Have you ever tasted whiskey made from millet? What about quinoa? Educated drinkers are usually familiar with the dominant grains used to make whiskey. The Scotch and the Irish use barley to make their single malt and pot still whiskey. Likewise, Japanese and Indian distillers (and really, most of the rest of the world) distill whiskey from a mash that is almost exclusively barley. Yet from the very beginning, American distillers set out in a different direction.
The grain used most in the United States to make whiskey is corn, followed by rye. By law in the United States, the makeup of grain in bourbon is at least 51 percent corn, and in rye whiskey at least 51 percent rye. A small amount of malted barley usually helps start the fermentation process, and wheat is sometimes used for flavor. However, the craft whiskey movement in the United States seeks to upend tradition in the search for something new. If you’re feeling adventurous in the new year, consider trying one of these whiskeys from a craft distillery that takes advantage of surprising, stranger grains.
Koval Millet Whiskey
Millet is an ancient grain and a significant food source in parts of Asia and Africa, but in the United States it’s most likely known for its use in bird feed. The first distillery in Chicago since Prohibition, Koval means “blacksmith” in several Eastern European languages, but also “black sheep” in Yiddish. A whiskey made from 100 percent millet is certainly out of the ordinary. Also unique, the entire line of whiskey from Koval is single-barrel, certified organic and kosher.
Corsair Quinoa Whiskey
The motto at this innovative distillery in Nashville is “Booze for Badasses” and the name is literally a synonym for pirate, so look for daring, unexpected whiskeys from distiller Derek Bell. Quinoa may have originated in South America, but it’s now a trendy, gluten-free health food here in the United States. The grain (actually a seed) lends this whiskey an earthy, nutty flavor. Even the bottle from Corsair is distinctive, with a label reminiscent of the film Reservoir Dogs.
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Vinn Rice Whiskey
The use of rice to make alcohol in Asia predates recorded history, and Americans probably are most familiar with low-alcohol rice wines such as Japanese sake. Located in Oregon, Vinn makes a traditional Chinese rice spirit called baijiu at a much higher proof than sake. The Ly family, whose heritage includes both Chinese and Vietnamese traditions, also distills the first rice whiskey released in the United State, aged in charred American oak barrels just like bourbon.
Dry Fly Wheat Whiskey
Wheat is a much more familiar grain to the American palate, used in smaller percentages for whiskeys ranging from Maker’s Mark to Pappy Van Winkle. A whiskey made entirely from wheat, however, is exceedingly rare. A craft distillery in Washington started by friends who enjoy fly-fishing, Dry Fly is proudly grain-to-glass and uses 100 percent local soft white wheat. The wheat lends a softness to the whiskey as well, and I prefer the higher proof Cask Strength.
Balcones Baby Blue
Start with the single malt from this Texas distillery, but don’t overlook Baby Blue, made from 100 percent Hopi Blue Corn. Balcones elevates the traditionally down-market style of corn whiskey. While bourbon must be 51 percent corn, corn whiskey raises the percentage to at least 80 percent, and is often released as an un-aged, clear spirit. Baby Blue smells like Betty Crocker white frosting straight from the package, and if you like a blended Irish whiskey, you’ll like Baby Blue.
Matt Carlson is the whiskey sommelier and manager of Vestry, a speakeasy and whiskey lounge on the second floor of Tom Bergin’s. Vestry will host Trent Tilton, distiller of San Diego Distillery, on Sunday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. (despite the recently announced impending closure of Bergin's). The tasting event is $20 and you can make a reservation by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Vestry on Instagram and Twitter at vestryla.