By Fred Minnick
When it comes to American whiskey, our history books are filled with bourbon and rye whiskey nostalgia. Forgotten in our annals is the good old wheat whiskey. According to an 1862 California State Agricultural Society report, wheat whiskey was the “pure article” and became so popular that 75,000 gallons was not enough to supply the state. The whiskey became highly imitated by rectifiers. In one 1860 faux wheat whiskey recipe, it mixed Rhatany root, cinnamon and sugar coloring with neutral spirit and other whiskeys.
Fortunately, those days are over. That whole movement died with the Bottled and Bond Act and Pure Food & Drug Act, but that’s historical lecture. This isn’t one of those stories.
However, there’s no real explanation as to why wheat whiskey lost favor. Perhaps the imitated versions were just that lousy, but it’s more likely distillers found corn more accessible and rye just packed more flavor. Today, there are only a handful of wheat whiskeys on the market.
Brands to Consider
What is a modern wheat whiskey?
According to U.S. federal laws, wheat whiskey must come from a mash not less than 51 percent wheat. Much like bourbon, smaller grains added can greatly enhance or detract from a distiller’s wheat whiskey. Also like bourbon, the wheat whiskey must be stored in charred new oak containers. If it’s a straight wheat whiskey, it must have been stored in these barrels for at least two years.
A few years ago, when judging the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, I voted for a wheat whiskey to win best American Craft Whiskey. Unfortunately, my fellow judges did not agree. The Double Gold-winning Reservoir Wheat Whiskey won my heart with its sweetening 100-proof ease. Its $80 price range makes it costly for cocktails, but I surmise it would make fun whiskey sours.
There’s also the standard wheat whiskey Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Whiskey. Washington-based Dry Fly, Ohio-based Oyo and Washington-based Bainbridge wheat whiskeys market their connection to local wheat. The category is growing, but there are a lot of duds. The best advice I can give to wheat whiskey is taste and decide for yourself. But remember, this is not bourbon. It must always be at least 51 percent wheat vs. bourbon’s 51 percent corn, so you’ll inevitably taste some similarities.
Truthfully, the best place for wheat whiskey right now is in a cocktail. Or with ginger beer. Oh, yeah: Bernheim wheat, two ounces, with a healthy pour of ginger beer over ice and a lime wedge. Yum!