As with every other aspect of American history, American whiskey’s heritage and tradition are rich and vast, spanning multiple generations. American whiskey’s history stretches back hundreds of years. It is closely tied to the culture and tradition of the immigrants who brought the art and craft of whiskey production from their homelands.

Like wine, beer, gin, and virtually all other alcoholic spirits, the whiskey liquor category is multi-faceted and tremendously diverse. With numerous categories and distinctions involved in the whiskey genre, connoisseurs of the spirit have had countless opportunities and options to experience all that this dynamic category of spirit has to offer.

Whiskey hails from a part of the world with concentrated cultures of people, all of whom built upon, evolved, and refined their respective crafts of how they believed whiskey should be best produced. Over time, distillers from all over the region began experimentation with various ingredient profiles, mash bills, and aging periods. These efforts ultimately resulted in countless strains of whiskey, each with its own unique flavor profiles.

As immigrants from these regions began immigrating to the newly blossoming country that would become known as the United States of America, they brought their spirits of creativity, experimentation, and quality craftsmanship. These traditions continued and served as the foundation for what would become known as “American Whiskey.”

Evolution of American whiskey
Infographic courtesy of Aaron Kendeall

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What Are the Main Types of American Whiskey?

Over the last 200 years, American whiskey has gone through numerous evolutions and branched out into wonderful subcategories. Currently, American whiskey is considered to have seven primary groups. These subcategories are Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Rye Malt Whiskey, Malt Whiskey, Wheat Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Corn Whiskey.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskey has its roots deeply entrenched in American tradition. This type of whiskey relies heavily on corn as being the primary ingredient. It has been distilled in the United States since the early 18th century, with the majority of its early production taking place in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Given its immense popularity in the American South, Bourbon whiskey has created a massive market in the domestic spirits industry. It has come to represent roughly two-thirds of America’s annual liquor spirit exports.

Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey is another well-known type with a rich history. It possesses many similarities to bourbon whiskey, with a few distinct differences. Unlike bourbon whiskey, which relies heavily on corn as its primary ingredient, rye whiskey must be distilled with rye gain representing at least 51% of its ingredient profile. This creates a noticeable difference in rye whiskey’s flavor compared to that of bourbon whiskey.

Another important distinction of rye whiskey compared to bourbon is its predominantly spicy and fruity flavor. Bourbon, on the other hand, which is distilled primarily using corn, develops a more sweet and robust flavor profile. This difference is the most important to whiskey connoisseurs, as it demarcates the main difference between rye whiskey and bourbon.

Rye Malt Whiskey

Rye malt whiskey is different from other whiskeys within the broader “American Whiskey” genre because it relies heavily on malted rye during the production process. While sharing many similarities with rye whiskey, rye malt whiskey utilizes malted rye instead of rye during the mixing process.

Malt Whiskey

Malt whiskey is defined by its heavy use of malted barley during the fermentation process. Current laws and regulations imposed upon malt whiskey producers require that the entire batch of malt whiskey be made at a single distillery.

This stipulation grants the producers the ability to label their product as being single malt whiskey. Additionally, American laws require malt whiskey to have a minimum alcohol by volume rating of 40%.

Wheat Whiskey

Wheat whiskey distinguishes itself from other American whiskeys primarily through its high use of wheat in its mash bill. Legally, a “wheat whiskey” made in America must have a mash bill composed of 51% wheat at a minimum. Besides this important difference in ingredient profile, wheat whiskey is very similar to its peers in the whiskey industry.

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is, as you may very well have guessed by its name, a straight whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee. Fundamentally, Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon, with the small but important distinction of it not being produced in Kentucky.

Another noteworthy fact about Tennessee whiskey is that it utilizes the Lincoln County Process during the filtration stage of production. While the process is fairly time consuming, it is essentially an additional step during the filtration process. The whiskey is steeped in maple charcoal before being put into charred oak barrels to begin the aging process.

Corn Whiskey

As with most other whiskies listed earlier, Corn whiskey differs from its peers essentially in one fundamental way. Its reliance on a mash bill of at least 80% corn, and its unique chemical properties that do not require it to be aged, have made corn whiskey a popular and cost-effective spirit for production in the United States.

Additionally, corn whiskey is famous for its traditionally higher than average alcohol percentages. With an average alcohol by volume rating of 80%, corn whiskey easily eclipses the 40% to 60% alcohol by volume rating of most other American whiskey categories.

Whiskey Production In The USA

While the production process of almost any type of liquor and spirit is tremendously complex, time-consuming, and delicate, we have laid out a simplified summary of the major points involved in the following paragraphs. 

Essentially, all American whiskey begins with a set of fairly universal ingredients. The combination of these ingredients, and the recipe by which each type of whiskey is made, is known as a “Mash Bill.” Mash bills vary in their ingredient ratios, depending on the intended type of whiskey to be produced, and are heavily responsible for each unique whiskey’s flavor profile.

Once the mash bill is set, the grain mash mixture is soaked in hot water for an extended period of time, causing the mixture to begin releasing sugars. This new mixture composition is called “Wort.” The wort mixture is then introduced to yeast, which acts as an enzyme to further break down the sugars. As the yeast begins acting upon the sugar molecules, the sugar becomes alcohol. This new mixture is called “Wash.”

The third step in the whiskey production process is the distillation of the wash mixture. The wash mixture is poured into a “Still,” which is very similar to a vat. The still begins heating the wash mixture until vapors form. These vapors travel through ductways until they begin to cool and condense again. This process is repeated 2 to 3 times, generally, until the original wash mixture reaches the desired alcohol content.

The fourth and final step of the whiskey distillation process is the aging of the mash mixture. This process is when the wash mixture, having completed its distillation cycle, is poured into wooden barrels to begin the aging process. In many instances, oak barrels are used throughout the aging process. Oak barrels significantly contribute to the coloring and flavor profile of the whiskey. On average, whiskey should be aged for at least three years, with many high-end whiskey brands aging their bourbon for ten or more years.

Most Famous Whiskey Distilleries

With an entire category of whiskey named after the United States, it should be no surprise that the country has an extensive list of world-renowned distilleries. For brevity purposes, we have included a few of the nation’s most prominent ones below.

America’s Most Famous Whiskey Brands

As a result of America’s prominence in the international whiskey market, the country has developed a massive following of loyal customers. The American whiskey industry exports roughly 163 brands each year, with that number steadily increasing with each passing year. With that being said, we have included a few of America’s most famous whiskey brands below.

What Is the Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?

By American law, for a spirit to use the “Bourbon” label for its product, the liquor must be distilled using a mixture of grains consisting of at least 51% corn. Additionally, bourbon must always be aged in brand new, unused, charred oak barrels.

Conversely, the distinction of “Whiskey” is given to alcoholic spirits made of a mash bill containing at least 51% rye grain or wheat. Unlike bourbon, whiskey can also be aged in various types of previously used barrels. The whiskey category is much more comprehensive than just bourbon and contains multiple varieties of mash recipes and flavor profiles.

Bourbon has a much more specific and stringent production process that defines itself as “Bourbon.” Whiskey is a much broader term that is more inclusive of spirits with different production processes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the oldest whiskey distillery in the United States?

Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, and Jack Daniels all have viable claims to having America’s oldest distillery, depending on which criteria is applied to the judgment. 

Many historians believe that the distillery located at what is currently known as “Buffalo Trace Distillery” is the oldest continuously operating facility in the United States. Having been in continuous operation since 1755, the facility has expectedly gone through many changes and names over the centuries. Currently, the oldest currently standing structure at the facility dates back to 1792, lending significant credibility to its reputation of being America’s oldest continuously operating distillery.

Alternatively, Jack Daniels possesses the oldest “registered” distillery in America title. The distinction of being a registered distillery is important because many of America’s oldest distilleries were unregistered for generations. The Civil War, religion, cultural norms, and Prohibition were all responsible for creating long periods of restriction on the bourbon industry, causing many distilleries to go “underground” in lieu of being shut down. For these reasons, historians are not able to conclusively identify many of America’s oldest distillation sites.

However, from a purely age standpoint, Burks’ Distillery may well be the oldest of America’s distilleries. Purchased in 1954 by “Maker’s Mark,” the facility is believed to have begun producing bourbon in 1773. While the distillery has experienced multiple periods of being closed due to the reasons stated earlier, the distillery has been formally recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the distinction of being the world’s oldest distillery.

So there you have it, three famous American distilleries, all with their own respectable and viable claims to being America’s oldest distillery, each for its own unique reasons. We’ll leave the final conclusion up to you to decide.

What state produces the most whiskey?

Kentucky rates, by far, as America’s highest whiskey producing state year after year. In 2019 alone, Kentucky’s whiskey distilleries produced a combined total of 2.1 million barrels of whiskey. In addition to that staggering fact, Kentucky’s whiskey production has grown by roughly 350% since 2020, with no other state even seeing triple-digit growth percentages in the same time frame.

With roughly 4.3 million people currently living in Kentucky and an average production of 2.1 million barrels of whiskey each year, nearly two barrels of whiskey are produced each year for every person living in Kentucky.