is the one-time use of those charred oak barrels.

Ironically, the top selling brand of American whiskey today is Jack Daniels, a Tennessee whiskey that begins its life as legally defined “straight bourbon whiskey.” In 2013, the volume of rye whiskey sales increased by 50 percent, according to a study by Reuters. And while bourbon still rules overall, bourbon producers have certainly taken note, and acted.

Rob Samuels, the chief operating officer of Makers Mark, and the grandson of its founder, once explained to me: “Bourbon gets all of its color and much of its flavor from [the charred] barrels.”

It should come as no surprise then that Makers Mark, the first “premium” bourbon, was one of the first to experiment, taking its “straight bourbon” and further aging with French oak barrel staves. There is some argument over whether the staves add color, a disqualifier for the “straight” moniker. Straight American whiskey, whether it’s rye, wheat or bourbon, is the only whiskey in the world that cannot add coloring. Makers Mark took no chances, labelling Maker’s 46 simply as bourbon.

Angel’s Envy bourbon followed suit by further aging its bourbon in used port barrels, taking a page out of the Scotch production playbook (Scotch is aged only in used barrels: usually port, sherry, Madeira and, ironically, American whiskey barrels) and introduced new legalese by labeling its product as “straight bourbon whiskey finished in port wine barrels.” Others have since followed suit, including some rye producers. Filibuster ages both its bourbon and rye in French oak barrels, and Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye is finished in used vermouth barrels. There is also a new Whistle Pig “Old World” rye that is finished in former Sauternes barrels.

All this concentration on the end of whiskey production has also led other producers to look at whiskey’s beginnings, too. Whiskey is made from fermented malted grain, essentially an un-hopped beer. But what if you use beer that is already flavored with hops? Then you leave all the rules of bourbon and rye behind and wind up with what Charbay Distillery and Winery calls its “hopped whiskey” which, of course, is aged in French oak barrels. “It’s great when they love craft beer and taste our whiskey,” Karakasevic says. “It’s like an old friend in their glass.”

Whatever the case, beginning or end, the landscape of American whiskey is far more complex than it was just 10 years ago. And as savvy cocktail consumers create more of a demand for new and interesting products, rest assured that liquor producers will provide them, creating a win-win situation for all.