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Well, having been interested for years, I'm just discovering the whiskey nowadays. I tried Jim Beam Black for the first time, and the taste was really fascinating, so I'm very likely to be a bourbon fan.
This site is what I've been looking for! Full of information, history, tradition, and so son. This is a great treasure for somone like me-from the other side of Atlantic-miles miles away...
Now, I have a question of "entry level": As I saw on the main site, there are many brands but relatively few distillers of bourbon. Does this mean that in fact there are fewer different bourbons than it seems(Like different brand cars of GM)? Given that more than one brand includes the bourbon from the same distillary...For example "Bulleit" is stated as a brand but not as a distiller. Then, is it only a product of Four Roses? On the other hand, Bulleit Family is also telling about their own history, tradition, methods, etc. on their website. Yes, I'm a bit confused. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/confused.gifWhat's the differetiating factor between the brands of the same distiller?
Thanks...I really like this site, and already started enjoying bourbon...
Welcome to the board.
Yours is a question that many of us still struggle with to find our preferred pour. Many of the distilleries produce more than one type of whiskey. Some of these may be a complete change to something other than bourbon(ie. corn whiskey or rye whiskey or wheat whiskey) and some of them are still bourbon but distilled from a mash(recipe) that contains different proportions of grains and different yeast strains.
After they have fermented this mash, the process of distilling can also change the flavor profile of the whiskey. One of the (many) ways they can change the flavor profile at this point is to distil to a higher or lower proof; this creates a lighter or fuller(respectivly, though MMV) whiskey.
After they get done with the actual distilling they then need to put it into barrels. They can change the proof at which they put it in(up to 125 proof) to further modify the flavor. Then there is the length of time it ages, the proof at bottling, barrel selection etc.
Most distilleries methods are quite similar to each other: they use the same basic grains(corn, rye, wheat, barley malt), most use a similar type of still. Heck most of the families whose traditions they talk about have at one time or another worked together, leaving a common distilling tradition among themselves.
Most of us like at least one whiskey from each distiller, but that doesn't mean that we like every whiskey that those distillers make. Every bottle of whiskey has a story to tell, but take the ones that are actually written on them with a grain of salt, while they may have a kernel of truth to back them up many are fabrications. Let the whiskey in the bottle decide.
As I saw on the main site, there are many brands but relatively few distillers of bourbon. Does this mean that in fact there are fewer different bourbons than it seems(Like different brand cars of GM)?
Welcome! You are setting off on a fascinating journey!
Your question is actually fairly complicated, because to really answer it you need to understand the various variables that come into play in bourbon production. Some are distillery specific, and some are not. It also depends on what you mean by "different bourbons".
Here's an overview of bourbon production, focusing on the main factors that make one bourbon different from another.
First, there's the ingredients. Bourbon is made from grain, water and yeast. All bourbons presently made contain at least three different grains. Bourbon by law must be mostly corn, and all distillers use a small amount of malted barley to aid in fermentation, but the other grain might be wheat or rye (or, in one case, both). The proportion of the different grains is called the mashbill. A single distillery can make whiskey using more than one mashbill, so if all other things were equal, that's one reason there are more different bourbons that there are distilleries. And indeed, several distilleries make whiskey from multiple mashbills. For example, Buffalo Trace has two rye-based mashbills and at least one wheat-based mashbill; poke around on these forums and you'll find posts describing which bourbons are made from which mashbill. Jim Beam has two bourbon mashbills---both with rye, but different proportions. Four Roses has TEN different whiskeys they make and combine into their eponymous bourbons: two different mashbills and five different strains of yeast. Bulleit, made by Four Roses but bottled by somebody else (as I understand it), is one of the ten. (Note: as a self-described novice, you are probably best off using this guideline for a while: never believe anything you read in bourbon promotional materials. They're not ALL false or misleading, but that will save you the trouble of trying to sort wheat (or rye) from chaff.)
But I digress. Suffice to say, different ingredients are one way that you can get multiple different bourbons from the same distillery. So, the ingredients are cooked and fermented, and now it's time for distilling. Every still is different, and each still gives a unique character to the product that comes out. So, in theory, each distillery's products should have that still character in common, but still character is less significant than other variables in how a whiskey tastes.
Then, whiskey is aged. Aging is where whiskey picks up most of its character. All American whiskey is aged in new charred oak barrels---the level of char can vary, although I don't know that any distilleries actually differentiate whiskeys that way. But, the conditions in which the barrels are stored while aging can also make a big difference. Different warehouses, and even different floors in the same warehouse, will give different characters to the finished spirit. The exact mechanisms are only vaguely understood, but the effect is undeniable. So, that's another way that a single distillery can produce multiple whiskeys. In fact, I don't remember the specifics but I believe that some of Buffalo Trace's brands are differentiated based on which warehouses the source barrels come from, although the mashbills are the same.
Another big factor is the age of the whiskey. A four-year-old whiskey will be different from an eight-year-old whiskey, which will be different from a 15-year-old whiskey, even if the other variables are identical.
Finally, the barrel itself is the single biggest factor in how a whiskey tastes, and every barrel is unique. So, even if every other aspect was the same (mashbill, still, warehouse, age), two barrels of whiskey aged right next to each other in the same warehouse could still end up tasting markedly different. In a big brand for which thousands of barrels are mingled, these differences tend to average out, but small batch or single-barrel brands can show distinct differences from a distillery's "regular" whiskey based on the characteristics of the particular barrels chosen.
So, while it's true there are a relatively small number of bourbon distilleries, the variations in finished products are substantial. While bourbons from the same distillery are likely to have some characteristics in common, they may have substantial differences in character too.
Edit: Timothy posted while I was composing my reply, so some of this may be redundant, but I'm not going to go back and change it.
Being a novice myself thanks for all the great knowledge offered above!
That said, I have an interesting thought from some of these comments. As there is no real measure of "char" in a barrel and no measure of wood characteristics (I am also a wood worker and know each tree is different), I wonder if any of the distilleries have done any research in quantifing either of these variables???
I tend to drink mostly single barrel and small batch bourbons. I find that while they are more variable, probably due to the differences in wood and char, they are more interesting and tasteful, most probably the distillers preference.
all distillers use a small amount of malted barley to aid in fermentation
A minor nit here. While I suppose that ultimately the malted (sprouted) barley does "aid in fermentation," that is not quite accurate. Without the malt, there would be virtually no fermentation, as unmalted grains contain mostly unfermentable starch. The enzymes developed in the sprouting (malting) of barley (or other grains, for that matter) convert the starch to fermentable sugars in the mashing process, in which the grains are held at about 145F for an hour or so. This is rather more than aiding the fermentation - it is essential for fermenation.
Otherwise a good summary.
As there is no real measure of "char" in a barrel and no measure of wood characteristics (I am also a wood worker and know each tree is different)
The char levels are indeed quantified at 1-4. Some months ago I posted the char levels used by each distillery. You could find that in a search. I think they are all 3, 3-1/2 or 4.
AFAIK, there is no measure of wood characteristics. Either it meets the standards or it does not. Some distilleries require air dried oak (Maker's Mark for one), while others are happy with kiln dried. I have heard (from a used barrel broker) that Jack Daniels barrels uses thinner staves, but I have not heard this anywhere else.
I have just taken delivery of an ex-Elijah Craig 12 yo barrel from the aforementioned broker for our homebrew club to fill this spring with barleywine. It sure smells nice in my garage. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif
IIRC, I once read something about most barrel makers(in the states anyway) trying to use logs from a specific area. Something about straighter grain and slower growth. Seems like there was something about the slower growth and resultant tighter growth rings that made them allow less evaporation.
Wonderful summary by both you and Barturtle - clear & concise. As another novice, I needed this information to clear up some misconceptions already clouding my mind....which ain't hard to do! Thanks very much to you both! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/thankyousign.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/thankyousign.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/thankyousign.gif
In the Scotch world at least, distillers differentiate between whiskeys based on whether they are aged in American or French white oak barrels (see, e.g., Glenlivet). I believe those are actually different species of oak, so that may explain the difference, but it is easy to see how trees grown in different locations (climate, soil quality, etc.) could produce wood with different characteristics. Geography certainly makes a huge difference when it comes to grape plants!
Thank you very much, for all the information in the replies. Really a wonderful start for me!
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