These are boom times for American whiskey makers, with drinkers around the globe craving their complex spirits. Reason to celebrate? Yes and no.
This growth has been spurred by the introduction of increasingly premium and creative bottlings. But it leaves distillers in the unenviable position of needing to come up with new, innovative products constantly—a difficult business, since there are just a few ways to change whiskey’s flavor.
For one, American whiskey can only be aged for so long—the sweet spot is somewhere between eight and twelve years—before it gets too woody. While some brands have successfully gone longer, the liquor won’t benefit from much further maturation.
There are also limitations imposed by the government. Bill Samuels Jr., the former president of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, recently recalled the difficulty of pushing “the taste envelope within the limited sphere you’re allowed.”
So where does that leave the industry? Well, just like with Scotch, many of the innovations will come from experimenting with the casks. Samuels’ last major project before his retirement a few months ago was to create “an exciting bourbon that doesn’t require an acquired taste.” The brand achieved this by inserting seared French oak staves into a barrel of finished Maker’s and letting it steep for several months. The result was the spicy Maker’s 46 ($35).
For its latest release, Devil’s Cut ($24), Jim Beam also found inspiration in its barrels. But in this case, it was by extracting the alcohol soaked up by the wood. The reclaimed liquid is then mixed with six-year-old bourbon. The outcome is exactly what you’d think: a deeper expression of Jim Beam, with more tannins and more oak.
However, it isn’t just the largest brands doing groundbreaking work. Boutique distillers across the country are inventing new methods and techniques, too. The Chicago-based Koval, for instance, has introduced Lion’s Pride, an impressive line of organic single-grain whiskies, including one made from spelt. And Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia is malting local barley and drying it with aromatic apple- and cherry-wood smoke to create Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky.
Projects like these are the future of American whiskey.