American whiskey is traditionally built on some combination of four grains—corn, rye, barley, and wheat. Now, however, adventurous distillers are reaching for a spectrum of unconventional grains, more commonly associated with cereal boxes and superfood salad bars than delicious drams. With their unique flavor contributions, these grains are anything but run of the mill.
Brown rice is the whole-grain version of white rice. Unlike white rice, which has its hull, bran, and germ removed, brown rice has only its hull removed.
Tastes like: Brown rice imparts a cast of flavors, including toasty, nutty, and starchy notes. “I pick up some toasted grain that’s not usually found in the standard bourbon mashbills,” says Fred Noe, Jim Beam master distiller, who also identifies a unique note of sweet potato. “The rice really stands up nicely alongside the sweet oak and rich vanilla notes.”
Try this: Jim Beam Signature Craft Brown Rice, an 11 year old bourbon and one of six members of their Harvest Bourbon Collection, each of which highlights a distinctive grain.
Grown almost exclusively in developing countries, millets are a group of small-seeded grasses. Millets have been cultivated in Asia for 10,000 years.
Tastes like: Expect a somewhat drier and softer flavor profile, with light fruity and floral notes. “It’s a potpourri as a single grain and has a massive influence on distinguishing our bourbon,” says Alex Diimig of Koval Distillery.
Try this: Koval Millet Whiskey, a 100% millet release, or Koval bourbon, made with 51% corn and 49% millet.
The oat is a hardy cereal grain grown across Russia, Europe, and North America. It’s commonly associated with livestock feed, but it is most familiar in foods such as oatmeal and granola. In recent years it’s also become a craft beer favorite, in the form of oatmeal stouts.
Tastes like: “I call our 100% oat a ‘breakfast whiskey.’ It has pretty mellow flavor features, but a fairly established [alcohol] heat and a great texture,” says Diimig. “But [oat’s] true talent is balancing flavor…it bridges the massive earthen flavors of barley with the spice of rye.”
Try this: Utah’s High West Distillery blends wheat whiskey and light oat whiskey in their Utah-only Valley Tan, with notes of yeasty ale, baked apples, and Cheerios. Koval oat whiskey uses 100% oats, while their Four Grain includes oats, along with malted barley, rye, and wheat.
Quinoa is not a grass, but a pseudocereal and a relative of spinach and tumbleweed, prized for its high-protein seeds.
Tastes like: “It adds a nuttiness that is quite different from the more cereal character of other whiskey,” explains Darek Bell, founder of Corsair Distillery. “It also has an earthiness to the taste.”
Try this: Corsair’s Quinoa whiskey, made from a mashbill of 20% white quinoa and 80% malted barley. Or test your palate to the extreme with Corsair’s Grainiac 9 Grain bourbon, a literal mish-mash of corn, barley, rye, wheat, oats, quinoa, triticale, spelt, and buckwheat.
Triticale is a hybrid grain of wheat and rye, designed to combine the high-yield potential of wheat with the overall hardiness and survivability of rye.
Tastes like: A dose of both rye spice and soft wheat. “We liked the fact that trit[icale] gave the rye flavor, but not with the impact that rye typically delivers,” says Kent Fleischmann, co-founder of Dry Fly Distilling. “Done right, it produces a soft yet very flavorful whiskey.”
Try this: Dry Fly’s Triticale whiskey, a 100% triticale release which Fleischmann calls a “nice surprise” after experimenting with locally grown triticale in Washington State and its influence on the whiskey.