Lesson 03: What other American whiskey types are there, besides Bourbon?

In this third lesson, I will tell you about all the different American whiskey types, other than Bourbon.

In the United States, there are a mind-boggling 35 different types of whiskey, approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). A post covering all 35 types would be too long and boring – so I decided to cover a handful of the most important ones and simply just list the rest. So … here goes:

Bourbon – already covered in Lesson 01.

Rye whiskey

A close cousin to Bourbon, as most of the rules are the same, but with rye as the predominant grain instead of corn. Here are the highlights of the Rye whiskey rules – with a few tidbits to boot:

  • Must be made from a distillate based on minimum 51% rye. More than 90% rye is not uncommon – and some even go to 100%.
  • Can be made anywhere in the world. This is different from Bourbon, which can only be made in the US.
  • Must be aged in new oak containers (in reality, barrels) – exactly like Bourbon.
  • No age requirements (like Bourbon)
  • You are allowed to add 2.5% flavoring and other additives, unless it is a “Straight” Rye whiskey. This is a change from Bourbon, where you are not allowed to add anything (other than water) – no matter what. I will explain the concept “Straight” in an upcoming post.
  • The proof off the distillation process cannot exceed 160 (80% ABV) and the proof going into the barrel cannot exceed 125 (62.5% ABV). This is exactly like Bourbon.
  • If you have come across the term “barely legal Rye”, people are referring to a Rye whiskey with 51% rye, or maybe slightly more. Rittenhouse, Sazerac and Pikesville are famous examples – and since they have nearly as much corn as rye, they nearly taste like Bourbon.
  • Another term is “high rye whiskey”. This is a little confusing, as people are typically referring to a Bourbon – but where the percentage of rye is high (e.g. 20 or, or higher). You will also hear this referenced as “high Rye Bourbon” – and that obviously explains it much better.
An example of a high rye whiskey – which in fact is a Bourbon

Corn whiskey

This is a weird one – and the weirdness is related to the ageing process. Corn whiskey is not that common, but it seems to rise in popularity outside Kentucky. The most famous Corn whiskey is probably “Mellow Corn” from Heaven Hill, but the most interesting products probably come from Texas, where e.g. Balcones and Ironroot Republic makes amazing products.

So … what is weird about the ageing process? The exact wording from TTB is as follows: “If stored in oak containers stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood”. This is confusing if you think about it, and I interpret this sentence as follows:

  • No requirements for wood aging at all (and this is unique, compared with other whiskey types)
  • You can age it in a used non-charred (but typically toasted) barrel
  • It is unclear, if it is allowed to age in a used charred barrel. I read the sentence as not allowed, since it says “not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood”. I know, however, that opinions differ of this topic.

(I will explain the concepts of charring and toasting in the upcoming lessons).

Other than that, the remaining rules are fairly straight forward:

  • Must be made from a distillate based on minimum 80% corn and it is not uncommon to see 100%.
  • Can be made anywhere in the world.
  • The proof off the distillation process cannot exceed 160 (80% ABV) and the proof going into the barrel cannot exceed 125 (62.5% ABV).

To check if you are still awake, here is a quick question: Since Bourbon is 51% corn or higher and Corn whiskey is 80% or higher – how on earth do you determine what a whiskey with e.g. 90% corn is? I know it is confusing, but it can be both. BUT if it has been aged in a new charred barrel, it is a Bourbon. If aged in a used barrel – or not aged at all – it is a Corn whiskey. Here is an overview, to lessen the confusion:

  • Less than 51% corn: Neither a Bourbon nor a Corn whiskey.
  • Between 51% and 79% corn: Bourbon (if you follow the Bourbon rules)
  • Between 80% and 100% corn: Bourbon, if stored in new charred barrels, Corn whiskey, if not.
A corn whiskey, made from 100% corn
And a Bourbon from the same company – also made from 100% corn

Wheat whiskey

Same rules as with Rye whiskey, but where you need to use 51% wheat or more, instead of rye. You may come across the terms “wheater”, “wheated whiskey” or “wheated Bourbon”. Neither of these refer to Wheat whiskey, but rather to Bourbon, made with wheat in the distillate (typically instead of rye).

Malt whiskey

Same rules as with Rye and Wheat whiskey, but where you need to use 51% malted barley or more, instead of rye. I will explain in an upcoming posts what malting and malted rye is.

Whiskey specialty

Weird and confusing category that will probably soon be changed by the TTB, I guess. I will go more into details with this category in an upcoming post, as it will take too long time here. In that post you will, among other things, learn that certain Straight Bourbon whiskeys are in fact not Straight Bourbon, but rather a whiskey specialty – even though it says Straight Bourbon on the label. Talk about confusing the consumers …..

An example of a “whiskey specialty”, even though it clearly says Bourbon on the label. Go figure …

The rest …

And as promised in the beginning, here is the full list:

  1. Bourbon Whiskey
  2. Rye Whiskey
  3. Wheat Whiskey
  4. Malt Whiskey
  5. Rye Malt Whiskey
  6. Corn Whiskey
  7. Straight Bourbon Whiskey
  8. Straight Rye Whiskey
  9. Straight Wheat Whiskey
  10. Straight Malt Whiskey
  11. Straight Rye Malt Whiskey
  12. Straight Corn Whiskey
  13. Straight Whiskey
  14. Whiskey Distilled from Bourbon Mash
  15. Whiskey Distilled from Rye Mash
  16. Whiskey Distilled from Wheat Mash
  17. Whiskey Distilled from Malt Mash
  18. Whiskey Distilled from Rye Malt Mash
  19. Light Whiskey
  20. Light Blended Whiskey
  21. Blended Bourbon Whiskey
  22. Blended Rye Whiskey
  23. Blended Wheat Whiskey
  24. Blended Malt Whiskey
  25. Blended Rye Malt Whiskey
  26. Blended Corn Whiskey
  27. A blend of Straight Whiskeys
  28. A blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys
  29. A blend of Straight Rye Whiskeys
  30. A blend of Straight Wheat Whiskeys
  31. A blend of Straight Malt Whiskeys
  32. A blend of Straight Rye Malt Whiskeys
  33. A blend of Straight Corn Whiskeys
  34. Spirit Whiskey
  35. Flavored whiskey

And that concludes this lesson.

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Corrections, suggestions for other posts, or any other feedback? Then please leave a comment below or write me on henrik@thebourbonnerd.com

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