American whiskey inspires considerable devotion from its fans, with enthusiasts around the globe claiming it as their favourite drink. Its smoother and sweeter flavours endear it more easily to new drinkers in comparison to Irish whiskey or scotch, yet it never sacrifices any of the underlying complexity found in its Celtic cousins. American whiskey is a style that rewards repeated visits to bring out all of its subtle nuances, while also offering immediacy to someone who’s looking for new whisky experiences.
American whiskey is also continually evolving and expanding its wheelhouse, attracting new fans all the while. As the American versions of the drink become more removed from the tradition-steeped scotches and whiskies that originally birthed them, a new wave of experimental distillers and creative investment in flavoured American whiskey is emerging. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to American whiskey; now you’ll be able to navigate discussions — such as American whiskey vs bourbon, what the best American whiskey might be or your preferred mixers - with ease.
What is American whiskey?
Just like any other whisky from around the world, American whiskey is the product of cereal grains, mashed up and distilled into a potent spirit. It’s notable for incorporating a wider variety of cereal grains into its ingredients; while Irish whiskey and scotch primarily use barley, American whiskey often features ingredients such as corn, rye, malt and wheat. Peated varieties are also far less common, in part due to the differing climates between the USA and the British Isles.
Is American whiskey the same as bourbon?
One of the most common questions for any new entrant to the world of American whiskey is the difference between American whiskey and bourbon. In summary, bourbon is a style of American whiskey — so the specifics of the difference between bourbon and American whiskey lie in the way that they’re manufactured.
Both are made using similar distilling techniques, but bourbon must be made using 51% corn. Additionally, it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, then stored in a new, charred-oak barrel at 125 proof. It’s also not allowed to contain any additives, such as colouring or flavouring. This isn’t just a case of best practice, either; it’s a question of legislation, similar to champagne and sparkling wine or how gin is just a grain spirit without juniper berries; all bourbon is American whiskey, but not all American whiskey is bourbon. It can also be similarly applied to American whiskey vs scotch; though you could conceivably make an American whiskey in identical fashion to scotch, if it wasn’t actually made in Scotland then it’s still “only” whiskey.
Additionally, Tennessee whiskey has ever stricter requirements around its manufacture, only being allowed to be produced in Tennessee. And while most Tennessee whiskies tend to meet the criteria for bourbon, they’re not necessarily marketed as such.
As you might expect, this has meant that non-bourbon American whiskies have tended to allow for a broader range of experimentation; with less restrictions on cask types, different storage times and additional flavourings, there has been a distinct divergence in the American whiskey scene. While some distilleries strive to emulate (or even better) their Scottish and Irish cousins in both style and flavour, others take the drink in entirely different directions. Virginia Black is an example of the latter, with its slightly sweet flavouring over a base of blended rye whiskey.
So, what is considered a good american whiskey? While certain purists will posit that bourbon is “better” as it’s a more “traditional” style of whiskey, in truth it’s simply a matter of what you prefer. We encourage you to try a wide variety of both bourbon and American whiskey to decide for yourself!
What proof is American whiskey?
American whiskey usually sits at around 80 proof or 40% ABV. Flavoured versions are often slightly lower, while some particularly aged whiskeys may be slightly higher. As always, check your specific bottle for percentages to be sure.
Does American whiskey have sugar?
Absolutely. American whiskey and bourbon’s distillation process relies on the sugar content inherent in the grain cereals mashed up to create the drink. Unlike vodka or other liquors, they’re not entirely filtered out later on, either. And if you’re looking at how much sugar is in American honey whiskey or other flavoured varieties, you’d likely find it slightly higher too; additional flavour additives tend to mean additional sugar.
Does American whiskey have an expiry date?
As a rule of thumb, American whiskey can usually last up to a decade before being opened if it’s stored properly and sometimes longer. It does not age further once it’s in the bottle, but it can change colour slightly over time as it’s exposed to sunlight or material evaporates.
Additionally, American whiskey’s high alcohol and sugar content tend to mean that it’s stored safely and out of sunlight, it can usually last for one to two years after opening. However, this can be shorter for flavoured whiskies, due to the differing ingredients used, so make sure you always check the “best before” date.
What’s the best way to drink American whiskey?
One of American whiskey’s great strengths is its versatility when it comes to being drunk. Many will suggest that near or on the rocks are the best options, but this is an acquired taste. So what to mix american whiskey with? Many new fans will opt for a mixer like cola, lemonade or ginger ale in order to experience whiskey as a sweeter flavour sensation. However, it can also serve as a great basis for cocktails, with classics such as the Old Fashioned or Hot Toddy being particular standouts. We encourage you to experiment and discover what you like best yourself!
What makes a good whisky glass?
If you’re just starting on your whiskey journey, a tumbler is more than adequate. While not the ideal medium for bringing out the inherent underlying scents and subtleties within the liquor, it’s nonetheless a perfect delivery device for sampling a lower-end American whiskey with ice, a mixed drink like whiskey and soda or even a cocktail like an Old Fashioned.
However, if you’re looking for ways to step up your whisky appreciation to the next level, investing in a tulip glass or Glencairn whisky glass are both excellent options. Their distinctive shapes allow for a better nosing experience of the drink, while also lending themselves to enjoying a slow drop. You will also meet keen fans who will swear up and down that the shape of the glass actually exercises a positive influence on the flavour of the drink, bringing its better qualities to the surface more easily — though again, it must be assumed that personal preference likely plays a role.