Given that Dominic Roskrow is from the U.K., he might seem an unlikely advocate of American whiskey. “Yours is made to a vastly higher standard than Scotch,” says Dominic, author of The World’s Best Whiskies and editor of Whiskeria, Britain’s largest whiskey magazine. “There are rules governing what’s in the bottle, which we don’t have in Scotland. You have something really, really special. But makers of American whiskey haven’t been good at telling its story, which is amazing considering how loud and aggressive Americans can be.”
I decide to let this backhanded compliment slide, since Dominic has been such good company for the past few days and is so enthusiastic about our culture in general. We had met prior to our guided tour of America’s whiskey trail at a hotel bar in Nashville, Tennessee, where, to get in the spirit, we’d sampled several flights of Jack Daniel’s. We started with the Old No. 7, then Single Barrel and Gentleman Jack—and along the way discovered our common enthusiasm for quality spirits. While Dominic rhapsodized about America and the quality of its water and distilleries, we drifted figuratively from the deep smoky forests of Tennessee to the rolling, bluegrass-clad horse country of Kentucky, moving up the map like vapors of alcohol rising through a copper still.
Has America failed to tell its whiskey story? Well, someone’s getting the word out. Sales of super-premium American whiskies have doubled in five years while exports of U.S. spirits of all kinds have doubled over 10. And in recent years, the most storied brands have been joined by artisanal distillers from Florida to Alaska. There are now some 250 regional small-batch distillers compared with fewer than 50, 10 years ago.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re in bourbon’s heyday,” says Rich Ruth, former co-owner of Sidebar at Whiskey Row, a restaurant-bar in Louisville. “Ten years ago people would come into a bar and order vodka. Now we have people coming in and naming the brand of bourbon they want in a Manhattan.”
If that sounds like a contemporary trend, well, it may well be. But American whiskey is anything but trendy in the here-today-gone-tomorrow sense of the word. Indeed, whiskey (usually spelled without an “e” on the other side of the pond) has deep roots in American history. To tell the story, the Distilled Spirits Council mapped a route it calls the American Whiskey Trail that runs in an arc from Washington, D.C., through Pennsylvania and Kentucky into Tennessee, and Dominic and I and a few other passionate whiskey-philes set out to follow it.
To find out which distilleries produce some of the best and most popular whiskies in the U.S., pick up the March/April 2014 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands, or