If you think American whiskey is just bourbon and Jack Daniel’s, think again. While Jack remains the category’s best seller by a Tennessee country mile, the US is now one of the most dynamic and forward-looking whisky-making countries on the planet.
It wasn’t always this way. Whiskey fell out of favour in the US during the 1980s and 1990s, as Americans continued their long-term love affair with vodka. Bourbon was dad’s drink, and as interest dwindled, so did the spirit of innovation among distillers.
Then people began to rediscover bourbon, and also fell in love again with rye – a distinctive, characterful, peppery style of spirit that has a claim to be the original American whiskey. At the same time, a new generation of craft distillers started questioning the status quo and experimenting with different grains, and distillation and maturation techniques.
As a result, American whiskey has never been as varied and fascinating as it is today, whether it comes from bourbon’s Kentucky heartland, or from one of the burgeoning ranks of craft distillers that dot the map from Seattle to Virginia.
Best American whiskeys: Eight bottles to try
Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Distiller’s Edition 92 Proof
This whisky (yes, they omit the ‘e’) from Virginia is a great example of Catoctin Creek’s rye expertise. The higher proof helps to carry its classically rich, spicy notes of bread, pepper and punchy spice, making this a great bet for cocktails and sipping alike. Vanilla fudge and lighter citric notes add complexity and texture. Alc 46%
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
Quintessential bourbon blended from four different recipes, and aged for at least six years, from a reliably excellent producer. All the sweet caramel and oak spice that you’d expect from a mature bourbon, alongside velvety red berry fruit and coconut cream. Packs a punch, but flavours of nutty fudge smooth off any rough edges. Beautifully balanced. Alc 45%
Michter’s US *1 Small Batch Bourbon
The painstaking approach that Michter’s takes to whiskey-making elevates bourbon to new heights and levels of complexity. This has plenty of bourbon’s characteristic, richly spiced sweetness, but overlays that with herbal elements, notes of freshly baked bread, appealing aromas of dried fruit and just a pinch of white pepper. Look out for the company’s superb rye whiskeys too. Alc 45.7%
Peerless Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye
The rye revival has seen America’s most characterful whiskey style back where it belongs – at or near the top of every whisky lover’s wish list. This beautiful rye from a fine Kentucky distiller is new to the UK, and offers plenty of classic rye bread flavour, punchy black pepper, dark honey and a scattering of spices – cinnamon, clove, ginger. A little dark chocolate and light black tea completes the mix. Alc 55.2%
Rock Town 4 Year Old 2016 (Cask 508) Berry Bros & Rudd
It’s a common misconception that all bourbon comes from Kentucky. In fact, as long as you obey the rules, you can make it anywhere in the US. This single-cask exclusive by British drinks merchant Berry Bros & Rudd is a masterclass in new age bourbon, with a mash bill of corn, malted barley and wheat producing a beautifully aromatic whiskey, with ripe bananas dipped in chocolate, some zesty warm citrus and honey-slathered buttery toast. Alc 55.8%
Westland American Oak Single Malt Whiskey
In America’s far Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s Westland is very much in the vanguard of innovative, iconoclastic craft distillers. French ownership hasn’t diminished its determined exploration of the flavour potential of different cereal grains, or the quality of its whiskeys. This rich, creamy and complex example highlights this distiller’s devotion to precision and flavour generation. Alc 46%
WhistlePig Single Barrel 10 Year Old Rye Whiskey (Jeroboams)
Another merchant exclusive: a cask selection (number 20244) of WhistlePig’s 10 Year Old Rye. This superlative whiskey showcases the softer, lighter side of rye – distinctly savoury, herbal with notes of cranberry and russet apple softened by light toffee and ginger. Matured in Vermont under the watchful gaze of one of the great American distillers, the late Dave Pickerell, this is a worthy tribute to his skills. Alc 55.8%
Wild Turkey Longbranch Bourbon
A lot of the hype surrounding this twisted bourbon centres on the involvement of Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey, whose Texan origins are referenced in its part-filtration through mesquite charcoal. More importantly, the result is a very moreish bourbon of traditional toffee apple sweetness, supplemented by an edgy undercurrent of smoke and spice. Alc 43%