View Full Version : What is the most important factor in a World Class Bourbon
Outside from my obsession with Bourbon, I've been tasting, drinking and collecting wine for close to 20 years (god I'm getting old). Anyway, I used to live in wine country and have had many a conversation with a vintner about the making great wines. Almost to a person, they'll say that the grapes make the wine and their job is not to screw it up. So, with that in mind, I'm wondering what you all think is the single greatest factor among the following.
1) Quality of Mash Components (Grain)
2) Mash Bill / Composition (Percentage Corn, Rye, Wheat, Barley)
5) Distillery Equipment / Process
6) Age in Barrel
7) Barrel Location
8) Final Barrel Selection
9) Blend of Barrels (If Not Single Barrel)
The first 7 are fairly systematic and can be replicated over time. #8-9 are the most variable -- requiring human intervention (until someone can put together a bourbon analysis machine).
Before you score, think about what your favorite bourbons are and what makes them so.
I'm not trying to be contrary or avoid your question, but with the possible exception of water, I'd say each of the factors is equally important. The reason is, a misstep in any one can ruin or hurt the whiskey. A mash too high in corn may make it too bland; bad yeast can muff a ferment and hurt the distillate; punky wood can impart an off-taste; a still with insufficient plates can impart too much of a congeneric (e.g., boiled cauliflower - ask Jeff about that :)) taste, and so on. Even improper batching can make the difference between something acceptable and something really good. Every part of the process needs careful attention. Probably this is true of water too even though it is distilled. I once read that the wrong kind of water can impart off colors and odours (to take an extreme example, water with natural dissolved sulfur). Every step is important and contributes to the final organoleptic qualities.
Although less knowledgeable than you about the mechanics of production I had much the same thought.
However, a slight adjustment in interpretation of jsgorman's survey question may be worthwhile.
Given the actual processes and controls in use by the various manufacturers (presumably none of which would use sulfurous water, for example), which of the factors listed make the greater contribution to the differences in the final product across all distillers?
For example, one departed member believes that in the case of Jim Beam, the single mashbill results in a family identity that dominates other variables, such as the allegedly unique yeast used in Baker's.
For another, I have facetiously suggested that a certain distiller may "accidentally" include one stave made of eucalyptus in each of its barrels, creating its own unique, family identity. Apart from my attempt at humor in that case, it wouldn't take much to convince me the choice of barrels is a major factor. Of course, if someone in the know tells me that barrels are a mere commodity (identical save for char level), just as corn is, I would have to accept it.
In the sense you have indicated, I would answer the question by saying that mash bill and yeast are the most important. Because, we all know how a step-up in, say, rye content can affect the flavour. But equally important is yeast. As brewers and beer fans know, beers vary dramatically depending on the yeast used and fermentation temperature. So that variable has to be rated equally. I think wood contribution is fairly equal across the production spectrum. Ditto the stills used (which in the end just deliver a distillate in a certain proof range). Warehouse and location therein play their part, but in the end mash bill and yeast are the most significant in my view. This is to be sure in terms of delivering the house taste, not the taste of bourbon "qua" bourbon. Indeed they explain I suggest the signature notes in Jim Beam's and HH's whiskeys.
I'd agree that all these characteristics are important, but for the sake of intelectual curiosity, I was curious what people thought was the single most important factor to making the ultimate bourbon.
Take Buffalo Trace for example. It is my understanding that Buffalo Trace, Ancient Age, Blantons and GT Stagg (all excellent Bourbons, mind you) use the same ingredients and go through the same process. The difference between Blantons and Ancient Age is Barrel Selection. Stagg, is both barrel selection and barrel age.
I belive all Wild Turkeys (save the rye) start off as the same white-dog -- but there is quite a difference between the 101, 8yr, 12yr., and so on. Part is barrel age, but Jimmy will tell you that once it passes 8yrs, he really has to work his barrels to get a drinkable product. In fact, if both Jimmy and his son were to jump ship, I would wonder how well WT couild survive.
That's interesting that Russell said that about bourbon aged over 8 years. I would have thought he was an admirer of extra-aged bourbon in general since all the premium WTs are over 8 years old (Russell's Reserve, Signature, Tribute, the 12 year old where available, Kentucky Spirit and a good part of Rare Breed). Anyway he does a great job of selection. To answer your question in the way you have explained it now, I would say age, selection and vatting are equally important. They determine, all other things being equal, the distinctive traits of a brand.
I've actually looked at this question from a whole different perspective (I am just starting to drink my morning coffee:coffeedrinker: )
I admit to knowing next to nothing about the making of bourbon.... but to me, to be a "World Class Bourbon".... a product should be available world-wide (albeit maybe in limited numbers..or preferably not:skep: )
Regarding WT and Jimmy Russell
I asked him a similar question regarding the Tribute, and he told me that he originally thought that it was meant for the 150th Anniversary and he only found out it was for him when they called him down to see the packaging.
His point was that after 8 years, it becomes particularly easy for the bourbon to get over oaked and for the 15 YO, he needed to move the barrels around to slow down the aging process.
I did mean to ask him about the 12YOs -- his impressions on them and why they aren't available in the US, but I forgot.
Well, now that you explain this, I see more what you meant. Because it is a house taste of WT to be 'woody'. Even 80 proof WT has this taste to a degree. So I see now what Jimmy Russell meant, he doesn't want the house flavor exaggerated in the older expressions. The 10 year old gets the balance right. And while I never would have called any WT elegant (it just isn't the house style), the RR 90 comes close, more so than any other in the WT range. The Tribute and Signature have richness but inevitably wood extract is very present too. The 90 has too I find a faint taste of "old wood", punky is not the right term, maybe a hint of mushroom like some cognacs have. It lends complexity. Still, I think the McKenna trumps it. Since these are carefully batched and the McKenna is of course bonded, I imagine the next time I try them I might prefer the WT, but not this time. It gratifies me to find such a high quality HH. I always felt it could reach the heights but everything has to click and it sure does with this McKenna. If anyone else has a bottle of the same barrel I'd be interested in your comments (barrel 278 barreled 6/21/94).
Sorry to disagree, Cam, but I don't think availability has anything to do with class.
Ranking among the foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence; of the highest order: a world-class figure skater.
Great, as in importance, concern, or notoriety.
You're right, but . . .
If I lived in Australia, I'm sure I'd agree with Cam. A world-class product that one cannot obtain loses some of its lustre.
Okay, I took the original poster's advice and considered my favorite bourbons and thus came up with the answer, "Final barrel selection".
Some of my top favorites are Blanton's, Rock Hill Farms, and Elmer T. Lee. All are basically the same whiskey, but they are distinctly different from each other due to the selection process by the master distiller and his associates.
Of course, if someone in the know tells me that barrels are a mere commodity (identical save for char level), just as corn is, I would have to accept it.
Not going to say that but some here have reported a bit about barrels and there's been a change. I have some HH barrels I got along with the antique cooperage equipment, some with staves as narrow as 3/4 -1 inch. They say Beam has the highest standards for barrels and they may well "have" had. I have an old Jim Beam barrel that the staves were all very closely the same width with none less than 2 inches wide. I followed a load out the other day and I saw barrels with staves down to the 3/4-1 inch width. Now how much if any difference this makes I have no clue. Nevertheless they are accepting the narrower staved barrels.
I have to agree with Cam, as well. True, the pure definition of 'World class' has nothing to do with global availability but somehow I feel that being able to retain high quality even if you increase production numbers should be an important criterium in defining something as top notch.
For instance, I love Makerīs black and JD Master Distiller but would these be able to remain as classy as they are if they were produced in higher quantities? I suspect not.
Bobby, dollars to donuts the smaller stave size is to hasten maturation. Brick and other modern structures tend to mature bourbon more slowly than in the past. I believe it is in Waymack and Harris where Booker Noe was interviewed and said the warehouses currently used (I guess he meant the big one pictured looking like a hangar) mature the product more slowly and another "year or two" (as I recall) is necessary to bring the product to the desired state compared to what was done in earlier years. I suspect even HH, which owns well-insulated storage space in Louisville, is seeking ways to mature the whiskey faster (even though currently no bourbon is stored there). I would think the extra space lines from the smaller staves, tight as they may be, would encourage more air exchange and therefore faster maturation. True, outage may increase but perhaps the net savings are reckoned to be worth it. Other theories I have are possibly modern woods are not as susceptible to being cut as wide as before (strength factor?) although this seems not likely to me. Innovation, within of course the regulations that prescribe how the product is made, is never-ending, nor should it be otherwise.
I left an important piece of information out, sorry. The staves are random width to a degree. Of course the widest is the bung stave approaching 4 inches, then all the others. On an old Beam barrel one would not see the narrowest get below the 2 inch that I mentioned, but other barrels, including the HH barrel goes down to the 1 inch width. As I said I see Beam is letting them get that small now. When I read your post, Gary it looked like perhaps I drew a picture of a barrel made completely of those 1 inch staves. At any rate, Jim Beam uses iron clad country warehouses as far as I know.
I bet Booker was talking about the palletized houses they have that stand the barrels on end rather than the sides and are low as are the 4 roses houses.
Thanks Bobby, but even the increased (non-exclusive) use of smaller staves may be calculated to hasten maturation time. I know that Beam uses different warehouses but the one I was referring to indeed is a huge palletized warehouse and was pictured in the account mentioned. Is it not being used to age bourbon anymore?
They have both, presently are building more rick type houses some to be used for Knob Creek only I believe.
That should improve the aging and the fact they will use them for Knob Creek suggests to me they realise the big well-insulated centrally heated and cooled hangars are not suitable for that kind of product. By the way I have never accepted that cycling is all that great a process. Yes, it ages products in a predictable way but I don't think it can be as good as natural ventilation and warming. I had some Birthday bourbon (2005's) that seemed to me a little awkward in palate and I wonder if cycling may explain why. I can't be sure of course but it seemed kind of simplistically woody/sweet in a way I don't ever recall from HH's products or Four Roses' or WT's. Birthday when first issued though wasn't like that, so there may be other variables. All things being equal though, I think a country house will deliver the best product. I've never noticed anything from BT suggesting an effect of cycling but I recall reading on the board that its use of the process is not systematic, e.g., some of the cycling equipment is not used, or they also ventilate the same buildings naturally, etc. Maybe it depends too how each producer who uses it handles the process.
I finally worked up enough nerve (necessary because of a total lack of first or even second-hand knowledge) to cast a vote -- for "Final Barrel Selection". I was a little surprised to view the overall results.
My vote is based on the status quo in the industry today. If I were to embark on such an enterprise, my failure to achieve world-class status would probably arise from an earlier action, probably "Distillery Equipment/Process", and that's if I were very lucky. I wouldn't know enough to reject moldy corn if someone tried to foist it off as top quality.
I was compelled to vote "other". To me the most important factor in whether a bourbon is world class is whether or not it's in my glass.
I believe Gillman's post (#2) of this thread was well put. I think the question initially posted was a good/fun one to think about, however to many important variables to single out the most critical or vital.
I voted "other" -I was thinking that the master distiller is the one who makes the call and picks a barrel to go into a particular bottling. I may be over simplifying the process, but from looking at other posts in this forum, there are plenty of folks who hold certain master distillers in high regard and they are the ultimate reason that a particular bourbon is World Class.
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