I was discussing Texas whiskeys with Matt the other day and he asked “Was Texas known for making whiskey a century ago?” My answer was “No, not nationally.” This led to a discussion as to why they are doing so well today, but not before Prohibition. The same question could be asked about many other states, as well as Texas. I thought I would look back at what has changed in the 21st century that has allowed so many distilleries across the nation to make good whiskey today.
Before Prohibition, the best whiskeys were coming out of the Ohio River Valley area and Tennessee. This area was at one time under a shallow ocean that created a limestone basin. Water is an important part of making good whiskey and the limestone basin allowed for water that was iron-free and full of minerals. Kentucky is in the heart of this basin, but southern Ohio, southern Indiana and southern Illinois, Tennessee and western Pennsylvania can also be considered part of the same limestone shelf. The climate in this area is similar with warm summers and cold winters. Yes, it does vary quite a bit from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, but they are similar enough to meet the needs for making good whiskey. Technology in the 21st century has allowed other states to make good whiskey today.
What has changed that has made it possible for states like Texas to make good whiskey? The first source of flavor is the grain. Early on the distillers were using the grains grown locally to make whiskey. Two things have changed over the years to make this different. First of all, the corn or rye grown was the local variety, but as the railroad grew, there became larger markets for corn grown in the midwest and the railroad could get this grain to distillers at a reasonable price and the corn used by most distillers became the same variety of corn grown in Iowa or Nebraska or some other mid-western state. This changed even more as in the 1940s, hybrid varieties of corn were developed and the farmers started growing the hybrid corn that produced the highest yield and profit.
The next source of flavor, water, has changed. The development of inexpensive RO (Reverse Osmosis) water allows distillers to take their local water that may have iron or other minerals that are not good for making whiskey, and create a water that is good for fermentation and reducing proof.
Fermentation is the next source of flavor. I believe that the Ohio River Valley also produced strains of wild yeast that make good whiskey and that is one reason why early distillers in the area had such a reputation for making good whiskey. In today’s world, yeast can be purchased to meet whatever flavor profile the distiller wants to create. Just call Pat Heist at FermSolutions and he will hook you up.
Next is distillation. With modern computer-controlled stills, it becomes easier for untrained people to distill whiskey. It still takes a lot of time, effort and skill to make really good whiskey, but it becomes harder to make a bad whiskey in the distillation process.
The maturation process is the next source of flavor. Even into the 19th century, distillers were working on this by heating the warehouses to make the cold winter climates less of a factor. In the 21st century, there can even be air conditioned warehousing in extreme heat. Still, maturation is the one step where the field is not equal, but this leads to many interesting new flavor profiles. I am not sure I would want to see that change.
Finally, the bottling process has introduced new types of filtration, which can remove many unpleasant flavors. RO water is neutral in flavor so the local water can be used.
In the 21st century, the playing field for making whiskey is less uneven than it was a century ago. There are lots of good whiskeys being made in states that were never known for their whiskey a hundred years ago. I personally like this, but there is a danger of things becoming too uniform and the whiskey starts tasting alike. The decisions the distiller makes such as distillation and barrel entry proofs, mash bills, and yeast choices are so important. The future is bright for whiskey lovers.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller