Politics be damned, I love America. Recent visits for the World Whisky Awards and Whisky Live in New York, revealed a new wealth of drams and whisky makers to celebrate. They sure are making some wonderful juice south of the 49th parallel, and not just Bourbon. When you are in New York, a curated flight at the Brandy Library bar will send you scurrying to the liquor store.
Heading west to Whisky Live Washington DC, I discovered one great new whisky after another, before kneeling at that whisky altar called the Jack Rose bar. My renewed passion for American whiskey was further stoked by ingeniously innovative releases from new and long-time distillers alike. The “craft” whisky movement is finally bottling some genuine craftsmanship.
One nagging irritation though, was people telling me over and over how much more strictly American whiskey is regulated than Canadian. They are wrong; this simply is not the case. All things considered, Canadian distillers have much less latitude than American distillers do, in what they can put in a bottle labelled whisky. But this is certainly not the perception and I understand why. Straight Bourbon has become shorthand for whisky in the US, and it’s the rules for straight Bourbon that so quickly come to mind. But as whiskeys from Balcones, Westland and hundreds of others confirm, Bourbon is not the only fine whiskey made in America.
In addition to Bourbon, 32 other spirits qualify as American whiskey and among these there is so much latitude in how they are made, you could almost say there are no restrictions whatsoever in what distillers can call whisky. If we are going to compare one country’s regulations to another’s we need to compare whisky to whisky.
Although they include many “ands,” Canada’s basic regulations are succinct: To be called Canadian whisky, as a minimum, the liquid in the bottle must be made and matured in Canada, and it must be distilled from fermented grain, and aged in wooden barrels for at least three years, and be at least 40% ABV and may contain colouring and flavouring.
Rather, it is distillers who are more interested in flavour than following the rules
The flavouring if used at all, must not exceed 9.09 per cent and must be wood-matured spirits or wine.
The US regulation sounds just as strict as Canada’s. American whiskey must be made in the USA. If it is matured (it doesn’t have to be) this must also be done in America. It must be distilled from fermented grain at less than 95% ABV and be at least 40% ABV in the bottle.
Where this breaks down, however, is in the classes and types, which provide so many exceptions that American distillers have practically unrestricted freedom to make their whisky any way they want.
Many American whiskey lovers seem shocked to the point of disbelief to learn that in the US, producers can add up to 95 per cent neutral spirits, and up to 2.5 per cent flavourings including highly potent chemicals synthesised in labs. Canada’s regulations
allow neither. But don’t take my word for it. Look up the US regulations yourself. Does this sound like a dis on American whiskey?
It’s not intended to be. Bourbon, one American whiskey style, is getting long overdue recognition among connoisseurs. However, of the 35 different spirits included under the American whiskey umbrella, just three are Bourbon. Another 32 American distilled spirits also qualify to be called whiskey.
Just as single malt is naïve shorthand for Scotch, let’s stop thinking ‘Bourbon’ when we really mean American whiskey.
The US is making some wonderful whiskeys, both the legacy distilleries and relative newcomers. But please don’t try to tell us that it’s the regulations that make it so.
It is not the regs that have given us Garryana Oak from Westland or 100 per cent rye from Balcones. Rather, it is distillers who are more interested in flavour than following rules. They just make great whisky then figure out later what to call it.