The whisky virgin

How to choose a Thanksgiving whiskey


In an effort to impress his American pals, our Whisky Virgin seeks out a special bottle with which to celebrate Thanksgiving. Trouble is, he knows nothing about American whiskey. 

Thanksgiving whiskey
Happy Thanksgiving: The national US holiday presents an opportunity for our Virgin to discover American whiskey

Thanksgiving is coming (23 November). That American holiday of turkey and… I want to say pilgrims have something to do with it? Okay, so I know even less about Thanksgiving than I do about whisky. The thing is, I’ve offered up my humble gaff for a celebration of that most American of holidays to some US expats I befriended during my student days.

I am dimly aware that they make their own whisky or ‘whiskey’ in the US and I want to offer a top-quality taste of home to my transatlantic homeboys and girls when they stop by. But what is American hooch all about? If I’ve learned anything in my travels in the world of brown liquor so far, it’s that whisky people are the salt of the earth and happy to share their knowledge. With this in mind, I roll deep on my local whisky emporium to do some investigating.

‘Afternoon, whisky merchant. I’ve got some Americans coming by for turkey day and I understand they have their own version of Scotch over there…’ I am calmly, but firmly, informed that American whiskey is not Scotch – sort of makes sense, if you think about it. By way of a demonstration, I’m given a sample serving of Elijah Craig Small Batch, which I’m told is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, the main player in American whiskey.

‘It’s free, you say? Ah, good stuff.’

All about sharing: The Virgin imagines a straight Bourbon like Elijah Craig would impress his American dinner guests

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what to expect. I’d assumed that American whiskey was probably a brash imitation of our stuff. Like when our friends from across the pond try to do our accents and get the vowels all wrong. Will this stuff feel jarring and weird like when Johnny Depp says ‘Bloody’? I remind myself that with whisky, as with all things, open-mindedness is key. In the spirit of experimentation, I gamely throw down a slug of vanilla-scented Americana.

It’s sweeter than the whisky I’ve encountered before and packed with spice and liquorice. It’s definitely whisky and definitely tasty, but why is it so… differenty?

The informative whisky expert tells me this colonial sipper is made mostly of corn with a little rye and malted barley thrown in to round it out; pretty different from our malt-based Scotch. Apparently the US government demands that straight Bourbon be made of no less than 51% corn.

Y’see, Americans may love a bit of the old freedom but they’re also big on rules and traditions. Their strict whisky laws also specify that straight Bourbon has to be matured for no less than two years in brand spanking new American white oak barrels. All of this means that Bourbon grows up fast and woody, and is characteristically sweeter and higher in vanilla flavour than Scotch.

A new barrel for every batch of naughty water? That sounds like wastefulness to my high-horsey European ears but that’s not the whole story. The latest whisky expert to take pity on my ignorance tells me that the Americans sell some of their used casks to Scottish distilleries where they’re reused to age Scotch. If you’re tasting vanilla in your favourite dram, it’s likely that flavour is coming from American oak. Turns out Scotch and Bourbon aren’t rivals, they’re allies.

This could be just the thing to celebrate that day of… buckles on hats? I really should find out what this pre-Christmas food-fest is all about before the big day. But anyway, for now it’s whiskey time.

‘Pretty good stuff there, chief. So American whisky tastes of vanilla and is Bourbon, got it. I’ll just take a bottle of…’ wrong again, Whisky Virgin, says the kindly sauce-seller. It seems Kentucky Straight Bourbon is not the end of the American whiskey story. My next sample is Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof, a dark brown spirit made from the badman of the grain world, rye.

Rye whiskey: Enough spice to cut through a gravy-induced coma, says the Whisky Virgin

One glug of this high-proof spirit (100 proof = 50% abv) and it’s hard to fight back the American stereotypes. Cowboys and speakeasys and Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen thunder through my little head and I taste tobacco, leather and pepper. Made mainly with rye instead of corn, this dram isn’t exactly subtle but that’s not exactly a problem for me. 

I’m left with a question, though. Mr Craig and Ms Rittenhouse are definitely different but they both seem to have variations on the same flavours: vanilla, sweetness and spice. Maybe because the rules for making whiskey in the land of the free are so tight. But I’ve had Scotch that tasted of honey and heather, and Scotch that tasted of seashells and plasters. Can freedom whiskey compete with that sort of range?

The answer, my dudes, is maybe.

My newest booze teacher tells me that there are fresh distilleries opening all across the land of the drive-thru that are throwing out the rulebook and cooking up exciting product. Our cousins overseas have recently started to produce the granddaddy of all whiskies. I speak of course, of single malt.

Balcones distillery of Waco, Texas is making whiskey from 100% malted barley, just like your classic single malt. My local whisky dealer seems to have a little patience yet for my presence and my questions so I get a taster of this as well.

This Texan whiskey is big and rich and complicated. My whisky sage tells me that I might find it closer to Scotch because it’s also done time in an ex-Bourbon barrel. On second filling it seems oak barrels have lost some of their potency which is why the flavours are more delicate in Scotch, and also in this wee dram from the Lonestar state. It’s closer to the gear we churn out in the old world but definitely has its own thing going on. That thing tastes of baked apples, brown sugar, and toasty grains.

Is this Scotch? No, and I don’t think it’s trying to be. Is it delicious? Big yes.

Blowing minds: A single malt that’s not Scotch? Balcones has our Virgin dumbfounded

It seems to me that this is much more than a new-world take on an old-world classic. American single malt isn’t subject to the same rules that govern Bourbon, rye or Scotch – this is whiskey on a lawless frontier. Until the man comes in and lays down the law on American single malt there’s room for distillers to experiment, though apparently a lot of them stick to a set of standards held by the official sounding American Single Malt Whiskey Commission.

I shake the hand of the helpful whisky hawker and they do an excellent job of pretending they’re cool with that. I ask for a bottle of rye because I reckon that spicy mamma jammer will be just the thing to cut through my gravy coma come Thanksgiving. However, I reckon I’ll find plenty of room on my booze shelf for American single malt in the future. My take-home is this: there’s a whole lot of American spirits out there and we don’t need to have our ‘I love Scotch’ tattoos lasered off to give them a whirl.

Happy America day, America. I hope one day to understand what Thanksgiving is all about. In the meantime, thanks for the whiskey.

Still prefer Scotch? Use our handy guide to matching Thanksgiving dishes with a dram.

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