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Best American Whiskeys | Wine Enthusiast

Best American Whiskeys | Wine Enthusiast

American whiskey has exploded across the country over the years, but between Rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey and more, it can get confusing where to even begin. So, whether you’re a connoisseur tossing whiskey terms like “cask strength” and “single malt” around after dinner, or you’re new to the American whiskey game and want to pick out a nice bottle for a housewarming, our Tasting Department hand-picked the best American whiskey bottles you should try.

“Making Whiskey is in theory a very simple proposition,” writes Clay Risen in American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye. One simply combines milled grain and water and allows for the introduction of yeast, which converts the grain’s sugars into alcohol. Distill that substance and voila! You have whiskey, at least in theory. But that’s not the whole story.

Although there is no internationally accepted definition for it, whiskey is generally defined as a “cereal-grain-based, non-neutral spirit which is usually aged in wood,” writes Dave Broom and David Wondrich in The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails. In short, whiskey is a spirit made with water, yeast and a grain like corn, wheat, rye, or barley. It is typically fermented at less than 95 percent alcohol, or 190 proof by volume, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

But whiskey is, in fact, a broad category that refers to an entire branch of the distilled spirit family tree. There is single-malt, bourbon, rye, corn, Tennessee, Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskey. Only some of those are produced in the United States. “The complexities come in what sets them apart,” Clay continues.

What Is American Whiskey?

Broadly speaking, American whiskey is whiskey produced in America. Not exactly surprising! American offerings represent a significant piece of the whiskey puzzle. But what’s the difference between bourbon and rye whiskey? What discerns Tennessee whiskey from Kentucky whiskey? Read on for all the details.

The Types of American Whiskey

The different subcategories of American whiskey are where things start to get interesting. For a deeper dive, check out our Brief Guide to Everything Whiskey, but here are the main types to know.

Bourbon whiskey. Bourbon whiskey contains 51 percent corn and is aged in charred new oak barrels. It can’t exceed 160 proof, or 80 percent alcohol. If the bourbon is distilled in the state of Kentucky, it is often referred to as Kentucky bourbon.

Corn whiskey. This type of whiskey can only be made in the U.S., is produced with at least 80 percent corn and is stored in oak containers without any treatment from charred wood, according to TTB.

Rye whiskey. Known for its strength and spice, American rye whiskey is made with at least 51 percent rye grain and plays well in mixed drinks, like an Old Fashioned.

Rye malt whiskey. This type of whiskey is made with no less than 51 percent malted rye grain, stored in charred new oak containers and does not exceed 160 proof.

Malt whiskey. Malt whiskey is made with at least 51 percent malted barley that is distilled, mashed and aged in the U.S. It is distilled to a maximum of 160 proof and is then matured in oak casks. The term “single malt,” implies it’s made in a single distillery.

Tennessee whiskey. Made with at least 51% corn before being aged in charred new oak barrels and filtered through sugar maple charcoal (known as the Lincoln County Process), Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon, but is made exclusively in—you guessed it—Tennessee. It tends to be a little mellower in flavor than bourbon, with light charcoal or soot-like qualities.

Wheat whiskey. Wheat whiskey does not exceed 160 proof and is fermented with at least 51 percent wheat and stored in charred new oak.

Grab your favorite whiskey glasses and give these stellar bottles a try.

The Best American Whiskeys to Buy

96 Points Wine Enthusiast

This is a blend of whiskeys distilled in Indiana, Tennessee and Canada, finished in barrels that previously held blackstrap rum, port and Dunn Vineyards cabernet. Predictably, this is a complex, flavorful whiskey, resounding with ginger, lemon peel, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and clove. Bottled above 130 proof, plan to add lots of water and/or ice to bring to a palatable proof. Note: Gray Label uses older and more rare barrels compared to the standard Dovetail. Limited edition. —Kara Newman

Total Wine & More

98 Points Wine Enthusiast

The second edition in a line-up of experimental, small-batch Tennessee whiskeys from the producer of George Dickel, this release is aged around 17 years—apparently, curated around the first barrel filled after the distillery returned from shutdown in 2003. It’s a wow: toffee and crème brulee with hints of cocoa and hazelnut, winding into a long and warming finish. Sip with a cube of ice. Released in 2021, snap up this limited edition if you can. —K.N.

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95 Points Wine Enthusiast

Look for a light gold hue and bright, enticing pineapple, pear and vanilla aromas. The palate echoes those fruit tones, wrapped in a veil of peat smoke, finishing mouthwatering, lively and bright. This American single malt is finished in various sherry, brandy, rum and wine casks, “meticulously married and matured,” the producer says. —K.N.

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94 Points Wine Enthusiast

A distinctly smoky aroma emerges the moment this whiskey is poured. The palate shows baked apple and ripe pear, mingling with a smoky, saline flavor. Adding water pushes the smoke forward even further, now wafting over hints of salted caramel and vanilla wafer, finishing with ginger zing. Overall, complex and intriguing —K.N.

92 Points Wine Enthusiast

Triticale, a hybrid grain that combines wheat and grain, forms the basis for this whiskey. Overall, it’s relatively lean and drying: Cinnamon and clove lead into brisk leather and espresso, while vanilla softens the long finish. Best Buy —K.N.

Total Wine & More

95 Points Wine Enthusiast

This is Dickel’s second bottled-in-bond release, distilled in 2008 and released at 11 years old. Bottled at 100 proof, it’s a powerhouse of a whiskey, in terms of strength and flavor. Resounding caramel and toffee intertwine into a long, mouthwatering fade, accented with cinnamon sizzle and a hint of caramel apple. Mix into whiskey sours and other cocktails. Best Buy —K.N.


94 Points Wine Enthusiast

Caramel and oak aromas lead the nose, plus a wallop of alcohol heat. The big, oaky palate echoes the caramel note, rounding into a long, warming finish with plenty of mouthwatering butterscotch, clove and peppery heat. Tasty, full-strength and clearly meant for mixing. One of two new permanent expressions added to the line-up in May 2022. Best Buy —K.N.

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95 Points Wine Enthusiast

File under: not every whiskey needs to be serious. This flavored whiskey is just fun. It startles with its garnet hue anddistinct dried cherry aroma. The palate is more puckery cranberry and lemon than cherry at first; adding water moves the dial to sweet-tart, suggesting fruit leather and dried cherry. It’s not overly sweet, and it’s easy to see enjoying this lengthened with ginger ale or fizzy water. As flavored whiskeys go, this one is a success. —K.N.

Mash & Grape

95 Points Wine Enthusiast

Concentrated vanilla and caramel aromas lead into a robust palate offering vanilla cookie, lemon cake and browned butter flavors, winding into molasses and a sprinkle of black pepper on the exit. Add plenty of water or ice to this otherwise searing 122-proof spirit. This is the 15th edition of the Parker’s Heritage Collection, honoring late master distiller Parker Beam, who was diagnosed with ALS; a portion of proceeds from each bottle benefits the ALS Association. —K.N.


91 Points Wine Enthusiast

The concept: vibrations of the “thunderous trains” that run by the barrel house encourage this 18-month-old whiskey to age a bit faster. The end result is concentrated oak, vanilla and red fruit aromas. Sweetness and spice mingle on the palate, echoing grippy oak and finishing long with vanilla, mocha and cayenne and clove spice. The four grains: barley, wheat, corn and rye. Best Buy —K.N.


93 Points Wine Enthusiast

Rich, concentrated salted caramel leads the nose and palate. Adding water brings mocha and cocoa powder forward, fading into cayenne, cinnamon stick and a surprising anise hint. Add an ice cube for pleasant sipping. —K.N.


93 Points Wine Enthusiast

Lively and bright aromas include cedar, tropical fruit and honey. The relatively dry palate opens with leather and cigar wrapper. Dark honey slides into the long, complex finish accented by tobacco leaf, a cigar-smoke waft and a fleeting espresso hint perked up with grapefruit peel and black pepper. This is a single-barrel whiskey made with 80% heirloom wheat and 20% malted barley, aged six years. —K.N.


91 Points Wine Enthusiast

This is a blend of Michigan rye and wheat whiskeys, combined with a 100% corn bourbon. Look for a tawny hue and soft coconut and almond aromas. The palate shows vanilla, oak and cinnamon bark; adding water unlocks a brown sugar note. The mellow, spiced finish features ginger, cinnamon and black pepper. —K.N.

Total Wine & More

What Grains Are Used in American Whiskey?

There is no restriction on the type of grains that can be turned into whiskey, but barley, corn, wheat and rye are the usual suspects. (Less frequently, consumers might stumble on whiskeys made with more unusual grains, like spelt or quinoa.) In the U.S., in order for a whiskey to be identified by a certain grain—say, rye whiskey or corn whiskey—at least 51% of the grains used to make the final product must be that grain.

What Is the Difference Between Irish Whiskey and American Whiskey?

Irish Whiskey is whiskey distilled and aged exclusively in Ireland, using mostly barley, but sometimes other grain varieties. It’s is generally known as light, approachable, fresh, fruity and slightly grassy. (It’s often triple distilled for an extra-light pour.) But the category ranges from simple, lighter-bodied options to those with more complex flavors from the addition of peat-smoking or finishing in casks that previously held other spirits, wine or beers.

In comparison, American Whiskey is made exclusively in America and most often uses corn, rye, or wheat. Similar to Irish whiskey, it can present with a wide range of flavors and aromas.

How Is American Whiskey Made?

Like all other whiskey varieties, American whiskey is made by combining a milled grain with water, adding yeast and allowing the grain’s sugars to convert to alcohol. The remaining product is then distilled and processed or stored in different ways based on the distiller’s preference.

Why You Should Trust Us

All products featured here are independently selected by our team, which is comprised of experienced writers and wine tasters and overseen by editorial professionals at Wine Enthusiast headquarters. All ratings and reviews are performed blind in a controlled setting and reflect the parameters of our 100-point scale. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.

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