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American Whiskies on the Rise

TO THE NEOPHYTE, the similarities between American and Scottish whiskies are striking; take out the peat, add a little caramel and you might as well be talking about the same distilled amber nectar. In truth, the differences run as deep as the murky waters of Loch Ness and they are as wide as the Appalachian mountain trail. And with new releases this spring and summer of limited-edition bourbon, single barrel selections, and radical new aging and distilling methods that borrow techniques from successful wineries, whiskey production in the U.S. is changing.

At Jim Beam, there’s been a family connection since the distillery started in the 1800s, but rather than rest on their considerable laurels, each Beam generation is determined to contribute something to the legacy. Take grandson Booker Noe’s introduction of “Small Batch Bourbons” as an example.

“It rekindled the fire in bourbon,” says current master distiller and Booker’s son, Fred Noe. “People want to drink better, they want higher quality nowadays, and the small batch bourbons do that.”

This past February, 23 years after the introduction of small batch bourbons like Basil Hayden and Booker’s, the distillery released its first single barrel bourbon. Aged for nine years and bottled at 120 percent proof, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is hand selected, cut with water (cask strength is 130 proof) and bottled individually, giving each single barrel reserve a unique profile.

“What folks want now is a little inconsistency, something unique in their bourbon,” says Fred Noe. “That’s what we’re giving them.”

Look for the just-released Devil’s Cut, a 90 percent proof bourbon from the Beam distillery. Devil’s Cut (the name is a lighthearted reference to the Scottish “Angel’s share”), where aged bourbon is extracted from barrels and added back during the distilling process.

Fruit infusions, rose petals and terroir might all be terms associated with wine, but this summer look for the very same terms applied to American whiskey. From the Kentucky Four Roses distillery, its Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon touts a distinctly buttery, rose petal aroma replacing the more usual maple syrup and vanilla. Red Stag, introduced in 2009 (again by the Beam distillery) is already making strong roads into the cocktail world with a black cherry-infused four-year-old bourbon that offers the familiar taste of traditional bourbon, with a sweeter, richer nose and dark berried fruit.

And while old masters add flavors, young distillers are blazing a trail across America creating new artisan-style whiskies that blend sophisticated techniques, state-of-the-art equipment and centuries-old tradition. At Stranahan’s Whiskey, in Denver, distiller Jake Norris has spent years perfecting his vision of a whiskey that expresses the character of grain sourced around Colorado. His modern methods create a spirit that looks like moonshine, or its Irish counterpart poteen (“po-cheen”), but further investigation reveals a spirit developed more as grappa or a wine-its sole purpose to tell the tale of its terroir.

Similarly, in St Helena’s, Charbay Winery and Distillery produce Doubled and Twisted, a white spirit made from a variety of craft brewed, America IPA.

But if you’re looking for a micro distillery to watch, and a clue to where American whiskey may be headed, look to the Virginia Distillery Company and Eades Hollow. There, they’ve taken the next step into the future and turned their sights toward… Scotland.

Bruichladdich Distillery master Jim McEwan (whose knowledge of the distinctive region of Scotland is unmatchable) has lent his skill to the Virginia distillery. At Eades, he’s created a double malt using two Scottish single malts from Islay. With 12 different styles of whisky at Bruichladdich, McEwan has been using wine casks for aging with stunning results. He’s applied the same principle to Eades, aging whisky in Chateau Lafitte, Grenache and Zinfandel casks. “There’s a young consumer out there who wants great new flavors and exciting new tastes,” says McEwan.

Whether the style is Scottish, modern-day moonshine or an expression of American terroir, there’s a whole new world of whiskey on the rise.