View Full Version : What is Bourbon made of?

07-28-2004, 06:25
Sorry to ask such a rudimentary question, but I'm not quite clear on this. Is bourbon a blend of wheat, rye, and corn depending on the particular recipe? Also, what is an example of a heavily "ryed" bourbon vs. say, heavily wheated or mainly corn? Are there any bourbons that are only from a single grain?


07-28-2004, 06:29

I recommend you have a look here (http://www.straightbourbon.com/faq.html#1).

07-28-2004, 07:34
Some information additional to the FAQ is that while whiskey intended as bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, it cannot contain more than 80%, if it does, it will constitute corn whiskey (of which a number are still marketed). As the FAQ said, most bourbon has corn content of about 65-70%. The balance can be composed of one or more other grains. Traditionally, rye is used because of its contribution to flavor. The remainder invariably is barley malt, its purpose is to convert the starches in the corn and rye into fermentable sugar. An alternate to rye in the mashbill is wheat. Wheat tends to give whiskey a lighter taste. A ryed bourbon is one which employs rye in the mashbill in addition to the corn, also, the term is used sometimes informally to mean a bourbon in which the percentage of rye is relatively high, e.g., Old Grandad and the brands associated to it (e.g., Basil Hayden). A wheat-recipe bourbon is one in which the "small grains" other than barley malt is wheat, e.g. Maker's Mark, the Weller bourbons, the Old Fitzgerald bourbons, the Van Winkle bourbons. For rye whiskey, the mashbill must be composed of at least 51% rye, and the remainder generally is corn and barley malt. Except for Old Potrero, all rye whiskey made in the U.S. employs some corn in the mashbill. Historically however, rye whiskey recipes often used all rye except for some barley malt, e.g. 80% rye and 20% barley malt. Usage varied depending on locality and what was available. Your "typical" bourbon, e.g. Jim Beam, is a rye recipe bourbon and because rye is flavourful and corn less so, such bourbons get a lot of their flavour from the rye albeit it is used in small quantities.


07-28-2004, 08:26
Gary, I think we established before, thanks to Chuck posting the federal regs http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/bowdown.gif, that bourbon can indeed have more than 80% corn in the mashbill. It has to have at least 51% corn and follow all the other legal requirements (entry proof, barrel type and aging duration, etc.) in order to be bourbon. If the whiskey mashbill is 80% corn or above, and fails to satisfy even one of the bourbon legal requirements, then the whiskey is corn whiskey, at least generically (but see below). The Regan's book (The Bourbon Companion, page 149) as much as says, for example, that the mashbill for Old Charter is 86% corn, 6%rye and 8%barley malt. In their glossary definition of straight bourbon, they say nothing about an upper corn limit, because there isn't one. In their entry on corn whiskey, they define it as "a whiskey made from a mash containing a minimum of 80 percent corn and, it if it is aged at all, it must be aged in used or uncharred oak barrels."

The limbo area would be a whiskey made with more than 80% corn, that was aged just like bourbon, but failed to meet all the additional legal requirements for bourbon. Then it would be generically a corn whiskey, but maybe not legally a corn whiskey. It would not be bourbon in any event, because it failed the requirement(s) somehow. Cheers, Ed V.

07-28-2004, 08:39
Thanks Ed, I did not realise that and appreciate the correction. I'll check again just to satisfy myself but this sounds undoubted based on the Old Charter mashbill. Good catch.


07-28-2004, 10:14
I believe all corn whiskey must be at least 80% corn, but not all 80%-corn whiskey is 'corn whiskey' -- e.g., as Ed says, it can be bourbon.

07-28-2004, 11:31
You can look here as well. (http://home.si.rr.com/paradox7/bourbon_distilling.htm) (shameless plug) http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

07-28-2004, 11:51
Mark -

On your page, it states, "If a whiskey contains more than 80% corn, it becomes a corn whiskey.* And if it contains more than 51% rye it becomes a rye whiskey."

As pertains to corn whiskey, this is at odds with what's been posted above. Which one is accurate?

Could a whiskey conceivably be 100% corn and still be bourbon if it satisfied the other requirements?

07-28-2004, 11:56
Could a whiskey conceivably be 100% corn and still be bourbon if it satisfied the other requirements?

Yes and no by my understanding. Yes in that it could meet the guidelines for a bourbon, no in that there must be some malted barley in there to provide enzymes for starch conversion.

07-28-2004, 12:15
I don't know, what is accurate? I did that section while at home after surgery and used information I found off the net. So whatever various sources I found, that's what was used. It was more for fun and general knowledge than to (as I look at it) take complete fun out of this whole thing.

07-28-2004, 12:38
Jeff, just a separate point in that it is possible to ferment raw cereals without the aid of barley malt or chemical enzymes. This is stated numerous times in Byrn's classic 1875 text on practical distilling. He notes that (at the time of course) where barley malt was wanting distillers did without. How did they do this? They used "chaff" (presumably the modern grain husks or chopped hay) which had the property he said of lightening the "lob", fluidifying the mixture if not actually aid a conversion itself. A fermentation of the raw grains would result, it just took a lot longer and was not as complete as one which was aided with barley malt for the diastase. Likely there are enzymes in raw cereals (I know there are in rye) which effected this result but it took many days (much longer than normal) with uncertain effect. Clearly one can have an all-rye whiskey (Potrero) so likely there can be an all-corn bourbon provided it is correct that there is no cap (legally) on corn content for this purpose. In further research I have done including reading various articles Chuck has written, I now believe it is true there is no such cap. I think I misinterpreted a requirement for legal corn whiskey (i.e. 160 proof maximum whiskey except aging permitted in reused charred barrels or new uncharred barrels) as imposing some kind of limit on the definition of bourbon but it appears this is not the case.


07-28-2004, 12:57
According to Chris Morris at Brown-Forman, there is no upper limit on corn. If you wished to malt some corn, you could make 100% corn Bourbon. Corn Malt is not as good as barley malt, producing less of the enzyme that converts starch to sugar, so yields would be low, but it could be done.
Mike Veach

07-28-2004, 13:40
Rice can be malted too, oats, almost any cereal.

But Byrn goes into the question of whether unmalted grain alone can be made to ferment; he concludes it can be but the fermentation will take a long time and not likely be very complete. Amongst the disadvantages he cites is that of starchy materials burning in a batch apparatus. (At the Sampler I asked Craig Beam if the subsisting matter in mash can clog the perforations in the plates in the columns. He drew on his cigar, exhaled slow and said, "you should see the steam shoot those suckers off when it drives up the column!" http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif).


07-28-2004, 14:09
Here's a link to some whiskey definitions, though I don't know the authority:

Whiskey Definitions (http://www.pinkiesonline.com/whiskey.htm)

Here's Wikipedia:

Corn Whiskey (http://www.fact-index.com/c/co/corn_whiskey.html)

For some reason, I'm not able to connect to the federal ATF website right now, where the prevailing regulation resides:

ATF (http://www.aft.gov)

07-28-2004, 14:23
For some reason, I'm not able to connect to the federal ATF website right now, where the prevailing regulation resides:

I guess the link in the faq must be too subtle, 'cause it's been right here for years:

ATF Regs (http://www.straightbourbon.com/27cfr5.pdf )

07-28-2004, 14:36
I didn't go through the whole thing but clearly the definition of bourbon seems not to require a maximum percentage of corn content.

Running through these regulations is something of an exercise in whiskey and spirits history with its references to "lees brandy" (a term used in Byrn's 1870's-era book), rock 'n rye, applejack, wheat whiskey and the like. It makes one realise how singular it is that bourbon whiskey has survived as a major spirits category..


07-28-2004, 15:51
Here we go:


I just checked it out again. It's a 43 page pdf file, with the definitions on page 6. Posted by our own Jim Butler (Many thanks, Jim! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/bowdown.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/bowdown.gif) in 2001. Go to Jim's post number 4524 (posted 7/11/2001) and read the whole thread (OK, you can skip the tequila parts if desired http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif)

So, there is no legal upper limit (80% or 81%, in particular) on corn content in bourbon, just whatever the distillers want/can do, given the practical aspects of doing what the barley malt does (provide enzymes to convert starch to fermentable sugar). This 80% thing is just some writers not carefully checking the facts and just passing on what they read somewhere. Happens all the time and the web makes it even easier. Cheers, Ed
Ps. From Mike Veach's post of 10/15/2001, it *may* be that Old Charter is 83% corn, 8% rye and 9% malt mashbill. Different from what the Regans give, but both mashbills are over 80% corn.

EDITED: I didn't see the posts after Paradox's when I posted this. Redundant now ...

07-28-2004, 17:47
"I make use of no Barley in my Distillery (the operations of which are just
commenced). Rye chiefly, and Indian Corn in a certain proportion, compose
the materials from which the Whiskey is made."

-George Washington, to William A. Washington, February 27, 1798


Tim Dellinger

07-28-2004, 18:06
I just realized that my George Washington quote contradicts what his
farm ledgers would bear out.

"Chris Morris of Brown Forman deduced the mashbill of 60 per cent rye,
35 per cent corn and five per cent barley by going through the farm ledgers."
(Whisky Magazine, issue 36).

Also on the topic of barley-less mashes:
I don't have my copy of Carson's _Socal History_ at hand, but he mentions
in there that in the late 1800s, distilleries updated themselves in many
ways, i.e., added column stills, etc., and one of the things they did was
to abandon malted corn in favor of malted barley.

The use of malted barley was, of course, well known. M'Harry (1809)
uses it in all of his recipes. The problem is that malted barley was
expensive and not always available.

Tim Dellinger

07-28-2004, 18:29
Thanks for the lesson fellas, I didn't realize that malted corn or rye could have the same effect as barley for fermentation. Now, practically speaking, does anyone make, or has anyone recently made, a 100% corn whiskey?

07-28-2004, 20:13
Additionally, I just remembered that the Foxfire Book, in its
"Moonshinig as a Fine Art" chapter, describes the malting of
corn for use in making 'shine. They never mention barley malt
at all. They also note that whoever runs the mill where you
grind your malted corn is going to know exatly what you're up to...

Tim Dellinger

07-28-2004, 21:17
It's my understanding that grains other than barley are malted only as a matter of field expediency, i.e., no available barley. Fritz Maytag, of course, malts rye, but he's crazy.

07-29-2004, 07:27
"No labor of love for maltsters, malting with rye is difficult and time
consuming. Rye is a small, slippery grain, and because malt houses are
set up for barley malting, working with rye can be a nightmare. Mary
Anne Gruber of Briess jokes that she likes to schedule her vacations
right around the time they receive an order for a batch of rye..."

(from "Brewing with Rye", (Brewing Techniques 1993), a nice little
article all about using rye. They quote a paper from Crop Science
which says that malted rye behaves differently (and in some ways
better) than malted barley when used on unmalted rye.)


Tim Dellinger

p.s. Fritz Maytag is, indeed, crazy.

07-29-2004, 09:48
This is very interesting. Byrn states that barley malt has the property of rendering a greater yield from its action on rye grist than if all-malted rye was used, which sounds quite extraordinary.

By the way, I said earlier making a mash from all-raw grains takes longer than if some malted grain is employed (the malted portion converts the starch in the unmalted in the tun, one might add). In fact, Byrn said the conversion will be very slow or irregular if water is added at a temperature of 100 degrees (F, I believe) - this is a temperature perhaps for steeping but not for heating (there are 3 stages in mashing: grinding the grains, steeping them, heating them ("cooking" in modern parlance)). Byrn states clearly that if raw grist is heated to between 165 and 180 degrees, that will effect a conversion and that two to four hours are needed for this purpose. He says if you go too long, the mash may become too acid and that will hurt the ferment. He says that in up to 4 hours at that higher tempertaure range, a saccharification will occur. Then he states that in practice some barley malt is always added to aid the process, noting too that German distillers work only with malted grain (no doubt a spin-off of German all-barley malt brewing methods). But then he reiterates: where barley malt is lacking mashing can nonetheless be performed. In such case he advises addding chaff to the mash to assist in fluidification (first step in converting starches to various forms of sugar). I infer from Byrn that a mash using some (or of course all-) malted grain is in effect a short-cut, a kind of pre-mashing as it were, or rather that is what malting is. I would think a conversion where some malted grain is used takes faster than the two-to-four hours for one where no such assist is used although Byrn doesn't say so as such.

We know that Maytag uses malted rye only in his rye whiskey mashes. This is one traditional practice but there are others: e.g., clearly (per Byrn) many distillers in the 1800's used a mashbill of 80/20 raw rye to malted barley. I understand no distiller today who makes rye whiskey uses unmalted rye yet the latter is used surely in all rye recipe bourbons, so why not use it in rye whiskeys? How would the taste differ if raw rye was used instead of malted rye in, say, Pikseville rye whiskey?


07-29-2004, 10:59
> Byrn states that barley malt has the property of rendering a
> greater yield from its action on rye grist than if all-malted
> rye was used, which sounds quite extraordinary.

Well, the primary reason for malting is to make the grain produce
enzymes. The grain doesn't see it that way, though... it thinks
that it's time to sprout roots and grow leaves and do all kinds
of other things that require energy. Eating up energy reduces the
alcohol yield, since that energy comes from the starches stored up.

At the risk of being long winded:
If you use 100% malted rye, then each little kernel has essentially
wasted a bit of its energy (its starch) in order to start growing. It's
done this in order to produce enzymes. If, instead, you add enzymes
in the form of barley malt, then ALL of the rye's starch is available
for conversion to sugars and then alcohol.

Also note that you need to get the timing right when you're malting the
rye. Stop the germination early, and you don't have enough enzyme to
convert all the starch. Thus a lower yield. Stop the germination late
and the rye has eaten up more of its starch than you want... again, lower
yeild. Why risk it when you can just throw in barley malt, which is rich
in enzymes?

Tim Dellinger

07-29-2004, 11:11
Excellent, many thanks

Why then (I wonder) do modern brewers use all barley malt mashes? I think I know the reason, and it is given in Byrn's companion volume on brewing: using unmalted grains (for brewing at least) results in a taste not acceptable to most people. Byrn states this baldly in the brewing volume. Now why would that be, I wonder too? Guinness Stout famously employs a measure of unmalted grains, and it tastes pretty fair. But maybe the roasted quality covers up what would otherwise be an off-taste, I don't know (seems unlikely though). Still, most beers, even commercial beers, use all or mostly barley malt (70% in Bud, for example, 100% in Sierra Nevada's ales, etc.) so it must be taste-related. And at bottom I think, too, for whiskey. Irish pot still whiskey employs significant amounts of raw grain (raw barley) and its taste is, well, unusual I would say. Maybe raw grains when converted in the tun produce congenerics an all-malt mash would not. Yet Irish pot still is (equally famously) distilled three times. Three times and they can't get those congeners out?? http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif