Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bourbon 101: Part 1

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough."
--Mark Twain.

Bourbon permeates the history, culture and economy of Kentucky. You can travel the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, visiting distilleries, or walk the Urban Bourbon Trail, stopping at a number of Louisville restaurants and bars. Approximately 1.7 million people have visited one of their bourbon distilleries during the last five years. Most restaurants and bars carry a good selection of bourbons, some as many as 150. Various restaurants cook with bourbon, from appetizers to desserts, from breakfast to dinner. Numerous stores sell food products made with bourbon, including candies (like bourbon balls), hot sauces, syrups, jellys, jams and much more. Many thousands of people are employed by the distilleries and tangential industries.

When I visited Louisville, it seemed like I could not avoid the influence of bourbon, not that I wanted to in the first place. I took the opportunity to visit a couple of distilleries, to meet some of the distillers, and to taste a variety of different bourbons, including many that I have not tasted before. I ate various dishes that used bourbon, from barbecue sauces to bread puddings. I expanded my knowledge and experience with bourbon, and I was in the perfect place to do so, especially accompanied by my bourbon knowledgeable friend Fred.

So let me share some basic information about bourbon, hopefully to give my readers a better understanding and appreciation of this American spirit. I also hope that this brief introduction to bourbon motivates you to learn even more about it.

The economic importance of bourbon cannot be underestimated. A recent report, The Economic and Fiscal Impacts of the Distilling Industry in Kentucky (January 2012) was prepared for the Kentucky Distiller's Association and discussed the extent of the bourbon industry and its statistics indicate the vast importance of bourbon to Kentucky. Nineteen major distilling establishments exist in Kentucky and another twelve craft distilleries have recently been licensed or are in the process of obtaining one.

Kentucky bourbon accounts for about 35% of the value of all distilled spirits produced in the U.S. One state accounting for about 1/3 of the value of distilled products. Kentucky also possesses about 43% of all distilling jobs in the U.S., employing around 10,000 people. California may dominate the U.S. wine industry but Kentucky dominates spirits. Kentucky ships about 10 million cases of bourbon throughout the U.S. and exports another 28.7 million proof-gallons to about 126 countries. Total Kentucky shipments account for approximately $2.5 billion. Kentucky bourbon is the largest category of exported U.S. distilled spirits, accounting for 28.7 of the 61.5 million proof gallons shipped in 2010, or put another way, bourbon accounts for $768 million of the total value of $1,157 million in distilled spirits exports.

Who imports the most bourbon? About 73% of the exports are sent to Germany, Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, and France. It is also fascinating that 56% of the exports are in bulk, rather than bottled, especially to Australia and New Zealand. It is thought that it is more cost effective to ship the bourbon in this method.

How did bourbon originate? Bourbon is a type of whiskey, a distillation of a fermented mash of grain, so it is important to briefly consider some of the history of whiskey in the U.S. Prior to the American Revolution, the production of whiskey was very small, with rum production being far more significant. Yet that reversed itself after the Revolution, and rye whiskey probably was the first type of whiskey to dominate. Whiskey would sometimes be used as form of currency, often in bartering and the government even used it as partial payment for their soldiers.

In 1781 in Kentucky, taverns began to regulate the sale of whiskey by the drink and whiskey stills were being offered for sale in 1787. By 1791, distilling started to go hand and hand with farming, an additional method of income with their crops and livestock. Interestingly, in 1798, George Washington became the country's largest distiller, making 11,000 gallons of whiskey at Mount Vernon.

At some time in the late 18th century, bourbon began to be produced but its exact origin is unknown although there are several claimants alleged to be the inventor, from a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig to a distiller named Jacob Spears. Thought these legends are popular, and often disseminated in books and articles, the evidence for them is usually weak. We may actually never know the true origin. We do know that as whiskey can be made from a number of grains, distillers in Kentucky soon learned that corn, which grew very well in their fields, could produce an intriguing and tasty product. So multiple individuals may have created corn whiskies and it would be probably be impossible to say who was first.

Whiskey proved popular for breakfast. A southerner might be known as a "slinger," someone who started their morning with sour mash, mint and sugar, almost like a julep. There is an old Kentucky saying that "three slings and a chaw of tobbaco" made for a "breakfast of champions." That is certainly an interesting way to start one's day.

Though it is sometimes claimed that bourbon was declared by Congress to be "America's Native Spirit," that is not quite accurate. In 1964, Congress passed a resolution, stating bourbon was a "distinctive product of the U.S." granting the term legal protection. This is akin to the protection granted to wine terms like Champagne, Sherry and Port. Thus, bourbon can only be legally produced in the U.S.

What some people do not realize is that despite the fact that over 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, about 255 different brands, bourbon can be legally made in any U.S. state. You can find small bourbon distilleries in places like New York, Indiana, Utah, Wisconsin and Missouri.  Kentucky possesses about 5.2 million barrels of aging bourbon and whiskey, the clear leader in bourbon production.

What legally constitutes a bourbon? According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, 27 C.F.R. 5.22(b)(1)(i), there are several basic, legal requirements for a spirit to be declared a "bourbon." First, it must be produced from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn. Second, it must be distilled at not more than 160 proof. Third, the final product cannot be more than 125 proof. Fourth, it must be aged in charred, new oak containers.

According to 27 C.F.R. 5.22(b)(1)(iii), there are additional requirements for a product to be declared a "straight bourbon." First, it must be aged in charred, new oak containers for at least two years. Second, no additional flavors, colorings or other additives are permitted to be added to the bourbon. So in many respects it is more of a natural product, which should appeal to those concerned about extra chemicals in their food and drink. On the other hand, a "blended bourbon" may contain additional flavors, colorings or other additives.

Bourbon is basically made from grains, yeast and water, and at least 51% of those grains must be corn. The other grains are usually rye, wheat and/or malted barley. A bourbon's grain recipe is known as its mashbill, and it will vary from distillery to distillery, brand to brand. Some are very secretive about the composition of their mashbill while others freely discuss it. The composition of that mashbill will partially dictate the flavor profile of the bourbon, such as making it sweeter or spicier, dependent on which grains are more prominent.

Most distilleries use a single yeast for all their products, though Four Roses is unique in that it uses five different, proprietary yeasts. Most Kentucky water is excellent for making bourbon, being limestone filtered water which eliminates most of the iron which would adversely affect production. Local river water is used by some bourbon distilleries, and may still undergo further filtration. The quality of their water is one factor why Kentucky does so well with bourbon.

As I mentioned, the grains create some of the flavors in the bourbon. Corn provides a distinctive flavor to bourbon, as well as some sweetness and a full body. Malted barley primarily provides the necessary enzymes to convert starches into sugars, but adds some flavors too, such as malt and chocolate. Rye and wheat contribute the most to the flavor with rye bringing spice notes while wheat creating a sweeter taste. Barrel aging will then contribute more elements to the flavor of the bourbon, as well as all its color.

As the Federal regulations state, bourbon must be aged in charred, new oak containers. But many people seem to misunderstand this requirement, and you will even find some bourbon writers getting it wrong. At one bourbon distillery, their educational video for visitors even made an error about this requirement. Some state that American oak and/or white oak must be used, but neither of these is true. Any type of oak is permitted, including French or even Mongolian oak.

American white oak is the primary oak of choice as many consider it the best for imparting its flavors to the bourbon. White oak is also plentiful and dense enough that the filled barrels won't leak but not so dense that the liquid cannot soak into the wood. Some distilleries, such as Buffalo Trace, have and continue to experiment with other types of oak.

It is required that the oak barrels be charred though the exact origin of charring barrels is unknown, with a number of competing origin stories. The amount of charring of the oak can vary from producer to producer, and there is no legal requirement for a specific amount of charring. It seems that a #3 medium char and a #4 heavy char are common, though you will find barrels that are even as high as a #7 heavy char.

When a barrel is charred, the natural sugars in the oak move toward the damaged area, and you will then eventually find a layer of caramelized sugars at the point where the char ends and the wood begins. This is known as the "red line" and is very important to the maturation process. When the temperatures around the barrel are high, the liquid inside will expand into the wood, passing through the red line and acquiring color and flavors from the wood. Once the temperatures get cooler, the liquid then retracts, bringing with it those colors and flavors.

Over time, this expansion and contraction occurs many times, maturing the liquid and creating bourbon. Thus, the temperatures cannot remain constant as that would not allow the necessary expansions and contractions. As Kentucky has seasonal temperature extremes, the land is excellent for proper barrel maturation.

It is often said that a barrel rounds off the rough edges of the bourbon, and it will impart a range of flavors such as caramel, ginger, maple, nuts, vanilla and more. Bourbons that have aged in the barrel for more than 6 years generally acquire bold vanilla flavors while younger bourbons have more citrus notes. Each barrel is unique though, and will impart its own specific flavor profile to a bourbon. That is why single barrel bourbons are more unique, as the flavor from one barrel will vary a bit from that of another. As most bourbons are blends, the distillers can create a consistent product, simply varying the blend as necessary.

You should realize too that a bourbon cannot continue to mature forever in a barrel. There is a specific time when the maturation begins to adversely affect the bourbon, making it taste woody, though that time will vary. I have seen bourbons matured as long as 23 years in the barrel, and some longer may exist, but it is rare. The distiller needs to carefully assess aging bourbons, to ensure they have not started a downward spiral from over maturation.

Barrels are generally stored in rack houses, also known as rick houses, barrel houses, or simply warehouses. A traditional rack house has five to nine stories, and the bourbon on different stories will mature at different rates due to temperature variations, as the higher stories generally have more heat. Some distilleries thus rotate their barrels to try to obtain a more even maturation, while others simply wait to blend the bourbons at a later time. The Four Roses distillery is an exception as they maintain only one story rack houses, so that their bourbon barrels all mature at an even pace.

Barrel maturation also involves evaporation, the so-called angel's share. Each year, about 4% of a barrel evaporates, and curiously sometimes more alcohol is taken than water. One never knows which of the two will evaporate more. So a bourbon barrel can gain or lose alcohol content over time. The longer bourbon is aged in the barrel, the more of that bourbon that will be lost to evaporation, which is part of the reason why it is more expensive.

(See Part 2 on Friday)

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Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic said...

I don't know much about bourbon (or whiskey) so I'm glad to read such an informative post! I find that I like some bourbon, mostly the sweeter ones.

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