When I teach the agricultural history of bourbon, I start off by explaining that frontier whiskey was nothing more than a way to preserve crops. The agricultural part is something most people don’t think about. In different parts of the country the story was the same, even if the grains were different.
Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell is famous for saying the reason bourbon isn’t made out of rice is because rice doesn’t grow in Kentucky, corn does. Cover crops like rye, winter wheat, and barley are harder to grow and harvest in Commonwealth, so they would have been more scarce or expensive during the frontier days. The general mash bill for bourbon was more of a foregone conclusion than a deliberate decision.
Meanwhile, rye grew amazingly well in the northeastern parts of the United States, but corn tended to be a little harder to grow or had poorer yields. This flipped the mash bill for whiskey there, leading to a regional style of rye whiskey. In the Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, barley has been the grain of choice thanks to the prevalence of breweries. In the last several years, this is where many American single malts have emerged.
Before there was reliable transportation to move massive quantities of grain from place to place, styles emerged as a necessity based on which grains were available locally. However, since the modernisation of the industry, which began in the late 1800s with the advent of the railroad, distillers have been buying grain from the commodity market in order to maintain a recipe. This is especially true now at a time when bourbon is being made everywhere from Alaska to Florida, and Kentucky distillers are dabbling in rye, American single malt, and other experimental styles.
I was first introduced to the idea of regional versus ‘philosophical’ whiskey styles by Christian Krogstad, founder of Westward Whiskey. The idea is that, these days, whiskey makers have a path to choose: either to make something with a regional tie, such as using casks built from a particular local oak species or a type of locally grown grain; or to make something based on their interests or background. In Krogstad’s case, he was a brewer, so making an American style of single malt whiskey was a no-brainer. But in places like the American Southwest, making a regional style of whiskey smoked with mesquite wood adds that regional touch.
American single malt is one place to look for the development of new styles, mainly because the category is so new and undefined. But there are also new styles of rye and bourbon emerging, not to mention corn, the mother of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.
‘Philosophical’ styles of whiskey require more attention these days. There are lots of well-meaning distillers who declare they will only get their grains locally, but climate change is going to have other plans for some of these regional styles that are dependent on local grains and terroir.
Philosophical whiskey styles are going to continue to emerge as new distilleries take hold. I often hear new distillery owners say they love Kentucky bourbon and that’s why they wanted to be in this business, but they didn’t want to try to mimic the style. This is where the philosophical element comes in. Many of these producers experiment with different styles of whiskey, different grains, different barrels or char levels, and more. They end up creating new flavour profiles that we’ve never seen or tasted before.
‘Honouring tradition but embracing change’ is a common refrain in the Kentucky bourbon industry, and today there are endless possibilities. I look forward to seeing what the newer craft producers come up with, whether those ideas come from a desire to showcase their corner of the world or they want to come up with the next big flavour profile to shake up the American whiskey realm.
Kentucky bourbon will always be my favourite, but I do love hearing the passion people have for their creations. Whiskey enthusiasts are the ones winning here. And who knows, 50 years from now we may look back and recognise the emergence of the next wave of whiskey styles happening in this golden age of craft spirits.