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American Wheat Whiskey

American wheat whiskey is made predominantly from wheat, offering a smoother, softer profile that has quietly been gaining attention among enthusiasts and casual drinkers.

By law, to be labelled as a wheat whiskey, the mash bill must comprise at least 51% wheat, with the remainder often made up of malted barley or other grains. This differs from bourbon, which requires at least 51% corn, and rye whiskey, which requires at least 51% rye. The higher wheat content gives wheat whiskey its distinctive, gentle and approachable character, often presenting a sweeter and lighter palate compared to its more robust counterparts.

One of the key elements that affect the flavour profile of American wheat whiskey is the maturation process. Like other American whiskeys, wheat whiskey is typically aged in new, charred oak barrels. This ageing imparts the whiskey with vanilla and caramel notes and a golden to amber colour, but because wheat is a softer grain, the end product retains a subtler flavour. The climate where the whiskey is aged also plays a crucial role, with variations in temperature and humidity affecting the expansion and contraction of the barrels, thereby influencing the rate at which the whiskey absorbs compounds from the wood.

The heartland of American wheat whiskey could be said to be Kansas, which, due to its vast wheat fields, has a historical connection to the grain. However, distilleries across the United States, from craft distillers in Oregon to historic operations in Kentucky, have been contributing to the wheat whiskey category, each bringing its own terroir and distilling philosophy to the table.

The tasting notes of American wheat whiskey often include a bread-like quality, with hints of honey, butterscotch, and soft spices. The mouthfeel is typically less oily than bourbon and less spicy than rye, making it an excellent choice for those new to whiskey or for sipping on warm days. Despite its milder profile, wheat whiskey can exhibit complexity, with layers of flavour that might include toasted nuts, dried fruits, and a touch of oak from its time in the barrel.

American wheat whiskey also shines in cocktails. Its softer flavour profile makes it a versatile mixer, capable of enhancing a drink without overpowering it. Classics like the Whiskey Sour or Old Fashioned can take on a new dimension when made with wheat whiskey, allowing the whiskey's subtle characteristics and the cocktail's other ingredients to share the stage harmoniously.

The production of wheat whiskey remains a smaller operation compared to bourbon and rye, but it is a sector marked by growth and innovation. Craft distillers, in particular, have embraced wheat whiskey, experimenting with various wheat strains, fermentation processes, and ageing conditions to create expressions that stand apart from the more standard offerings.

American wheat whiskey's place in the modern spirits world is also a nod to its historical roots. While not as prolific as corn or rye in early American distilling, wheat has always been part of the whiskey-making process. In some of the earliest whiskey recipes, wheat was included as a flavouring grain, contributing to the mash bill in smaller proportions to add a touch of its sweet, soft flavour to the final product.

Looking at the market today, several notable wheat whiskeys have captured the attention of connoisseurs and casual drinkers. Labels such as Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey and Dry Fly Washington Wheat Whiskey have set the standard for what a good wheat whiskey should be, exhibiting the classic qualities of the style while each offering something unique.

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