Back To Basics: American Whiskey For Beginners

In the world of whiskey, the subsets, nuisances, possibilities, and flavors are seemingly endless. Novices in the field often find the genre intimidating as true connoisseurs take their level of whiskey knowledge very seriously. And while whiskey conversations overheard at crowded bars are intriguing, you can’t always trust their accuracy. So, take a moment to increase your whiskey knowledge and help add a little to those bar stool chats.

We’ll start simply by breaking down what makes a whiskey, whiskey and then dive into differences between commonly misunderstood whiskeys, ending with location-based and flavor-driven whiskeys.


Let’s start with the basics. Whiskey is not one single type of drink. Scotch is whiskey made in Scotland; Irish whiskey is created in Ireland; and bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey are all distinctly American.

The whiskey creation process is simple in theory: create a grain-based mash depending on the type of whiskey being produced, and then distill and age the liquid to produce that golden brown, potent drink. Corn, wheat, rye, and barley are some of the most common grains used to make the mash which causes flavor variations across both straight and blended drinks.

All types of American whiskey, no matter the grain base or variety, is created with virtually the same process and – according to the American whiskey regulations – aged in oak barrels. The amount of alcohol in whiskey is determined by an alcohol-by-volume (AVB) process which is defined as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. American whiskey law requires a minimum of 40% ABV and no more than 80% ABV when bottled. Cask strength (or barrel proof) describes a whiskey that has not been diluted after the aging and storing process. Both the ABV percentage and the cask strength influences the potency of the final product.

And while there are no federal aging restrictions on the drink to sell, straight whiskey requires a two-year aging process and whiskey aged less than four years require that fact to be printed on the bottle label.


Both bourbon and rye are some of the most well-received types of American whiskey and although created with similar processes are unique in their own rights.

Bourbon is known for its rich heritage. Founded in the lush rolling hills of Kentucky, bourbon is produced from at least 51 percent corn, according to its traditional recipe, and a lesser combination of other grains such as barley and rye. In keeping with whiskey code, the federal laws insist the aging of the drink take place in new charred American oak barrels to ensure a rich, smoky flavor.

Rye whiskey is created with a mash that is at least 51 percent rye and a small percentage of other grains such as malted barley and corn. The rye grain carries a spicy, dry flavor that, once distilled, infuses the finished product with hints of pepper, grass, and grain. Barreling and storing rye whiskey calls for newly constructed charred oak barrels that are sealed and stored for as little as two years before the bottling process takes place.


Across the country, companies small and large are creating amazing versions of whiskeys. From micro-distilleries on the East Coast to large productions in the heartland of our nation, world-class whiskey is carefully being created. And while locations such as California and New Jersey are not famous for their brews, the production and product are second to none. However, a few types of whiskey are known, and actually named for, their location.


While bourbon is not named after a specific location, it might as well have been. In the late 1700s, it was discovered that the Bluegrass State was one of the best locations for growing bourbon’s main ingredient, corn. And since then the state has unofficially laid claim to the refinement and production of bourbon. Environmental science also has helped maintain Kentucky’s bourbon legacy. Cold winters and hot summers aid in the aging process of the drink and limestone deposits in the water filter out unwanted minerals that can cause the flavor of aged bourbons to diminish slightly.

And while Kentucky is famous for the production of bourbon, locations across the United States are now known for creating quality bourbon thanks to the craft distillery movement.


Notably linked with American history, the first recorded appearance of American-made whiskey was rye whiskey. In the mid-1600s, Dutch settlers were making their way to the New World with recipes of the whiskey from their homeland. After finding refuge in Pennsylvania and Maryland, they discovered that rye was the crop of choice for the untamed soil so instead of barley settlers made their drink with rye mash, creating the rye whiskey recipe we know today.

Although the demand for rye whiskey dropped off significantly in the mid-1900s, the re-popularization of whiskey has caused artesian distilleries and micro-breweries to start investing once again in the production of rye whiskey, some even moving their productions back to the states where it all began.

Today, the rye whiskey market is booming, and new classifications are being created to showcase location and flavor differences in the drink. Empire rye is an example of the new types of rye whiskey hitting the market. Empire rye is a rye whiskey created exclusively in the state of New York with at least 75 percent New York rye grain and aged in charred new oak barrels.    


By law, Tennessee Whiskey is not truly considered Tennessee Whiskey unless it is 100 percent created in the Volunteer State. Charcoal is introduced in the creation process of this whiskey, acting as a filter before the aging process, and purists deny its similarity to bourbon, claiming the flavors and qualities distinct.


Traditionally, most people are familiar with whiskey due to its golden-brown color and after-sip burn. And because of that famous burn, casual drinkers tend to shy away from the robust drink or gravitate toward blended whiskey and whiskey-based cocktails to mask much of the vigorous flavor. But many purists believe single malt whiskey is still the highest quality whiskey on the market.


Although a single malt whiskey is traditionally Scottish and created with a malted barley mash, American distilleries are picking up the tradition and starting to develop their take on the drink. American single malts are defined by creating a mash that is 100 percent malted grain mash and produced from one single distillery within the United States. Rich flavor profiles are highlighted due to the purity of the drink and often vary based on the distilling location across the country. Texas single-malt whiskey, for instance, is noted for its smoky flavor while East Coast distilleries are beginning to produce a saltier whiskey much like their Scottish counterparts.


Because of the growing demand for a more approachable whiskey, companies have started to introduce flavors and blends into their whiskey lines. Although hesitant at first, critics have now called for even the most defensive whiskey enthusiasts to give the unique blends a try.

Flavors, such as ginger or apple, are often introduced into these blends to appeal to a broader audience and are slowly finding their place amongst traditional or straight bottles. No matter if you’re a whiskey skeptic, critic, or choose to avoid the product altogether, beautifully infused and flavored whiskeys – like the ginger spiced whiskey from Misunderstood Whiskey – deserves a shot (or three). Misunderstood Whiskey is an example of a company whose mission is to change the reputation of flavored whiskey and create a  blend of whiskey that everyone can enjoy.

Today, craft producers are getting more creative with their whiskey blends by using unconventional grains, such as sorghum, to create their product. Other producers may infuse natural ingredients such as ginger into their whiskey for a unique taste profile. In most cases where the product doesn’t meet the requirements of the traditional categories mentioned above, the product is considered an American Whiskey blends or a Whiskey Specialty.


And now that you’re a little more whiskey savvy, it’s time to share some of your "whiskey for beginners" knowledge. Impress your friends, colleagues, and dates with a bit of a history or science lesson and don’t be afraid to give a specialty, flavored whiskey a try. It may just have the power to change your mind.