American Straight Whiskey
March 13, 2004 9:19 PM   Subscribe

I Have Seen The Future And It's American Straight Whiskey: How many things do you know that get not only better but more numerous with every passing year? You could call it Bourbon, of course, it you wished to exclude the superb Tennessee products of Jack Daniel's and George Dickel (just because they charcoal-filter their otherwise equally impeccable straight whiskey), but you should know that this is only the result of a strictly commercial rivalry between the two main producers: Brown-Forman (who own Jack Daniel's in Tennessee) and Jim Beam (who make only Kentucky straight whiskies, i.e. Bourbons). Call it American straight whiskey and be proud! [More inside.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (30 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
While Scottish and Irish distillers add colourings and caramel and generally age their potions in second-hand Bourbon casks, American distillers use new oak and are forbidden from adding anything. Hence the natural, utter deliciousness of all the exciting small batch and single-cask creations now being offered. Be sure to check out, in the impressive main link, the well-informed and lively discussion board.

In Europe, a lot of us are paying fortunes and spending a lot of time hunting out and importing the precious new American straight whiskies being offered. How can the Americans, with such wealth at their doorstep, for so much cheaper, continue drinking importing Scotch? America, why do you hate yourself so much? (If I may be forgiven a self-link, make mine a Rye. An Old Potrero would go down well, thank you very much. Specially as I've not yet been able to lay my lips on this mythical libation!)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:20 PM on March 13, 2004

I'm from New Hampshire (Northeastern USA) and I took a road trip to visit the distilleries of the south during the summer. I enjoyed all my visits, but the Bourbon that is my favorite is Maker's Mark, that's because it's made with winter wheat and it tastes totally different and better than any other whiskey.

As for the other visitors to the distilleries, 15 out of 17 at Jack Daniel's were GERMANS! Thankfully, most Germans come to the states with the ability to speak English, but I was handy in translating a time or two. It's also nice to see an increasing number of Poles vacationing in the states.
posted by crazy finger at 9:45 PM on March 13, 2004

If I'm drinking whiskey, I'm drinking Maker's Mark.

When T. William Samuels created Maker's Mark he... saw a market for an elegant whisky...Instead of the relatively heavy, harsh, minimally aged bourbons so common in the post-Prohibition and post World War II era, Samuels sought to create a more refined, clean, smooth, delicate whisky. After all, why couldn't a native American bourbon be just as elegant as some French brandy?

I consider Samuels the Robert Mondavi of American whiskey and indeed Maker's Mark is elegant. Maybe too elegant? My SO claims it is "too smooth."
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:52 PM on March 13, 2004

mmmmmMaker's Mark
posted by ilsa at 10:00 PM on March 13, 2004

I'm not sure if anyone else here watches the show "The Thirsty Traveler," but the episode on Kentucky bourbon (oops, "straight whiskey") was excellent.

The show is on the Fine Living Channel; it's worth checking out.
posted by bdk3clash at 10:11 PM on March 13, 2004

The "regular" straight whiskies I most enjoy are Buffalo Trace from Kentucky and George Dickel's No.12 from Tennessee. I love Knob Creek but it's far too expensive here, as it's a fashion item.

I most enjoy unwatered, full-proof straight whiskies like Jim Beam's Booker Noe (he was recently mourned in a MeFi thread) and Baker's and Wild Turkey's Rare Breed. These really are straight whiskies.

My two favourite single barrels are the Eagle Rare 10 Year Old (never tried the 17...) and Woodford Reserve.

P.S. Maker's Mark is scrumptious but, like SLOG's SO, I think it's too smooth. Too much corn and too much wheat, i.e., too sweet. I prefer my straights with less corn and more rye and barley - wheat is less "bready" and perhaps too "crackerjack", if this makes any sense.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:22 PM on March 13, 2004

Miguel, speaking of bready, I seem to recall that when I visited Maker's Mark, Samuels had had an old family recipe but decided that he wanted to start over from scratch and threw it in the fire. Then he went about baking breads until he found a flavor that he liked best. The ingredient he liked best of course was winter wheat. I like it too. I think I'll have a drink right now!
posted by crazy finger at 10:31 PM on March 13, 2004

Just reading this after an evening snort of Woodford Reserve. Very few things are finer.
posted by dragstroke at 10:34 PM on March 13, 2004

Hear, hear! Another Maker's Mark fan here. Two of my sisters are married off, and both of their husbands, when i asked them what they wanted in the "courage flask", requested MM. I like Jack, I like George, and I like my honest-to-god moonshine, but Maker's is the best stuff that's readily available.
posted by notsnot at 10:39 PM on March 13, 2004

dood, single malts only way to do, specifically. Glenmorangie
Good stuff maynerd.
posted by Elim at 10:42 PM on March 13, 2004

Miguel, speaking of bready, I seem to recall that when I visited Maker's Mark, Samuels had had an old family recipe but decided that he wanted to start over from scratch and threw it in the fire. Then he went about baking breads until he found a flavor that he liked best. The ingredient he liked best of course was winter wheat.

How intelligent and interesting, crazy finger! I shouldn't have presumed to know what wheat tastes like in whiskey - I think Samuels may have been the first, though it's now become a trend. The guys who make Woodford Reserve laid down 2 or 3 years ago whiskeys brewed from rice, oats and other cereals they're not talking about.

The main objective, of course, is to avoid the grain that is (almost) the sole basis of Scotch and Irish whiskies: barley.

The wheat/rye controversy (let's call it that for fun's sake) is at the heart of the rivalry between Polish wodkas (Wyborowa is 100% rye as are most Polish wodkas) and Russian and Scandinavian vodkas, which are mainly wheat or potato-based. (I refuse to mention the beetroot and molasses concoctions!) Finlandia and Moskosvaya are 100% winter wheat. And you can tell the difference. Wheat is smoother and less affirmative; rye is edgier and more characterful.

Perhaps because I'm a European (used to Irish and Scottish whiskies) I much prefer the dryer and fierier rye. My absolutely all-time favourite straight whiskies are the ryes: Sazerac 18-year-old Rye, Rip Van Winkle's 17-year-old Straight Rye and Wild Turkey's Straight Rye. As they're expensive and hard to come by, I sip them neat rather than mix them (OK, I admit to making the occasional Manhattan, Sazerac and Old-Fashioned with the Wild Turkey).

The real (outrageous actually) bargains in America - and still cheap here - are the wonderful bottom shelf rye straight whiskies like Old Overholt, Rittenhouse and, most curious of all, the Maryland-style Pikesville. All are very well made, wonderfully dry and refreshing, ideal to drink in an original highball: in a tall glass, full of ice and Perrier water (or any other fizzy water, like Schweppes soda water). They're cheap because they're unfashionable, that's all.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:52 PM on March 13, 2004

I have seen the future and, yes, there is quite a lot of whiskey in it. But there is far more Easter Island.
posted by troutfishing at 10:58 PM on March 13, 2004

An interesting (and delicious, though too sweet) straight whiskey which was unavailable in America but highly popular in Europe is Four Roses, which has only recently been reintroduced in the U.S.

There are, in fact, several straights that are export-only or duty-free-only but, although I hate to say it, they're not the best. Damn!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:01 PM on March 13, 2004

Is zis tequila I see in dis leetle bowl? Aye, aye aye aye aye! I am so fookin' sicka dis bourbon mierda, carajo! Andale,andale, ariba,ariba, eh-hah!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:26 PM on March 13, 2004

I have to confess - since I got over drinking bourbon and coke as a teenager, I've never really understood what the big deal was. Compared to single malt I find American whiskies sweet and woody. Nice in mixed drinks, better than Scotch in fact, but not really worth it.

Is there some secret here? Is it the ever-present ice?

If I told you I liked Glenmorangie and found Laphroaig tasty but too seaweedy for regular tippling, what America whiskey would anyone suggest?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:05 AM on March 14, 2004

Suburban & Coke.
posted by johnny7 at 12:29 AM on March 14, 2004

Dear old Dad taught me to like rye whiskey - bourbon's OK, too, I guess, but I just have to run counter to the prevailing trends, so it's rye and Irish whiskeys for me.
posted by alumshubby at 5:01 AM on March 14, 2004

I'm with item. Bourbon (my roommate drinks Maker's) tastes like paint thinner to me. I respect the work that goes into making the stuff to waste it, so I gave up.
posted by black8 at 5:13 AM on March 14, 2004

Then there's always the Plumley bootleg whiskey recipe and Pete Custer's wheat whiskey making tips.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:08 AM on March 14, 2004

My pal David Wondrich has some good dope on the history of American and Canadian whiskey here. David was the person who convinced me to eschew overly sweet Manhattans made with bourbon for the rye-based variety, per Miguel above. He's also got news on the history of the Mint Julep which may raise a Kentucky eyebrow or two.

I thought while I was at it I would see if Edward Spencer, who penned an entertaining and popular (I assume, since my copy is the 6th edition) late-19th-C. guide to drunkenness called The Flowing Bowl, had much to say on the subject; but his one mention in over 200 pages suggests how little Victorian Britain thought of American alcohol: "In America, Rye or Bourbon whisky is made from wheat or maize grown in the Bourbon country, Kentucky, and some of it would kill at forty yards."
posted by BT at 7:39 AM on March 14, 2004

You can also go straight for the down-home celebrity bourbon.

Dave Wondrich is indeed an evangelist for rye whiskey. His own invention, The Bone, mixes it with lime and tabasco.
posted by liam at 7:58 AM on March 14, 2004

it's quarter to noon where I am... is it too early for a glass of Maker's? O sweet, glorious, life-giving Maker's! (Very enjoyable post and discussion -- thanks Miguel!)
posted by scody at 11:43 AM on March 14, 2004

Maker's Mark me, just okay. Maybe my tastebuds are a little different. I keep Henry McKenna around the house.

Favorite distilled spirit of late: a good armagnac.
posted by gimonca at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2004

I really dislike bourbon. Give me some nice tequila or single malt whisky and I'm a happy girl, though. Or some girly drinks. I'm a Girl Drink Drunk!
posted by eilatan at 3:09 PM on March 14, 2004

I Have Seen The Future And It's American Straight Whiskey

Sacrilege. Pure heresy.

Miguel, shouldn't a 1/2-Brit\1/2-Portuguese like you be pushing good old colonial Bombay Gin, or maybe wine or single-malt?

And when did you start going bananas with the <img src...>? You're getting worse than I with the damn pictures. Shouldn't fellow 9622-er/ MeFi cop stavros be yelling at you by now?

My God, you've finally baited me into one of these damn foody/alcohol-y threads too. Jaysus, I'll take poteen made from GodKnowsWhat before bourbon.
posted by Shane at 5:28 PM on March 14, 2004

most curious of all, the Maryland-style Pikesville

I live in Maryland near Pikesville never heard of it. Curious how Pikesville, best know as the Jewish center of Baltimore, would produce a Whisky. My guess is its re-branded generic and exported as "American Whisky" at a premium in overseas markets with a tongue in cheek "Pikesville Whisky".. could be wrong but Pikesville is a local center of International food stores because of the international Jewish immigrant population there. I recently went to a Pikesville Russian grocery store for some Kefir and Kvas that rocks.
posted by stbalbach at 8:25 PM on March 14, 2004

Miguel, I love your periodic whisk(e)y threads. I wish I could afford to do the required homework, though.
posted by Hildago at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2004

Curious how Pikesville, best know as the Jewish center of Baltimore, would produce a Whiskey.

You mean it's kosher too? No, just kidding - what interesting information, stbalbach, as I've often wondered while drinking the stuff (I'd also love to know what exactly is the "Maryland style"). It's very good though - and absurdly cheap (about 10 dollars/12 euros in Portugal). Here's a photograph (it's the white labelled bottle) and an appreciative review, which also mentions the other "cheap" ryes.

Hey, Hildago - you're very welcome! But you'd be amazed how much good straight whiskey you can get for your buck in America. Try the three 10-dollar ryes and straight away (sorry, couldn't resist) you'll know more than 99,9% of the population and be able to call yourself a no-nonsense rye man, which is about as cool as you can get nowadays. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:36 PM on March 14, 2004

Slate has an ongoing whiskey tasting set at my one-time favorite bar
posted by Slagman at 7:57 AM on March 15, 2004

Just thought I would post this:

It's an interesting article on American whiskey and rye from the great R.W. Apple, Jr. I don't much like Jack Daniels, but it was interested to read how it's made.

Miguel, he likes the same rye you pointed out - down to the Pikesville. I used to live in Baltimore and never saw it there, but now, obviously, I have to find it. As I'm in California now, I think I'm going hunting for some Old Portero.

For what it's worth - as if anyone's reading this thread anymore - I think Jim Beam is just great for el-cheapo bourbon. Woodford Reserve is a nice-sippin', more-complex bourbon if you want to triple the price point.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:23 AM on March 17, 2004

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