America's emerging whiskey styles are turning heads around the globe

America's emerging whiskey styles are turning heads around the globe

Exploring regionality and new approaches in the contemporary American whiskey scene

Production | 11 Aug 2022 | Issue 185 | By Maggie Kimberl

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For many decades, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were the only styles made in the United States that had any sort of known regional tie. But to say those were the only two types of American whiskey easily recognisable to consumers isn’t an easy argument to make. Pennsylvania rye whiskey was once better known than either, and, before that, corn whiskey was king. But now, new regional whiskey styles are emerging thanks to the proliferation of craft distilleries in all corners of the union, built on decades-old whiskey-distilling traditions.

“A lot of regional areas, in the South in particular, still prefer the unaged corn whiskey,” says bourbon historian Michael Veach. “You get a lot of styles of corn whiskey – you have the unaged corn whiskey and the aged corn whiskey. That’s why you still have Georgia Moon and other unaged corn whiskeys on the market, but then you get the aged corn whiskeys like the Mellow Corn or the Balcones Baby Blue.”

Many bourbon and Tennessee whiskey lovers don’t realise the common ancestor to both styles is corn whiskey, which came not only from the fact that corn has always grown really well in the American South but also because the area’s humidity necessitated a better storage method for harvested grains because of potential mould growth. Distillation became the preferred ‘storage’ method for excess corn, and the rest is history.

“You can also look at different styles of bourbon – this is something a lot of people just don’t realise, that bourbon really is a subcategory of corn whiskey,” Veach says, “as is Tennessee whiskey.”

Southeastern whiskey styles are based on corn, but rye is the most prolific grain in Northeastern parts of the United States. When it comes to rye whiskey, it can often seem as though there have been many different regional styles including Pennsylvania rye, Monongahela rye, Maryland rye, Kentucky rye, and Indiana rye. But, according to Veach, most of those differences can be traced to marketing and circumstances.

“Monongahela rye was just another way to say Pennsylvania rye or simply rye whiskey,” explains Veach. “Rye whiskey is much older than bourbon, and it’s the style they were making up in Pennsylvania. It was mostly rye grain because that was mostly what they grew: rye and barley.” Veach believes that rye and malted barley were probably the two ingredients that were in Monongahela rye whiskey, though he admits that he hasn’t seen any Pennsylvania mash bills dating from the 1700s or early 1800s.

“Maryland rye grew out of the fact that you had a lot of people in Maryland who were making rye whiskey, but they were also buying whiskey from Pennsylvania – they were rectifiers. They were making what we would probably call a blended whiskey today, adding things like prune or cherry juice and other flavours to their product to create a Maryland rye, their own style, a sweeter rye.”

However, rectifiers adding things like fruit juice or worse eventually led to the passage of consumer protection laws, which prohibited such additives in ‘pure’ or ‘real’ whiskey. “That pretty much began to die out with the Pure Food and Drug Act,” explains Veach.

“The heavily rectified whiskeys like that gained such a bad reputation that it hurt the sales of the Maryland ryes. They started altering their definition of Maryland rye and began adding sweetness by adding corn to the mash bill.” And thus, the Maryland regional style began to evolve.

While corn had not been a regular feature in a rye whiskey mash bill until that point, today it is an incredibly common style of rye whiskey. Eventually, production ceased in Maryland and the newer version of rye with corn in the mash bill began to be produced in Kentucky, with the twist being that rye was made in Kentucky before there was either a Maryland or a Kentucky style of rye.
“If you go to Maryland, they’ll say it’s a Maryland style,” Veach says. “But the problem is, they made rye whiskeys in Kentucky in the 19th century, before Prohibition, but not a whole lot of it was being made here because they focused mostly on bourbon.” Veach says that, like today, a lot of the big brands had rye whisky alternatives, and he names ‘Old Crow rye’ as an historic example he’s seen for himself – though he notes that it was only a small percentage of what these pre-Prohibition distillers were producing.

Rye whiskey started dying out after Prohibition, because it was so much harder to make and the distilleries started closing down in Pennsylvania and Maryland. This meant that, by the 1970s, there were very few places making rye whiskey anymore.
“Those brands were still alive and owned by companies that owned Kentucky distilleries, so to support those brands they started making rye whiskey here,” explains Veach, though he is clear that they never made a whole lot of that whiskey style the second time round, either.

“I remember Jimmy Russell [master distiller at Wild Turkey] talking about it. He says, ‘Yeah, we’ve tripled our rye production, we make it three days a year now!’ ”

Eventually, the bottom fell out of the American whiskey market, altering the country’s whiskey regions forever. “What was at one time called a Maryland-style rye in the 1930s and 40s became the Kentucky style. It kind of morphed into it, because there were no more distilleries in Maryland making it in the 70s and 80s. That’s coming back now,” Veach concludes.

Many whiskey styles that have been associated with regions had as much to do with circumstances as they did with the local climate and terroir. But now, with the proliferation of craft distilleries in the United States, all of that is changing. Today, there are new styles of American whiskey emerging, from bourbons made in Texas, Florida, Alaska and New York to emerging and reemerging rye whiskey styles, particularly those without corn in the mash bill at all. There are also newer styles of whiskey, such as American single malts, which have regional variations all their own.

“There are two trends that we’ve been seeing in our work,” says Nora Ganley Roper, who co-founded Lost Lantern Whiskey with Adam Polonski. “The first is Southwestern-style single malt, which is really the mesquited single malt that is starting to be made, most notably by Whiskey Del Bac in Tucson and Santa Fe Spirits in Santa Fe.”

Both distillers make a smoked single malt, but, instead of smoking it with peat, they smoke it with mesquite, a type of leguminous tree that grows in dry areas of the Americas. “It creates this really wonderful, distinctly American and distinctly Southwestern style of single malt that is delicious. It is probably the first style that no one had really heard of before, until these two started doing it,” says Roper. “Now we’re starting to see some other places playing with mesquite smoke as well, and we’re excited about that as a prospect for an emerging single malt style.”

The other nascent style that Roper has identified is rooted less in geography and more in general environmental conditions. “We call it cool climate rye” she says, explaining that this is her term for rye that’s made in places like Pennsylvania and New York. Intriguingly, the distilleries that make this style often work with local farmers. “It creates this herbaceous, peppery flavour that you probably historically got when Pennsylvania was the leading rye producer.”

She also contrasts this with Kentucky ‘high-corn’ rye, which she says tends to have greater oak influence to dial up the sweeter, more vanilla-led characteristics. “By contrast, this cool climate rye has a really unique twist on that, where you still get all the things that you like about rye, but with that herbaceous, peppery overlay,” she adds.

Lost Lantern’s founders are uniquely positioned to see these emerging styles of whiskey because of their company’s business model. Like the independent bottlers of Scotland, Lost Lantern seeks out lesser-known distilleries across the United States to feature in its bottlings, stating right on the label where the whiskeys came from. As a result, the founders get to visit distilleries across the United States and learn about these new styles – often before they appear more broadly on the national market.
“Our business is finding the really cool stuff that’s out there, so we taste things from all over the US and are able to taste things that haven’t yet really made it in the more popular realms of whiskey,” Roper says. “It gives us a unique perspective on what’s happening all across the US.”

Though spoiled for choice among the country’s 2,000-plus distillers, Polonski and Roper still have some styles on their wish list that have yet to emerge – in particular a maritime or ‘coastal’ style. “When you think about Scotch, when you think about Islay, something that is so distinctly of the islands, I would love if there was something in the US, either in the Pacific Northwest or even in New England, where you get more of that maritime influence,” muses Roper. “I would love to see that because I think that does some really interesting stuff to whiskey.”

Also topping her list is a rapidly emerging style that might begin to unite the 200-odd distillers making whiskey in the Lone Star State. “I also think that Texas is on the cusp of having its own style with the heat that they get down there – that’s a region that I’m watching really closely, but I don’t think there’s a specific profile yet that has emerged… [but] it’s coming and I’m excited to see what it’ll turn into.”

Even in the realm of bourbon, there are new regional variations emerging now that the style is being made more readily across the United States, not just in Kentucky. According to Roper, different maturation climates are one of the key differences that set these bourbons apart from one another. For example, she believes that bourbons made in cooler climates seem to generally be creamier and lighter.

“I think of Cedar Ridge in Iowa, the style of bourbon that they’re making that is a little bit less about the oak influence, you get a little bit more of the corn; it’s a little bit more delicate. Midwestern bourbon is going to be interesting to watch, to see if that’s a Cedar Ridge style or another original style,” Roper says.
She also makes reference to seed-to-glass ‘farmer-distillers’, who have control over the exact style of corn that is being grown. “I think you’ll see more nuanced bourbons coming out of that process,” she adds, mentioning that Frey Ranch, a farm-distillery in Nevada, is high up on her watchlist. “That has a really interesting potential for an estate bourbon relative to [the] Kentucky or Indiana style.”

However, though climate and soils do feature in her thinking, Roper feels that the next major styles to emerge could be more ‘philosophical’ than ‘regional’. In particular, she cites the distillers of the Pacific Northwest, whose breweing pedigree has created a very unique perspective, especially as it relates to the production of single malt. In particular, she thinks that different speciality malts, usually reserved for the brewing industry, will open up new routes to flavour creation. “I think that creates a unique and sometimes almost like ‘wheaties’ or ‘cocoa puffs’ flavour profile, which emerges from that style of production, even if it’s done exactly the same way,” Roper concludes.

Thanks to the craft movement, there is a lot of innovation taking place in the American distilling landscape, which has now moved far past its infancy. Many craft distilleries today have 10 or more years’ worth of collected data on their experiments, and after another decade we will have an even more solid understanding of the impact of terroir and regionality on American whiskey making – nuances that have often only been anecdotal or even virtually unknown up to this point.

As small-scale producers experiment with new and heirloom grain varietals, different fermentation and distillation techniques, a variety of maturation climates, and more, new styles will continue to emerge.
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