U.S. whiskey makers take on tradition with a twist

By Martinne Geller

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - In Loretto, Kentucky, Greg Davis of Maker's Mark carries on an old family tradition of making bourbon with red winter wheat to stimulate taste buds in the front of the mouth.

In Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniels' Jeff Arnett follows another tradition, filtering with sugar maple charcoal for a mellower taste.

And in Nashville, Darek Bell and Andrew Webber are using new ingredients like imperial stout and pumpkin pie flavorings to make whiskeys that appeal to newer drinkers.

Welcome to American Whiskey country. Here, start-ups like Corsair Artisan Distillery are adding an entrepreneurial flavor to a burgeoning home-grown industry that is rolling out more sophisticated products to increase sales and stand against Old World makers from Scotland and Ireland, where whiskey dates back centuries.

"We'll get to the stature (of Scotch whisky), but I don't think we'll get to the size," said Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, a distillery where Brown-Forman Corp makes high-end bourbon in small batches.

Woodford sits in a part of Kentucky where an abundance of limestone in the water is said to strengthen the bones of thoroughbreds and give the grass a bluish hue.

"It'll be brands like Woodford Reserve, Maker's Mark and Knob Creek that raise the stature on the back of workhorses like Jack Daniel's that opened the door and let us in," he said.


American producers sold $1.9 billion worth of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey to U.S. wholesalers last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), overtaking Canadian whisky at $1.5 billion and Scotch whisky at $1.6 billion.

Internationally, sales of American whiskey have more than doubled over the past decade to roughly $812 million, according to DISCUS. But that is still a drop in the barrel compared to Scotch, which reached a record $5.5 billion in exports last year, according to the Scottish Whisky Association.

But bourbon's relatively sweet taste compared to Scotch makes it easier to mix in cocktails and could give it a leg up in certain international markets, said Adam Graber, bourbon innovation manager for North America at Fortune Brands Inc, which makes Jim Beam and Maker's Mark. "Its underlying sweetness makes it an approachable whiskey versus Scotch ... It's on the upswing."

To be called bourbon whiskey, or just bourbon, it must be made in the United States with a grain mixture of at least 51 percent corn, and be aged for at least four years in a new oak barrel that is charred on the inside. Popular bourbons include Jim Beam and Wild Turkey.

To be called a "Tennessee Whiskey" like Jack Daniel's, a bourbon must undergo an extra step of charcoal filtration.

Bourbon experts say its sweetness comes from the corn from which it is made and the charred barrels in which it is aged that caramelize the sugar in the wood. By contrast, Scotch, which has a smokier taste, is often made with malted barley that is treated with peat fire.

Even though whiskey making in the United States dates back to George Washington, its first president who operated a commercial distillery at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, the industry is now making new, often more expensive, products to woo drinkers.

"Our target customer is LDA to DND -- legal drinking age to damn-near dead," said master distiller Jeff Arnett at Brown-Forman, based in Louisville, which is making new Jack Daniel's products.

Fortune Brands is also rolling out new bourbons like one infused with black cherry flavors. In less corporate places, the products are more experimental, said the owners of Corsair, who see themselves as "gentlemen pirates" inspired by "underground urban moonshiners".

In addition to red absinthe and aged gin, their lineup includes an unaged whiskey, or "moonshine," as well as Triple-Smoke Malt Whiskey that tastes like a traditional Scotch, sold in round bottles with modern, graphic labels.

"When you go to a liquor store, (the whiskey shelf) is a sea of brown ... the packaging is old, old, old," said co-owner Andrew Webber.

"I don't want to drink what my dad drank," said his partner, Darek Bell.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller; editing by Patricia Reaney)