View Full Version : That "Heaven Hill Taste"...
...or that "Jim Beam taste", or that "Buffalo Trace taste", etc.
Earlier today I was struck by a certain resemblance between the EWSB '92 that I was sipping and EC12, which I have come to regard as the exemplar of the Heaven Hill style.
Thinking further along those lines I recalled having similar thoughts about Jim Beam black label, Knob Creek, and Baker's -- and about Buffalo Trace, Elmer T. Lee S.B., and George T. Stagg.
Here's my question. To the extent that such family resemblances exist, from what part(s) of the production process are they most likely to arise? Mashbill? Quality of grain? Cooking method? Yeast? Distillation apparatus? Distillation process parameters (temperature, proof, discard of heads and tails)? Cooperage (wood selection/curing, char method)? Warehousing (external location, internal environmental control, rotation)? Filtering?
Here's hoping that one or more master distillers jump in and spill the beans. Shrewd guesses by rank-and-file StraightBourbonians are also welcome.
I've never been reluctant to go off the deep end , so here I go again! I think the yeast Bullshit is just that, Bullshit! I think that and will borrow a little of Clink And Clank's Argument to back it up. Some time ago they had someone call in and ask about adding Mothballs to your gas tank to up the octane and if it works. Their reply was negative and their reasoning flawless. If it did work then Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Whoever would put it in the gas for us and then each in turn would claim their product superior because of the mothballs, and also would charge us more for the product. If yeast makes all that much difference( there is an excellent post by Jim Butler about yeast and simply states that yeast is selected because of it's performance, rather than it being a particular one) Why doesn't someone market the same Mashbill, Age , Profile and do several , all with different yeast strains? ............Yeah that's what I said , It's never going to happen...........why...........because it just doesn't make a damn!
Well form what I know, Heaven Hill is a one mashbill distillery, and the variences in their product come from aging. Same goes for BT with the Blanton's & ETL, same mashbill and I would figure Wild Turkey as well. So I may hazard a guess that that is what ties a "Distillery Character" together the most. Though if they did have multiple varying still setups, that would factor in (a good example would be Woodford Reserve and their Pot Stilled stuff, which were markedly different).
There are plenty of variables , I think the yeast card is overplayed, Imagine a great whiskey and then the announcement that , " We found some old Schenley yeast we didn't know we had and now our Bourbon is perfect". Iron cald Warehouses versus Brick is a big one, The city versus the countryside is another. Wonder how a barrel of Blanton's would age on the hill at Clermont? Remember buying speakers for a stereo in the 70s, all that "total Harmonic distortion"? They would produce a graph and one would claim to be a few tenths of a percent better than another and it was all out of the ability for a human ear to discern.
>Here's my question. To the extent that such family resemblances exist, from what
>part(s) of the production process are they most likely to arise? Mashbill? Quality of
>grain? Cooking method? Yeast? Distillation apparatus? Distillation process
>parameters (temperature, proof, discard of heads and tails)? Cooperage (wood
>selection/curing, char method)? Warehousing (external location, internal
>environmental control, rotation)? Filtering?
You're attempting to do something that I'm terribly awefully extremely interested
in, but is something that always gets shouted down on straightbourbon.com. What
you're attempting is what we scientifical types call separation of variables.
What is the effect of varying the mashbill? What is the effect of varying barrel
One problem is that each variable affects all of the other variables.
A wider cut during distillation with one yeast might make spirit that tastes
like crap, but with another yeast, it might enhance taste.
Another problem for the whisk(e)y enthusiast is marketing hype.
There's a lot of hype about "our special 3000 year old strain of yeast
that was handed down by Moses" because it makes a great story that
people like to hear. It's sometimes hard to separate out marketing hype
The real problem is this:
The fact of the matter is that bourbon is very traditional. People tinkered around,
and they found something that works, and they're sticking with it. Today's
master distiller has one job: "don't mess with the recipe, and don't screw up."
Truth be told, a distillery doesn't need to mess with any of the variables you
mention. They already get huge variations from barrel to barrel, and there's
variation between warehouses and within warehouses.
All of that said:
I'm still interested (just like you) in why one distilery's products taste different
than other distilleries' products!
I'm full of theories, and would love to get my hands on a distillery to run
a few experiments... I have a few ideas for product development of
new flavor profiles, but all of that will probably have to wait until I have
more spare time and a little more operating capital...
Dave - That is a very good question. This is a subject I have read a lot about and inquired from Master Distillers, and of course I have my own opinion. I have always maintained that the yeast plays an important factor in the way bourbon tastes. The reason I came to this conclusion is because Booker Noe was having a conversation about distilleries being sold and there is one certain thing that all have in common, they keep the Master Distiller, because the master distillers has the receipe for the yeast. Other yeast would work, but if they switched yeast you would have a different style of bourbon. For instance, Jim Beam wouldn't taste like the old Jim Beam. As far as I know every distillery makes its own yeast, except one and that is VOB as they buy their yeast. I asked Greg Davis why and he stated it just works for us. At the very least yeast is the DNA of bourbon. Different bourbons from the same distillery may have different percentages of grain but they all have (I believe) the same yeast. The yeast may be added to different batches at different degrees of temperature-for instance-we will say you add so much at 100 degrees, then add some more at 120 degrees etc. This may not be the exact answer since there are so many variables. The hardest thing I have ever tried to do is get the Master Distillers to go into detail about their yeast-it seems to be a well-kept secret. It seems like the master distiller passes it on to his son, and him to his son etc. Makes you wonder!
We were in the yeast room at Buffalo Trace and Ken told us that they no longer make their own Yeast, a bakery takes care of it for them. I had a conversation with a fellow who should know , and he told me that when he was a distiller, he gave any other distiller that wanted it , some of his yeast and it they would give him theirs in turn. He also got Hops from ............. because the plant he was at didn't have refrigerated storage capacity .
I strongly object to your call of "bullshit" regarding yeast.
It is true that marketers overhype the fact that distilleries often propigate
their own yeast strains, but that doesn't make yeast unimportant.
Ask a master distiller what happens when a wild yeast infection happens.
> If yeast makes all that much difference... why doesn't someone market the same
> Mashbill, Age , Profile and do several , all with different yeast strains?
1) Homebrew beer clubs do something similar all the time: make the exact same beer
with the exact same ingredients and process, but with different yeast. The results
are often very very dramatic.
2) Who would buy such a product? Consumers don't care about why
bourbons are different. Heck, most buyers don't know that Knob Creek, Bookers,
and Jim Beam Black are from the same distillery! There's enough variation in
the aged product already... no need to go messin' with the yeast.
3) Messin' with the yeast is a tall order. Distilleries have expertise on how to
handle a specific strain of yeast. Changing yeast requires learning to use the
new yeast. This is much more difficult than you could possibly imagine. Aside
from the obvious issues of fermentation times and temperatures, issues of
reproducability between batches, expertise in noticing when something is going
wrong, etc., there are larger and more more pressing issues of preventing
contaminatoin between different batches which use different yeast (impossible
in the same distillery), watching the emergence of new strains of lactic acid
bacteria which may or may not compliment the new yeast, etc.
Tim, Perhaps my choice of a word was rash. Let me rephrase it and I will say it the way a Great Master Distiller told me. " The big Mystery about the yeast is that there is no mystery". BTW I make a homebrew on occasion and The yeast does make a difference there, At the same point in time I haven't dropped it thru a 60 foot column still and a doubler, or thumper.
I can taste Jim Beam 4 yo , 7 yo, Blacklabel, Knobcreek and Bookers and I can tell it's all from the same Mashbill, I can taste OldTaylor , Old Granddad and know they are from something else. And all from the same mill. The original jest of this thread was to discern why some bourbon's are different and why. I think that looking to the yeast is the wrong place to look , there are plenty of things that affect it. The Yeast used for Bourbon is more similiar across the industry than dissimiliar. A carload of corn probably has a greater impact. When I was a lot younger than I am now I stood beside an open topped fermenter and watched as pigeons shit in the mash. Monday mornings at the distillery were when the drowned rats were fished out. I can just see someone with a snifter full trying to put their finger on that elusive flavor. http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif
Bobby, I haven't laughed so hard at a post in a long time!!
<<When I was a lot younger than I am now I stood beside an open topped fermenter and watched as pigeons shit in the mash. Monday mornings at the distillery were when the drowned rats were fished out. I can just see someone with a snifter full trying to put their finger on that elusive flavor.>>
And not to mention what wandered in with the corn!! Keep those spicy posts coming!!
Maybe that explains for that awful taste I experienced in my recent purchase of Very Special Old Fitzgerald... J/K everyone! http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/wink.gif Though VSOF was the first bourbon I can honestly say I didn't care for... Not bad considering it was the first of many!
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I can just see someone with a snifter full trying to put their finger on that elusive flavor
I would have said that it was an "earthy" green taste with hints of leather and sod http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif
Mmm, do I detect a hint of........... http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif
Let's talk about backset, the good old sour mash method. There once was a legal requirement that a setback of 25% was nessesary before one could claim Sour Mash on the label. The rule has been relaxed but most use 20 % or more. Back in the old days when there was a shutdown they would get the first backset from a plant up or down the road. Which causes me to wonder how this is done now. Can it be saved at the plant ? How Long ? What Method? Can they freeze it and get the results , Can it be dried and reconstituted? Let's see Buffalo Trace has 96,000 gallon fermenters , 20% is over 19,000 gallons. What about Makers ? When they come back up do they run up to HH or Barton and put a Rye backset in the first time? Do they bring it back up after BT runs a little wheat? Vice Versa? Does it matter? I've posed more questions than I answered here, the Sour Mash is what gives consistency from batch to batch.
When Heaven Hill lost the warehouses and their Distillery , they had product made to their specifications at Barton and JimBeam. Do you guys really think you're going to be able, a few years hence, to pick those out? I think a lot of things go together to make the " House Character" but at the same time I think you could take the Beam mashbill to Buffalo Trace and Buffalo Trace Mashbill to Clermont and each could make a reasonable facsimile of the other.
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I strongly object to your call of "bullshit" regarding yeast.
While I think that you may be right about this to some extent I think it may not be the largest factor in considering taste differences. To me It seems that the most obvious two "differentiaters" would be.
1) Mashbill - Bourbons with similar mashbills taste similar to me, even if I prefer one to the other or whatever (ie WT stuff, Blantons & ETL, HH stuff, etc etc.). Distilleries use different mashbills than each other and thus taste different. They use similar mashbill on product lines, they seem to me to taste similar. Maybe a little oversimplified, but it seems true.
2) Like in Real Estate Location, Location, Location: If a bourbon is aged in a similar area and in similar barrels, then it seems that it would come out similar, if not it seems it would be different. A good example of how location changes the taste of something might be Brown Forman & their L&G site. Woodford Reserve while still tasting vaguely similar to OF products (they are the same mashbill after all), has a much different profile that must at least partially be attributed to being aged at an alternate location.
Well there is my two cents.
Last night, I was drinking and hanging out with brewers from A. Busch. They told me the yeast was very propietary. They said, anyone even taking a sample or trying to mess with the yeast would be criminally and financially hunted down, by A.B. lawyers. I know beer isn't bourbon, but earlier stage of bourbon is. If they're that humorless about yeast, I would have to think it matters. Then we got onto drinking and trying different bourbons, with Elijah Craig 18 and Buffalo Trace coming out as favorites. Then we got to two enigmas, one is why A.B. doesn't distill, but the most puzzling one for us was Why people drink that, scottish stuff, when there is so much good bourbon everywhere. We all just looked at each other shrugged and poured another from the various bottles, and went on talking about whatever. It was a good night! http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/smirk.gif
"[T]he most puzzling one for us was Why people drink that, scottish stuff, when there is so much good bourbon everywhere."
I drink "that scottish stuff" http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/shocked.gif --along with a lot of "american stuff" http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/smile.gif and "irish stuff" http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/blush.gif --because I like them. VIVA VARIETY!! http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif
> While I think that you may be right about this to some extent I think it may not be
> the largest factor in considering taste differences.
I think you're exactly right: yeast is not the largest factor.
For instance: Wild Turkey.
You can taste the huge influence of
(1) Having a mashbill with ~15% rye (I can't recall the exact number)
(2) Using barrels with a #4 char
In my opinion, those things are the main flavor components of
Wild Turkey, and serve to define the "house style" to a great extent.
>Let's talk about backset, the good old sour mash method.
This the other part of the bourbon making process that gets
a lot of lip service by marketing, but which turns out to be
not so important in the end.
See the thread "Dunder / Sour Mash" ~ 5/18/02, with
posts by myself and Chuck.
The important bit:
Sour mash is mostly a quality control issue: it lowers the pH of the new batch
of mash. Low pH discourages bacteria, which would otherwise produce
"off" flavors. You can lower the pH of "sweet mash" by adding something
acidic, and achieve the same result.
Perhaps we should include this in our FAQ (which probably needs
Q. The people from marketing won't shut up about how cool the
sour mash process is, and how neat it is that distillers have been
propigating the same yeast for years and years. Is this what gives each
bourbon it's distinguishing characteristics?
A. Learning to tell Bourbon Mythology and Lore from actual fact is a
skill that takes years to acquire. It turns out other factors (mashbill, barrel
char, etc.) determine the "house style" of a particular distillery to a great
extent, with the yeast being an important (but minor) factor. Sour mash
is merely a quality control issue, and you could probably get the same
level of quality control using anything acidic to lower the pH of the mash
and thereby discourage bacterial growth.
Well, perhaps that should be cleaned up a bit to be a little more
After reading all of the previous posts here, I have to think that barrel char and location play the most significant roles in determining a flavor profile. While mashbill does play a part, most bourbons have mashbills that are at least close to one another. I do think yeast plays some role, as some of the bourbons I have tasted actually taste "yeasty". But I believe that the degree of char, and the rate at which the bourbon moves through it probably contribute the most to the flavor. I would hazzard a guess that if you took the same bourbon and aged it in the same town, but on different sides of the same hill, you would get noticable variations. Now just take the whole distillery out of one towns climate and put it into anothers. Kentucky's weather can change from one mile to the next, so it's no wonder that this could have a drastic impact on the finished product. Just my 2 cents.
Said Bobby: "When I was a lot younger than I am now I stood beside an open topped fermenter and watched as pigeons shit in the mash. Monday mornings at the distillery were when the drowned rats were fished out. I can just see someone with a snifter full trying to put their finger on that elusive flavor."
Thanks for sharing that with us. http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/tongue.gif
Variety is good!! I too like a variety of Whiskey. The
one Common Thread I notice is QUALITY http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif I'm enjoying
spirits now I didn't know about 5 years ago. If we weren't
willing to try new tastes, we wouldn't need this forum. http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif
You have some interesting comments, Bobby. If I weren't burnt out by work at the end of the day, I'd think alot more about these and other good comments that are made here in Bourbonia.
I enjoy watching the back and forth between folks on all the details and thoughts, etc. But, you know what? My job makes my analyze and think so much, when I get home, I just want to enjoy a good bourbon. I don't care how it got there, I just want it.
Back in my high-carb days, my friend and I used to drink alot of beer. He wanted to make his own. I said, Why Hassle With It? I can buy better beer than I can make and for a whole let cost and a ton less hassle.
After analyzing the rest of my life to death (work, computers, home theater, cars, etc.), bourbon is a welcome respite from all of that analysis.
Thanks for saying that CL , I can appreciate the not analysing it so much too. I don't spend much time with tasting , I can tell if I like it or not , so I don't try to isolate flavor components too much. It looked for awhile that I got it stirred up a bit. I really meant the bullshit surrounding yeast was bullshit, The yeast itself is important,I just don't think anyones purchases are ever driven by a particular strain of yeast. Booker Noe is Justifiably proud of Jim Beams Yeast that was Cultured By Jim Beam himself. And that yeast is also at Heaven Hill. When I hear those tales of the family yeast that has survived famines, floods,and prohibition , It's a little tedious to me. When I take a sip of Stagg , I don't care if their yeast is made by a bakery, The bourbon grabs you and you know it can't get any better.
I tend at times to obsess over things , and I have as my Grandmother identified a long time ago, a "one track mind." So when you see me going off on those tangents , that's sort of why, I'll come back around sooner or later. http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/images/icons/grin.gif
After finishing my 3-way Old Forester tasting, I realized just how different WR is from the other OF bourbons. They are made from the same mashbill and put into the same barrels. Granted they supposedly pick out the "honey" barrels for WR, but the biggest difference is in the aging. Louisville vs woodford county. Very distinctly different bourbons.
Right On! I agree with you the factors in aging seem to me to be the most important in determining flavor. . . WR does taste noticinbly different than the other OF bourbons. Seems to me though it still has the basic charateristics that bring them together (sweet on palate, rye burst on the end), just enough to show they started out the same. Although when they bring out the new stuff, that could be shot all to hell.
I'm re-opening an old thread that's about 9 months old
due to an interesting article that was recently published
in Whisky Magazine (a British glossy monthly that mostly
covers scotch). The article's called "Four Roses: Kentuck Roses",
and it's available online at
Quoting the very entertaining BobbyC, whose post I'm replying to:
>If yeast makes all that much difference( there is an excellent post by Jim
>Butler about yeast and simply states that yeast is selected because of it's
>performance, rather than it being a particular one) Why doesn't someone market
>the same Mashbill, Age , Profile and do several , all with different yeast
>strains? ............Yeah that's what I said , It's never going to
>happen...........why...........because it just doesn't make a damn!
The article quotes Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller, who
has some interesting things to say on that subject:
"We’re still the only company that uses five different yeasts and two
mashbills. One mashbill recipe has 60 per cent corn and 35 per cent rye.
“There’s a heaviness in rye and a robust flavour, and our yeast takes out any
rye bitterness and gives the bourbon a fruity character. The yeasts were chosen
specifically to give soft, smooth flavours, like a blended whiskey. The whiskey
ends up mellow and creamy.
“We could actually bottle ten individual bourbons with our different yeasts
and mashbills, but we mingle the ten to create one constant flavour.
Wow. I never knew that about Four Roses.
Four Roses also picks those yeast from 300 that they have.
I guess the next goal would be to actually have a tasting of some of these different bourbons before thay are mingled.
<font color="brown"> Good God Give Al Dimeola Some </font>
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