Home Estate Planning Independence Day whiskey: The best Rye and Bourbon

Independence Day whiskey: The best Rye and Bourbon

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Today is America’s Independence Day, and while Americans celebrate with barbecues and fireworks, we can take this opportunity to consider the rise of independent craft distilleries across the United States, and how they are changing the profile of American whiskey.

The last two decades have seen an explosion in the numbers of small, independent craft distilleries, growing from around 50 in 2005, to more than 2,700 last year, according to industry reports.

In 2022, the US craft spirits category sold more than 14 million 9L cases, achieving $7.9 billion in domestic sales, with an annual growth rate of 5.3%. Exports that year reached 171,000 9L cases.

However, this rapid expansion has not been entirely without difficulties. After a peak during the pandemic, domestic demand has been falling, just as many producers have large quantities of whiskey matured and ready for sale. Add to this the problems in the broader economy, such as higher interest rates and inflation, which has increased costs throughout supply chains, and many producers are now facing a cash-flow crunch that some will not survive.

Meanwhile, some of the more successful craft producers have been acquired by major spirits corporations, or entered into partnerships to assist with marketing and distribution. These deals often involve the founders remaining in place, and operating their businesses with a great deal of autonomy, so that the independent ethos is maintained. Sometimes these distilleries can become an experimental sandbox, testing ideas that global drinks giants would not have the freedom or flexibility to try with their core brands.

Fully independent producers, including family-owned companies, still make up the bulk of America’s craft distilleries. Many of these operate at a local level, with about half of sales occurring in the state of origin, but their produce is increasingly available in the UK thanks to specialist retailers like The Whisky Exchange.

Celebrate Independence Day with these American Whiskeys

The Whisky Exchange’s Head Buyer, Dawn Davies says, “‘There are some really interesting small distilleries coming of age in the USA right now. With a lot more focusing on the grains they source, the yeasts they use and what they are doing in the barrel than ever before. The step up in quality and the range of flavours and styles coming out of America is really exciting.”

The proliferation of small distilleries has meant greater diversity in output, with many whiskey producers venturing beyond the established bourbons and ryes as Billy Abbott, Brand Ambassador for The Whisky Exchange, explains: “Inspired by the whiskies of the old world, US distillers have been making excellent single malts for a while now, distinct from both other American whiskies and the single malts found elsewhere around the world. Combining the techniques used to make more traditional American whiskies with a recipe just using malted barley gives us something very different and, most importantly, very tasty.”


Westland and Copperworks are two distilleries based in Seattle, Washington. But, besides their shared location, and the fact that they are pioneering the category of American single malts, they have another important similarity. The production staff at both companies come from a background in brewing, and this influences how they make their whiskey.

Typically, when making a whisky, grain, water, and yeast are fermented to produce what is essentially a dry, un-hopped beer, with a focus on speed and alcohol yield, rather than taste. The assumption has been that flavour comes primarily from distillation and maturation. While this may be true, producers like Westland and Copperworks show that starting with a good quality beer can make a meaningful difference to the end product.

Westland uses a five malt grain bill, blending Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt. This is slow-fermented with a Belgian Saison brewers’ yeast, rather than the traditional distillers’ yeast. The process takes six days, but results in a beer that is both fruity and flavoursome.

Copperworks, meanwhile, actually works with local craft breweries to make a “sweet wort”, which they then tanker to their distillery for fermentation. They too use brewers’ yeast, and cold condition the resulting beer for two weeks, waiting for the yeast to flocculate, before distillation.

Westland 2014 7 Year Old Marsala Finish

This single malt was aged for five years in new American oak, then finished for almost three years in a Marsala cask. There are notes of dates, cherries, oranges, hazelnuts, and chocolate.

700ml, 53.8% ABV, £94.95: check the website here

Copperworks American Whiskey Single Cask 356

This single cask bottling was made with a mashbill of pale and caramelised malted barley, redolent of a Scottish ale. Dark rum, black pepper, candied peel and walnut lead to a refreshing, somewhat astringent finish.

700ml, 59.5% ABV, £94.95: check the website here

Rye revivalists

From the mid-18th century, Pennsylvania was the cradle of American rye whiskey. Whiskey made with rye is typically less sweet, more spicy, and more fruity in character than the corn-based bourbons. Prior to prohibition, rye whiskies predominated in the northeastern states (as they still do in Canada).

However, in its aftermath the industry was slow to recover. Changes in consumer preferences, with a move away from whiskies to vodka, hit rye especially hard, and by the 1960s Old Overholt was the only nationally distributed rye whiskey. Sales continued to decline, and it was bought in 1987, by the Beam company, and subsequently had to relocate its production from Pennsylvania to Kentucky.

Dick Stoll and Erik Wolfe make the perfect bourbon to celebrate Independence Day

In 1951, Louis Forman started making “Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey” at the old Bomberger’s Distillery in Pennsylvania. This old fashioned pot-still rye whiskey was designed by his master distiller, Charles Everett Beam (grandnephew of Jim Beam). In 1972, when Beam retired, his protege Dick Stoll replaced him as master distiller. Stoll remained in that post until 1990, when the distillery was forced to close after filing for bankruptcy. 

Late in his life, Stoll met Erik and Avianna Wolfe, who wanted to revive the tradition of Pennsylvania whiskey-making, and in 2016 Stoll & Wolfe was founded. It resurrected the classic style of whiskey that Stoll learned from Beam, with Erik Wolfe effectively assuming the role of Stoll’s apprentice. 

They did not just revive old techniques, they also brought back heritage grains, such as a variety of rye called rosen, which had not been used commercially in decades. In 2015, they sourced 140g of seeds from the US Department of Agriculture, and worked with agronomists to turn that into a sustainable crop. By 2019 they had enough of the grain to start using it to make spirits. Stoll died the following year, but his name and legacy live on with Stoll & Wolfe’s whiskies.

Stoll & Wolfe 7 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon

This high rye bourbon is a good introduction to the more peppery flavour of rye whiskies. You have the rich caramel from the 75% corn, but the 21% rye asserts itself, with notes of treacle toffee, dried fruit, baking spices, and conifers.

700ml, 57% ABV, £74.95: check the website here

Stoll & Wolfe 7.8 Year Old Single Barrel Rye

This powerful single cask release revives and celebrates Pennsylvania’s long tradition with rye whiskey. The mashbill is 95% rye and 5% malted barley. The malted barley is included because it has enzymes that are absent in rye, such as β-amylase, which convert the starch in the grains into fermentable sugars. This has the pepper spice characteristic of rye whiskies, which is joined by tobacco, cinnamon, and ginger. The finish is almost minty.

700ml, 58.5% ABV, £74.95: check the website here

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