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.