View Full Version : A Science Writer on Whiskey.

03-25-2009, 19:58
David Bradley is a science writer with a blog, who made a post (http://www.sciencebase.com/science-blog/water-of-life.html) about whiskey last December. It's pretty interesting. For example:

"Whisky lactone (3-methyl-4-octanolide) is present in oak, which is the most commonly used barrel material and endows whiskies with an essence of coconut aroma, while the diketone diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) gives the buttery aroma of most spirits. Commercially charred oaks used for aging barrels are particularly rich in phenols, with some 40 different phenolic compounds, having been revealed in charred oak barrels, each one of which can add to the flavour. The coumarin scopoletin is also present in whisky."

03-25-2009, 22:18
I enjoyed reading that. I like the 'Alton Brown' approach to whiskey that David Bradley uses.

03-27-2009, 09:44
Very interesting.

Bourbon Geek
03-27-2009, 12:00
Being at least part scientist ... I enjoy the scientific side of bourbon as much as probably anyone. Several thoughts come immediately to mind ...

1. Does anyone remember Devon McClain formerly of Beam? He was an absolute treasure trove of knowledge on the chemistry of maturation. I sat in on a lecture of his where he traced the origins of some 160 chemical species to the maturation process of bourbon. I would love to get my hands on a hard copy of his research ... both to read and to preserve for the future.

2. The folks at Independant Stave used to put out biennial books on their research regarding various effects of the barrel on maturation. Lots and lots of good information there, too. That work was approached from an incredibly scientific point of view, and changed some of my personal thoughts on maturation.

3. I was a bit disappointed that David Bradley reduced the distillate to mere Ethanol and water ... "Anyway, one aspect of the whole process from grain to bottled liquor that fascinates me is that the distilled liquid, the spirit, is an almost pure ethanol-water mix (an azeotrope). In fact, the tourguide at Bushmills told us that this was so and that the flavour is then all to be found in the aging process in the barrel." ... This is simply not true. Unless you are making essentially grain neutral spirits, there are a substantial number of chemical elements present in differing degrees in each distillery's fresh distillate. In fact, the wide vareity of esthers present in the final product would not be there at all were it not for the wide vareity of alcohols present, along with the ethanol, in the distillate.

03-27-2009, 12:47
Hey Dave, I like the way you expressed that. I lack a scientific turn of mind but do have an interest in how the barrels influence the whiskey. My family own some farms that we have had for generations which are used primarily for growing Southern hardwood timber. Back in the late 70s and early 80s we selectively cut mature White Oak trees that were sent to a mill who supplied the barrel makers in Kentucky. I like to think some of the fine Bourbons our members are enjoying today were aged in barrels made from my family timber.

03-27-2009, 13:51
I only know what an azeotrope is from quickly reading the Wikipedia definition just now, but...

Is white dog really an azeotrope? Wouldn't you have to come off the still right at 100 proof for it to be an azeotrope?

I don't know what Bushmill's distills out at, but I'm sure it's higher than any bourbon. I read many Scotch-biased writers who think bourbon is exactly parallel to Scottish grain whiskey which it, of course, is not. Maybe this is the same kind of mistake, people coming from the other traditions not really understanding how Americans make whiskey.

03-27-2009, 15:35
Squire, thanks for the contribution, I'm enjoying one of your trees right now :)

I have a scientific bent and am often curious about the makeup of Bourbon but then I think (drink) a little more and realize that too much science may just spoil the mix. While knowing precisly what makes up a good bourbon might make it easier to make a very consistant product, I don't think that is what I want. I like the variation in different producers, barrels and even bottles of the same batck sometimes. Its what makes bourbon interesting.

I analyze things all day for a living, I just want to enjoy my drink in the evening!

03-27-2009, 16:11
Good idea Dave, I raise my glass and clink with yours across the board.

Bourbon Geek
03-27-2009, 18:14

The answer is a BIG no!!! The word azeotrope means "to boil together" ... ethanol and water do form an azeotrope ... at about 194.5 proof or so ... way beyond the legal limits for bourbon.