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  1. #1

    What Determines Taste and Character?

    I have been musing about the huge differences between Elijah Craig 12 yr, W.L. Weller 12 yr and Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 yr. All are bourbon, all are aged for 12 years in new charred oak barrels and the alcohol content ranges from 90 to 94 proof.

    So that leads to my question.

    What are the most important factors that determine the taste and character of bourbon? I have seen some references to this question in other threads, but I haven't found a thread dedicated to the question.

    I would suggest that mash bill and distillation account for well over 90 % of the flavor and character of bourbon. Mash bill is more than just the proportion of the various grains that are used. It would also include the degree to which the grains are roasted prior to their inclusion in the mash bill. I know from my beer making days that flavor can be vastly different depending on how much the barley was roasted. Flavor and texture could range from stout like Guinness to lager like Heinekin even though the same yeast and hops and nothing but malted barley was used. And there is a foreign whisky that uses nothing but malted barley, but still has a wide range of flavor and character. I wonder how much variation there is in the roasting of the various grains used in making bourbon? Or if anything but the malted barley is even roasted? Even though the typical bourbon mash bill has only about 15 % malted barley, the flavor could be impacted by different degrees of roasting.

    The effects of distillation on bourbon flavor and character may be the easiest to understand. The "beer" that exists just prior to distillation contains all of the flavor except what can be derived from the wood and through aging. And we know that high proof distillate has no taste. (Or almost no taste as in vodka.) So the distillation must have a large impact on the final flavor and character of the bourbon.

    And another factor that gets a lot of attention is the location of the barrel in the warehouse. I have no idea how much this factor really impacts the flavor and character of the bourbon. My only insight here is the difference between Evan Williams 7 yr and the Single Barrel and the difference between various Wild Turkey expressions. To my taste, there are only very subtle differences. The flavor and character of the different expressions are basically the same, but there are minor differences between expressions, I suppose as the result of finding those "exceptional" barrels from that "secret" location in the warehouse.

    Anyway, enough said. Any other thoughts would be welcome.

    Regards, jimbo

  2. #2
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    I think that the barrels, the char, the aging, and the warehouse type and location (both of the warehouse and within the warehouse) have a great deal to do with the taste and character of bourbon. But, I agree that the mashbill is also a big influence. I have no idea how to ascribe relative magnitude of influence, though.

    Tim

  3. #3

    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    Between you and Tim, you've just about got it nailed down -- the mashbill imparts the bourbon's character, while the barrel (and its subsequent handling after fill) imparts most of the taste. Surprising to many, I'd guess, is that the barrel probably has the more variables -- the exact character of the wood (old or young white oak, etc.), the level of char (and the caramelized layer that leaves between char and wood), the barrel location in the warehouse, and the warehouse location in the countryside (valley or hilltop, brick or metal-sided), even the randomness of the weather during the barrel stay. It's one of those "Is-it-art-or-is-it-science?" scenarios -- and with 'painters' like the the Beams, Noes, Elmer T. Lee, Jimmy Russell, et al, the end results can give as different impressions as Monet and Manet.

  4. #4
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    Any good books been written on this subject?

  5. #5
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    > What are the most important factors that determine the taste and character of
    > bourbon? I have seen some references to this question in other threads, but I
    > haven't found a thread dedicated to the question.

    This is one of my favorite topics of... speculation.

    One of the main problems is that it's hard to find two bourbons where they
    have only changed one part of the process and left the others the same,
    so that you can definitely say what the effect of a certain variable is.

    This doesn't stop us from speculating, though!

    > I would suggest that mash bill and distillation account for well over 90 % of
    > the flavor and character of bourbon.

    Well, that's certainly a good conversation starter, because most people are
    going to disagree with you on that one!

    I've seen a couple of interviews with Master Distillers that talk about
    the issue, and most will put the barrel at over 50%. There was some discussion
    of this topic in the "group interview" that was printed in the most recent
    issue of the Malt Advocate. If I recall correctly, they speculated that
    putting vodka into a bourbon barrel and putting in the warehouse would
    give you something that is somewhat approximates bourbon to a certain extent.

    One suggestion in your quest is that you pick up Regan & Regan's "The Bourbon
    Companion", which has (in the back) some data about each distillery,
    including mashbill, degree ofbarrel char, etc. This will help you figure
    out what goes into the making of each bourbon. Some people have commented that
    Regan & Regan might not be 100% accurate, but I have no way of knowing,
    and in any case it's a good start.

    Tim Dellinger

  6. #6
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    One reads about barrels in the "old days" that apart from the wood being well-seasoned and non-sappy, as it should be today as well, it had to be from trees that were 40-70 years old. I have read this a number of times with mention of prime states of origin such as Arkansas. One has to wonder, especially with modern environmental concerns, whether there will be enough good new wood for future barrels and if so, whether it will be from old enough trees. Since the barrel (all are agreed) has a powerful influence on whiskey flavour, and the charring level is only one factor, what about the type and especially the age of the wood now used to mature whiskey? Will whiskey taste different if, say, it is aged in barrels cut from trees that are half as old or less than the trees used until (I would think) about the 1970's?

    Gary

  7. #7

    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    I have a hard time believing that the barrel, the warehouse location or the barrel location within the warehouse can have much impact on the taste and character.

    I have only a limited experience to draw from, but for example, Evan Williams 7 yr and Evan Williams Single Barrel taste almost the same to me. Just a very slight, subtle difference. Yet, the SB is supposed to be from those "special" barrels in those "special" locations in the warehouse. And the various Wild Turkey expressions are all taste very similar to me. Yet, each expression is supposed to be selected from those "special" barrels from those "special" locations in the various warehouses. And finally, from my foreign whisky drinking days, I visited the Laphroaig distillery. On the tour, we were allowed to dip our fingers into a just filled barrel for a taste. The liquid in the barrel was as clear as vodka, but it was unmistakably Laphroaig. I had to conclude that the barrel provided very little but color. (Yes, I know that once used bourbon barrels are used for aging that foreign whisky.)

    It just seems to me that almost all of the whiskey's flavor and character have been determined by the time it is placed in the barrel, and that only subtle changes occur afterwards.

    I am going to try and find the Regan and Regan book, thanks for the tip.

    Regards, jimbo

  8. #8
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    I have a hard time believing that the barrel, the warehouse location or the barrel location within the warehouse can have much impact on the taste and character.
    Find and try this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, both Fall and Spring editions. They were both aged in completely different environments within the warehouse and each does have totally different flavor profiles.

    Anyways, without a doubt barrel location within a warehouse plays a very important role in the final product.

  9. #9
    Bourbonian of the Year 2011
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    Jimbo, your opinion goes against all the received wisdom. That doesn't mean you are wrong, but you may be tilting at windmills.

    New Laphroig tasted similar to the 10 year old version because both were very peated. But surely the 10 year old has a quality imparted by long aging. Why wouldn't the distillers sell new whiskey for the price of ten year old whiskey if aging only improved the product marginally or not at all?

    I can't see that the WT products are very similar. E.g. Kentucky Spirit has a richness and "purity" that regular WT and 101 don't have. Russell's Reserve has a notable charred barrel flavor the other WT's don't have. Are you sampling them neat, I wonder?

    Anyway, I give you points for chutzpah.

    Gary

  10. #10
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    Re: What Determines Taste and Character?

    Evan Williams 7 yr and Evan Williams Single Barrel taste almost the same to me
    And yet they taste as different as night and day to me. I do taste the family resemblance in EC 12 YO and EWSB, but that might be my taste buds. After all, I taste camphor in WT KY Spirit.

    I've tasted WT's white dog, and I assure you that the product in the bottle is wildly different from what came out of that tap.

    My point? I don't think it's reasonable to arrive at an authoritative conclusion based on information gathered by your body parts.

 

 

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