American whiskey descended from the Irish whiskey tradition, which is distinguished from its Scottish counterpart beyond just a difference in spelling. Unlike the barley-based scotch whisky, Irish whiskeys tend to mix other grains along with barley in the production of their whiskeys, a tradition that continued in what would later become the United States.
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The whiskey developed in America would then be made from ever more varied combinations of grains, which now include rye and corn and incorporate similar distillation processes as scotch, albeit with filtration processes that incorporate the use of charred oak and sugar maple charcoal. This has created a unique national tradition that has since diversified into a broad assortment of variants and flavors, which tend to lean toward the toasty, spicy, and sweet
The resulting flavor from the mash is tied in part to its grain content, which different grains adding their own touch to the resulting whiskey. Rye, for instance, imparts a distinct spicy flavor. The chief grain that goes into the creation of straight American whiskey is corn, which according to regulations for some variants must make up more than 51% of the mash used; the rules are similar for other grain variants like wheat and rye.
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Wood is a key component in many American whiskeys, with charred oak being a common (and in some variants like bourbon whiskey, exclusive) method of filtration. Whiskeys of the Tennessee tradition are filtered through this method as well. Most American whiskeys are also aged in oak barrels. The use of wood is responsible for the sweet vanilla notes in many whiskeys.
Adam Quirk is the co-founder Cardinal Spirits, a craft distillery that produces premium spirits using locally acquired ingredients. Visit this blog for more on the distinct flavors of American distilled beverages.