American Whiskey: Respect for the Past, Reimagining the Future
The current deeply exciting state of American whiskey has not developed by mistake.
by Brian Freedman
The world of American whiskey seems to be expanding all the time. And not just in terms of the range of whiskey styles that can easily be found on liquor store shelves and back bars at restaurants: Even within each category, expressions from classic to boundary-pushing abound, and from producers that run the gamut from standard-bearers to newcomers.
Take Beam-Suntory, for example. The name Jim Beam may be as close to synonymous with American whiskey as exists, yet within the overarching portfolio, the company is responsible for Maker’s Mark, Booker’s, Baker’s, Legent, Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, and, of course, the various bottlings of their eponymous Jim Beam brand. And while Beam Suntory represents one of the most successful global partnerships in the business, bringing together two companies with centuries of experience, Master Distiller Fred Noe remains the seventh generation of his family to run the proverbial show.
The world of American whiskey is like that: Respect for the past is a seeming constant, yet never at the expense of the future.
From a category perspective, contemporary consumers and professionals have access to whiskeys that previous generations only dreamed of. And Angel’s Envy, a leader in pushing boundaries, though it was acquired by Bacardi back in 2015, started off as a family project.
Of course, it wasn’t just any family: Lincoln Henderson, without whose lifetime of work the world of American whiskey would look awfully different (ever had Gentleman Jack or Woodford Reserve? You can think him…) was lured out of retirement by his son Wes Henderson, and before his death in 2013, his grandson (and Wes’s son) Kyle Henderson took on a leading role. Connor and Spencer Henderson are involved, too; Bacardi’s acquisition hasn’t changed the family’s key role.
And without the runaway success of Angel’s Envy, the world of American whiskeys—and bourbons in particular—that have been finished in non-traditional barrels wouldn’t be the same. Their flagship, after all, is famously transferred from the required-by-law charred new American oak into ex-Port casks for a final stint of seasoning before bottling.
And as students in the WSET spirits course learn, even just a few months in a different kind of barrel can have a huge impact on the finished liquid. As, of course, can the type of still that’s used (column, pot), the composition of the mash bill, the type of yeast that’s used in the initial fermentation, the source of water that’s used to bring the spirit back to the desired proof, and more.
In fact, WSET Level 1 Spirits students will learn not just that, but so much more about whiskey from around the world and throughout the United States, including:
- The differences and similarities between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey
- How rye differs from both of the above
- Aging requirements, and in what type of barrels, for the range of American whiskey
- How all of this impacts the perception of flavor and aroma of the whiskey in the glass
- How to assess the character of whiskey from all across the United States using the official WSET guidelines. For example, the Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels could be examined as follows:
- This bourbon shows deep gold with amber highlights. Aromatically, it’s of medium-plus intensity, with notes of orange marmalade, butterscotch, and white raisins, all teeing up a palate with honeyed orchard fruit, white raisins, vanilla spice from the oak, and a medium-length, complex finish marked by cherries, subtle toastiness, and white chocolate.
The point is this: The current deeply exciting state of American whiskey has not developed by mistake. It is the result of a balance between a deep respect for the past and a willingness to look toward the future. With enough of an education in what goes into crafting these world-class spirits, you’ll be able to appreciate them as deeply as they deserve.
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