Whiskey 101: American Whiskeys

Let's take a closer look at what it means to be an American Whiskey, Bourbon or Rye. And what is Tennessee Whiskey?

We produce a lot of whiskey in the United States.

A lot. According to the stats reporting website Statista, the United States sold just shy of 70 million cases of whiskey in 2019. The year prior, the overall sales for straight and blended whiskey amounted to about $10 billion dollars. Suffice it to say, the whiskey industry in the United States is a big business.

For our whiskey knowledge however, this guide is meant to scratch the surface since there is just so much to know about whiskey. In fact, that even this guide isn’t extensive enough to cover all different types of whiskey. This is your guide to American whiskeys specifically – there are many other wonderful types of whiskies that are produced around the world (Scotch, Irish Whiskey and Japanese Whisky would be a few examples). We’ll cover those in another post, but for now we will stick to just talking about what is produced in the U.S. and we’ll keep it fairly basic.

No doubt you’ve heard of brands like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels – they’re heavyweights in the U.S. whiskey production world. But have you ever wondered why one is called a Bourbon while the other is not? How about when a cocktail recipe calls for a rye whiskey. What does that mean, and how is it different? These are just a few questions we hope to answer for you in our guide. So let’s get started.


What American Whiskey Must Be

‘American Whiskey’ is essentially an all-encompassing term that describes any whiskey made in the U.S. There are some general, bottom-line rules associated with whiskey production; not adhering to these standards means that you have not produced whiskey (at least not in the eyes of regulators). So, at a minimum, American Whiskey must meet these standards:

  • Must be made from a fermented mash of grain,
  • Must be produced at less than 190 proof (or 95% ABV)
  • Must be made in such a manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey
  • Stored in oak containers (with the exception of corn whiskey)
  • Bottled at no less than 80 proof (or 40% ABV)

If it meets these standards, it can be considered American Whiskey. It’s also worth pointing out that there are no general rules for aging on American Whiskey (‘straight’ whiskey notwithstanding) – but we’ll get to that later. These are just broad strokes, as there are many subcategories within American Whiskey that are held to even stricter rules. Think of this definition as the outer walls of a house, and each specific subcategory (Bourbon, Rye/Malt/Wheat/Rye Malt, corn, Tennessee, blended, etc) as a room. They all fit within the frame of the house, but each room is unique with its own dimensions.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of American Whiskey that must adhere to these rules:

  • Must be made with at least 51% corn in the mashbill (grain ingredients)
  • must be stored in new, charred white oak containers at no more than 125 proof (62.5%ABV)
  • Is made ONLY in the United States
  • Cannot exceed 160 proof  (80% ABV)
  • No added substances other than water

Bourbon can be blended with other Bourbons, but the age statement on the bottle must indicate the youngest aged barrel/spirit that was added to the mixture. For example, if you had one barrel that had been aged 6 years, and mixed that with another barrel that had aged 15 years, then you could only put 6 years as the age statement on the bottle; an age statement is not required per label regulations.

Bourbon does not have to be distilled, made, bottled or otherwise originated in Kentucky to be called Bourbon. Rather, it can be produced anywhere in the United States and still get the title.

Here’s another interesting tidbit: There is no aging requirement for Bourbon. There are other rules about labeling that affects that (for example, you can put ‘Straight Bourbon Whiskey’ on the label only if the spirit has aged at least 2 years, while ‘bottled-in-bond’ indicates 4 years of aging), but to be called Bourbon requires no aging. It has once been posited that unaged whiskey could pass directly through a charred, white oak container (in the top and out of the bottom) and then be legally classified as Bourbon.

These are the basic rules for Bourbon, and there are other things that can alter definitions or what can be put on a bottle label. But we’ll keep this pretty basic here (we’ll release a Bourbon-specific guide in the future).

What is Rye Whiskey?

Or wheat/malt too, since they follow these same basic rules:

  • Must be made with at least 51% of the identifying grain (wheat, rye, malt)
  • Must be stored in a new, charred oak container at no more than 125 proof (60% ABV)
  • Can’t exceed 160 proof (80% ABV)

And really, that’s it. Not much here, but now whenever you see a Manhattan cocktail recipe call for Rye whiskey, you know exactly what constitutes that bottle of rye. Rye is known for imparting more of the spicy notes in whiskey and can produce some really lovely flavors on the palate (pepper spice, baking spice, etc). Rye whiskies are generally an excellent option to imbibe during cold weather since they really bring on the heat! Always nice to have that extra bit of warmth during the frozen winter months.

What is Tennessee Whiskey?

The interesting thing about Tennessee whiskey is that it follows all the same rules as Bourbon does (refer to the Bourbon section above). Therefore, if anyone asks you ‘Is Jack Daniel’s a Bourbon?’ you can reply with a resounding ‘yes’ since it meets all the requirements of a Bourbon. However, make sure to note that Tennessee whiskey also adds these distinctions to the list:

  • It is produced in Tennessee
  • It is filtered through maple wood charcoal before barreling

The char filtering is a process known as the ‘Lincoln County Process’ and it is used to filter out any unwanted impurities in the new make spirit before barreling. Since this is considered a subtractive method, it still meets the requirements of Bourbon as nothing is added.

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, Michter's 10 year Single Barrel Bourbon and Detroit City Distillery's Rye Single Barrel

Other Types of Whiskeys

And yes, there are other types of American whiskeys that exist but generally they are less common. They include:

  • Corn Whiskey (Mellow Corn, being one example)
  • Straight Whiskey (must be aged at least 2 years)
  • Light Whiskey
  • Spirit Whiskey
  • Blended Whiskey

But it’s likely that you won’t encounter too many of these kinds of whiskeys. In order to keep this more concise, we decided to omit those for this guide (remember, this is a 101 class!).

Time to Try the ‘Big 3’

Now that you know more about the Bourbon, Rye and Tennessee types of American Whiskey, go out and give each of them a try! See what types of notes come out. How are they different? How are they similar? Use what you’ve learned here to try and understand why each taste like they do. Evaluating different whiskies and determining their unique profiles is a really fun exercise, so we encourage you to go out there and do your own research (drinking responsibly, of course). Cheers!

Meet the author
Homebar staff member
Kevin is the founder of Homebar.io. His enduring love for trying out different cocktail recipes and home bartending for friends is what led him to create Homebar. In addition to being a (very) amateur mixologist, he’s also a huge whiskey enthusiast and bottle collector. When he’s not voraciously learning about spirits and cocktail-making techniques, you can find him spending time with his family and his Golden Retriever, Molson.


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