Over in the US it’s ‘National Bourbon Heritage Month’ which is a celebration of Bourbon as America’s native spirit, so it seems only right that I dedicate a bit of time to my favourite spirit. Bourbon has an amazing history, and given its rising popularity a very bright future; yet as a category it is still often misunderstood. Back in March and April I wrote about rum, posting a blog titled ‘9 things you should know about rum’ and then following it up with ‘9 rums you should be drinking’ and as they both proved incredibly popular I thought I’d follow a similar format for Bourbon (although apparently I have 11 things to say on this subject!).
I hope that my thoughts below will inspire you to explore this amazing spirit category and truly get into the swing of Bourbon Appreciation Month. There are so many wonderful products available today, especially with smaller producers popping up at an astonishing rate, that hopefully with a bit of understanding and perhaps a few pointers towards some of my favourites, you’ll find something new to enjoy.
In my next post I’ll be digging through the b&t drink cabinet(s) and showing you some of my favourites along with some cocktail recipes that showcase each spirit, but for now I think I’d better go and stir myself a lovely sweet Manhattan to sip on while I write this.
That’s better… on with the blog!
Bourbon production is the most highly regulated in the world, with a seemingly endless set of rules and regulations laid down in law to ensure the quality of this spirit. Many of the rules are pretty boring, but within the legal description of Bourbon there are a few rules that describe what Bourbon is and how it must be made. The most important of those rules are below:
Bourbon must be produced in the US – it is a common misconception that it has to be made in the state of Kentucky, but that’s probably because in the region of 97% of all Bourbon comes from there. In fact you can make Bourbon in whichever state you like. There are numerous micro-distilleries and small producers popping up all across the US these days, which means that in the future we will be seeing even greater diversity in this spirit category.
Bourbon must be distilled from a mixture of grains, comprising a minimum of 51% corn. Traditionally distillers in Kentucky use a small amount of barley in their mash bill too, not so much for flavour, but mainly to help the fermentation process. In addition to the corn and barley they also use a small ‘flavouring’ grain, traditionally either wheat or rye to add character to their Whiskey.
The liquid may not be distilled any higher than 80% abv as taking it any higher strips flavour from the distillate making it closer to vodka in flavour. The idea here is that you should be able to taste the fact that the spirit has been made from grain. This often manifests as bread or cereal notes in the flavour and aroma of the finished Whiskey.
Now onto ageing; In order to be called a 'Straight Bourbon' it must be aged for a minimum of two years, however, if it is aged for less than four years this must be made clear on the label. The reason for this is that in reality it takes a minimum of four years to make a good quality Bourbon, with younger Bourbons tending to be less mellow and with a less full character.
When it comes to ageing, Bourbon must be stored in brand new oak barrels that have been burnt or ‘charred’ on the inside. Many people think you have to use American White Oak, but in fact there is no restriction on which type of oak can be used. Most large distilleries do use American White Oak, as this is the traditional wood that has been used for generations. The requirement to use new barrels actually harks back to an era where the timber industry in America was in decline and this was a way to ensure the distilleries would have to order more wood. The use of new barrels is what gives Bourbon its signature flavour profile and makes it sweeter than other styles of whisk(e)y.
Although distillers are allowed to distil as high as 80%, the distillate must be at a strength less than 62.5% abv (125 US proof) when it goes into the barrel for ageing. To put it in the most basic terms, if you put a liquid that is too high in alcohol content into a new barrel it will strip flavour too quickly and before you know it the Whiskey becomes too dry and bitter to be enjoyed. Opening it up with a little water will allow ageing to occur at a nice rate and will let the flavours marry together properly.
Perhaps the most important rule for Bourbon production is that after distillation nothing may be done to it to change the flavour or colour other than to age it in new oak barrels. This means that all the colour and flavour you find in Bourbon is natural. Most other spirits are allowed to add a small amount of caramel in order to adjust the colour of the finished product, a practice that can be used to keep a consistent colour from one batch to the next, but can also be used to make a product appear darker giving it the illusion of having more age. This is something that can never happen with Bourbon, so you can rest assured that all the flavours and colour in the bottle have come through the natural process of allowing the Whiskey to rest and mature in contact with wood.
It’s not uncommon for Bourbon not to have an age statement on the bottle, but when it does the numbers are often lower than many other Whisk(e)y producing countries. Take Scotch for example; you’ll often see 18, 25 or even 30 year old products, or older. Well there are a couple of things you should know about age: firstly if you do see an age statement on a Bourbon bottle it represents the age of the youngest Whiskey used in the blend, that’s the law. Secondly the reason that ages tend to be younger with Bourbon is that ageing happens pretty quickly in Kentucky.
There are two reasons why Bourbon takes on character and flavour more quickly than other whiskies, the first is the type of barrels they use, and the second is to do with the weather. Because Bourbon has to be aged in brand new barrels, it gets first access to all those flavours and so it takes on colour and flavour very quickly. Wood is full of natural sugars, tannins and vanillins (the substance that gives vanilla it’s flavour), and having a brand-new barrel makes it easy to take on those elements quickly. When you add to this the fact that Kentucky has as many hot days as cold and therefore ageing happens quickly, you have a recipe for flavourful whisky in no time at all. Ageing happens when liquid warms and cools, moving in and out of the grain of the wooden barrel, passing through he layer of charcoal and becoming more mellow, then moving into the caramelised sugars and taking on sweetness and flavour. If you have lots of cool and hot days this process happens quickly. So don’t get too hung up on numbers, even a relatively young Bourbon can have a lot of character.
So other than the great climate for ageing Whiskey, why does so much of the world’s Bourbon come from just one state? Once again there are a couple of factors involved. Firstly this is where Bourbon was born, and as you might expect this means that this style of Whiskey is suited to the environment. You see Kentucky has almost everything you need to make great Bourbon; It sits on a huge limestone shelf, which provides lovely soft water, perfect for making Whiskey; The climate as I mentioned is also a key factor and is ideal for ageing the newly made spirit. Then you also have to consider that the soil is great for growing both corn and American White Oak. Finally, back when the area around Kentucky was being settled there was also the perfect transportation system for getting their Whiskey out to the rest of the country; the many rivers that run through the state.
These days a lot of those elements could be shipped in to a different area, but since Kentucky is where Bourbon was first made, it also has the heritage. It’s no exaggeration to say that Bourbon is in the blood of Kentuckians, they’ve been making it for generations, and it’s not unusual to find workers at the distilleries who can trace three, four, five or even more generations back in the Bourbon business. Combine the perfect environment with a long tradition and it’s easy to see why Kentucky still remains the centre of the Bourbon world.
I guess the last factor to consider is that despite its current popularity, Bourbon hasn’t always been the most popular spirit, and while it wasn’t one of the ‘cool kids’ of the spirit world, other locations weren’t really that interested in getting into the Bourbon business. These days Bourbon is gaining popularity at an alarming rate, so it’s no wonder that distilleries are popping up all over the US. There’s a growing market for Bourbon, and with modern transportation you can now get most of the elements you need shipped into any part of the country. Geography is no longer a barrier, so I’m sure it won’t be long before most states have a Bourbon producer of their own.
So I mentioned earlier that Bourbon distillers use either wheat or rye to add flavour and character to their Whiskey, but the two grains have quite different effects on the finished product. There are a lot of people who think that wheat is a sweeter grain and that’s why wheat based Bourbons are usually sweeter in taste. Well that’s not quite how it works. There’s no difference in sugar content once you distil the two grains, they’re both equally dry, in fact the sweetness comes from the barrel. The difference is in the amount of flavour they add to the Bourbon.
Wheat is a less flavourful grain than rye, so using wheat tends to make a more subtly flavoured Whiskey, which is more creamy and soft. Because there is less complexity and flavour in a wheat based Bourbon, the sweetness from the barrel comes through more strongly and appears more pronounced in the aged Whiskey. Rye on the other hand is intensely flavoured, with dry almost spicy notes, which add a lot of complexity to the Bourbon. With all that flavour going on, the caramelised sugars from the wood don’t come through quite as much, so you usually end up with a Bourbon that has a drier finish.
There are Bourbons that use both wheat and rye, and Woodford Reserve even played around with oats as a flavouring grain for one of their limited edition releases. Having tasted various recipes, aged and un aged it seems that in the region of 15 – 20% of the flavour of the finished product can be attributed to the grains used, with another 20% coming from the yeast strain used and the rest coming directly from the barrel.
Get a Bourbon distiller talking about production and you can guarantee that the subject of yeast will come into the conversation. Each distillery has their own unique proprietary yeast strain that they use during fermentation, and they’re pretty protective about it. You see yeast is a living organism, and it has a tendency to mutate and change if it’s left to its own devices. With 20% of the flavour of Bourbon coming directly from the strain of yeast used, it’s pretty important to each distillery that their strain of yeast be well preserved and not allowed to change over time. The slightest change can affect the flavour of the Bourbon, so yeast is pretty important.
This is interesting because in many other whisk(e)y producing countries not a lot of importance is placed on yeast. In many Scottish distilleries, dried brewers yeast is bought in, with no importance placed on consistency of this vital ingredient. That’s not to say that American distillers are more careful, or that their way is the right way, it’s just a difference in production methods between countries and styles of whisk(e)y.
To give you an idea of how much importance is placed on the unique yeast strains of each distillery, most keep frozen or dried samples in multiple facilities just to ensure that their strain of yeast is preserved for future use. Four Roses for example keep frozen batches of their yeast in three facilities on three continents just to be on the safe side. Wild Turkey have five facilities which is pretty extreme, but when you think that if that unique yeast strain was lost for some reason, the brand would never be able to make their Bourbon taste the same again, you can see why they are so careful. Between the grain recipe (or mash bill as it’s known) and the yeast, this is what gives each distillery their signature style of Bourbon.
Prohibition was a pretty bad time for the Bourbon industry as you might imagine. From 1920 to 1933 it was illegal to make, transport or sell alcohol of any kind in the United States, so almost overnight all the distilleries in the US closed down. Fortunately though you could still get Bourbon (and other styles of American Whiskey) for medicinal purposes. The US government realised that for generations Whiskey had been prescribed by doctors as a form of medicine (yes really!), and there would still be a need to have it available even during prohibition.
The government granted 10 licenses for companies to continue selling Whiskey for medicinal purposes only, of which only six were ever activated. These companies were not allowed to produce Whiskey, but could sell it, so before prohibition went into effect they bought up everyone else’s stock so that they would have plenty of barrels sitting in warehouses ready to keep America healthy. Medicinal Whiskey was sold in government approved pint or half pint bottles, with seals on them that showed which year the Whiskey had been made (always before 1920) and which year it was bottled. As prohibition went on, the age of the medicinal Whiskies available went up and up, so by the end of prohibition there’s every chance people were sipping 13, 14 or even 15 year old Bourbon to help them get over their colds.
The only way to get your hands on this medicinal whisky was through a prescription issued by a doctor, which you could then take to a pharmacy to be given your ‘medicine’. These prescriptions were closely monitored by the government to ensure that doctors weren’t abusing their right to prescribe alcohol, but at least it was possible to get your hands on the occasional bottle of good old Bourbon through legitimate channels as opposed to relying on bootleggers and speakeasies to get a drink.
This is one of the most confusing and controversial topics when it comes to Bourbon, and what I’m about to say will probably upset a few people and confuse a few others. I have always been told that Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon have distinctly different laws defining how they are to be made. This is only half true as it turns out. Federal law in the US defines various categories of Whisky and how they may be made, in the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 C.F.R. 5.22), but within this framework no mention is made of Tennessee Whiskey as being a unique product or as having unique rules and regulations. In fact Tennessee Whiskey for many years has simply been defined as Whiskey (of any kind) made in the state of Tennessee.
This definition has been somewhat tightened up but only in terms of the rules as to what products may be labelled in what way within the US. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) now defines Tennessee Whiskey as ‘a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee’. So by that definition alone you would have to accept that Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are in fact simply Bourbon made in the state of Tennessee… but… and there’s always a but…
For years brand owners, distillers, Whiskey writers and drinkers have argued that the way Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are made, means they don’t qualify as a Bourbon. You see these two famous ‘Tennessee Whiskies’ employ something called the Lincoln County Process, where after distillation and prior to ageing they are filtered through charcoal in order to ‘mellow’ the distillate. Bourbon producers argue that this changes the flavour of the distillate and therefore disqualifies it from being defined as Bourbon.
The fact of the matter is that using charcoal to filter the product before ageing does make a difference to the finished product, but it doesn’t actually disqualify it from being a ‘Straight Bourbon’. In fact there are several charcoal filtered Bourbons on the market in the US. So from a purely legal point of view Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon is the same thing.
There’s another side to the debate that I personally think is more relevant, and that is the historical difference in production techniques between the two styles of Whiskey. While from a legal point of view the definitions may be hazy enough to make both products appear to be the same, there are still differences in style that make them unique.
By employing the Lincoln County Process, Tennessee Whiskey producers make a spirit that has been softened and had some of its character smoothed out before it ever hits the barrel to begin ageing. This leads to a distinctly different flavour profile and to my mind at least, makes Tennessee Whiskey different in the most important way, and that is taste. By design this is a different style of Whiskey than that which is traditionally called Bourbon, which tends to be more robust in flavour due to the lack of filtration. To me this is what is most important, not the few scant words in a couple of legal documents, one of which is purely about the labelling of spirit product. Tennessee has a history of producing a style of Whiskey that differs from that traditionally associated with Bourbon… to me that’s enough to make them different.
I will still maintain that Tennessee Whiskey is different to Bourbon by design, and to me it seems the best way to think of them is as cousins; they may have some shared genes, but there is enough difference between the two that you can’t easily compare them. That’s not to say that one way of making Whiskey is better than the other, they’re simply two different styles, each with their own character and flavour profile.
There is also a lot of confusion about the term ‘sour mash’, in fact if you ask your average consumer what the difference is between Jack Daniel’s and Bourbon, many will say ‘well JD is a sour mash Whiskey’. So just to set the record straight, sour mash isn’t a style of Whiskey, it’s a production method that can be used when making most types of Whiskey. In fact sour mash was a process first discovered and used in a Bourbon distillery in Kentucky, and to this day almost all Bourbons are made using the sour mash process.
All that the sour mash process involves is keeping a small amount of your newly fermented liquid back when the rest goes off to be distilled. This is then added to your new batch in order to kick-start the fermentation process. It has the added effect of raising the acidity levels slightly, which stops any airborne yeast from having a chance to start affecting the flavour of your Whiskey. Think of it like making sour dough bread, you keep some of the dough back and add it to the new batch to impart the unique flavours you want in that loaf.
Before the sour mash process was invented in the 1840s, distillers pretty much allowed fermentation to happen naturally. They let the naturally occurring yeast in the grains or in the air, take hold of their ‘mash’ and ferment it. This meant that you had little control over making a consistent product; one day you might make the best tasting Whiskey of your life, the next day it might be the worst. The sour mash process is a way of making consistently good Whiskey with exactly the flavour profile you want.
When the newly made distillate comes off the still, it smells almost like buttered popcorn, but with the added bonus of having a hefty whack of alcohol in it. It’s known at this stage as White Dog, presumably because it is crystal clear at this point and has one hell of a bite to it. At this stage the distillate can’t be referred to as Bourbon because it hasn’t had the legal minimum of two years ageing yet.
There is a growing trend in American Whiskey production to make ‘white dog’ or ‘new make’ Whiskey available commercially. This really started with distilleries making bottles available to purchase when people came to tour their facilities, as an unusual product to take home as a memento. Now however, many of the new distilleries that are opening have realised that this can be a way of making money while they’re waiting for their Bourbon to age and become ready to bottle.
It’s definitely interesting to taste white dog as it gives you insight to the flavours that are in the spirit prior to ageing, and when compared to an aged Whiskey of the same recipe, you can also understand how much that ageing process mellows the Bourbon. As much as I love the taste of the newly made spirit, it’s not something that I would generally choose to drink on a regular basis; it tends to be fiery and raw, and lacks the subtlety and depth of flavour of a well-aged spirit.
It’s not at all uncommon for a distillery to be able to produce many brands and different products all of which started from the same recipe. This is done by cleverly selecting barrels of different ages and strengths, from different parts of different warehouses and combining them. You see warehouses in Kentucky are pretty complicated places and the ageing process can yield very different results from barrel-to-barrel.
Most warehouses used for ageing Bourbon are five or six stories high, and often hold between 35 and 50 thousand barrels of Whiskey. These warehouses are open rick style warehouses, which means that air can freely move around the warehouse, which allows natural ageing to occur. Typically they are not temperature controlled, and natural variances in temperature from season to season, is what makes the ageing process happen. Of course in a building so large you’re going to find big temperature differences between the top floor and the ground floor, with rising heat having a bigger impact on the barrels at the top. This means that the Whiskey you get from a barrel that has been stored in one part of a warehouse can be quite different from one stored on a different floor.
In some distilleries these differences are encouraged as it gives them a more diverse range of flavours to play with when it comes to creating different products. The perfect example of this is the Buffalo Trace distillery, which produces 19 brands and 34 products from just three different distillates*. They select barrels from different warehouses, at different strengths or of different ages to create each product. For instance they have one metal warehouse, which they use exclusively to produce the Blanton’s range of Bourbons. From just one floor (the fourth in case you’re wondering) of another of their warehouses they produce Eagle Rare. That floor is considered a ‘honey spot’ or an area that produces exceptionally good Bourbons.
By cleverly managing their inventory of ageing stock in their warehouses, they have the ability to produce a wide range of Bourbons all of which have a different style.
If you think back to the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that within the rules and regulations, Bourbon must be put in the barrel at less than 62.5% abv, and yet there are products on the market that are stronger than that… so how is this possible?
The fact of the matter is that ageing cannot only affect the flavour and smoothness of the Bourbon, but also the strength. It’s kind of a complicated process, but in the simplest terms the following happens:
Firstly you have to keep in mind the fact that alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. Secondly it’s worth mentioning that water molecules are much smaller than alcohol molecules. This means that in a barrel stored on a low floor of the warehouse, the temperature doesn’t usually rise to a point where water starts to evaporate, but it does get warm enough for some of the alcohol molecules to break free. Over time alcohol molecules work their way through the wood in the barrels and escape, so bit-by-bit the alcohol content of the Whiskey decreases. The opposite happens in barrels stored on the top floors. Here the temperature rises to the point where both alcohol and water start to evaporate, but as the water molecules are smaller, it is much easier for them to escape through the grain of the wood, which means that more water escapes than alcohol and so the strength of the Whiskey increases.
With this in mind, if a barrel is stored high up in a warehouse for enough years the strength of the Bourbon can rise dramatically, and in fact if you look at products such as George T Stagg, it’s not uncommon to find that the abv has increased by 10 to 15%.
I could keep writing on this topic for much longer as there is so much history and heritage to this category of spirits, but if I’m honest I think you’ll agree that’s enough for one day. I hope I’ve clarified a few points and answered a few questions about Bourbon along the way. Now I’m off to make myself a tasty (and well earned) cocktail, and will be thinking about my next update, which will be the 11 Bourbons you should be drinking… in other words and excuse for me to dig into the b&t drink cabinet. Will a Tennessee Whiskey make my list? You’ll have to wait and see…
* blog adjusted based on facts from comments below… many thanks connoissaurus!