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Kentucky's Finest: Bourbon

Small-Batch and Single-Barrel Bourbons Revive the Good Old Days of Whiskey
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

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"It was Dad's idea," explains Samuels. "He had a certain taste in mind from day one. So he fiddled around in the kitchen making bread to test the grain recipe until he got what he was looking for. He must have baked hundreds of loaves; we all thought he was crazy. But he finally found what he wanted, which meant taking out the rye and adding wheat to the mash."

The yeast culture used in the fermentation process is another important variable. Distillers are protective of their yeast; many use strains dating back a century or more that have been carefully nurtured. The Maker's Mark culture dates back to the original T.W. Samuels distillery founded in 1842. "We kept it in storage at a local bakery during the 13 years of Prohibition," says Samuels. At Brown-Forman's Early Times distillery, where two yeast cultures are used, one for Early Times and the other for Old Forester, the cultures "probably date back to some of the original strains," says Quality Control Specialist Brian M. Gregory. Adds Noe, "I keep my yeast formula under lock and key."

Asked whether there are any other elements that make Kentucky Bourbon different or better than other kinds of whiskeys, Noe doesn't hesitate. "The water," he says. "We've got limestone water here, and it's pretty much iron-free. That's why our horses are special, too. The limestone gets right up into their bones and makes good runners out of 'em."

The warehouses, however, serve as the final stage where the most distinctive characteristics are added to the whiskey. Bourbon takes its color and much of its flavor from the oak barrels in which it is aged. The process of charring barrels originated with Elijah Craig, an eighteenth-century minister and distiller from Georgetown, Kentucky. Craig "discovered" charring when several barrels he was preparing for transportion to market caught fire. The fire may have been set on purpose, in which case it is likely that Craig was trying to find a way to recycle barrels that had been used to ship dried fish. If the conflagration was an accident, it was probably caused by a fire in Craig's own cooperage.

"Either way," says Samuels, "being a good Scotsman, he didn't want to throw any barrels away. So he filled them with white lightning, and by the time he got it all downriver to market in New Orleans, with all the sloshing and such, the whiskey had this nice amber color and it had started to round out and soften a bit. And the people loved it."

Today, Bourbon barrels are charred to different degrees, ranked from one to four, depending on the depth of the bum. Single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons are usually aged in a three or four char barrel (moderate to heavy). The charring not only darkens the wood but also caramelizes some of the natural sugars in the oak.

During the aging process, the whiskey is said to "breathe" in the barrel, expanding into the wood over the hotter months and contracting out of it in the winter. Since color and flavor are transferred to the Bourbon while it is in the wood, summer is the most important time in the warehouse. Distillers often refer to it as the "aging" season. Naturally, the longer a Bourbon is aged, the more flavor it takes from the wood.

Gary Gayheart, master distiller at Ancient Age in Frankfort, explains it this way: "The barrels are totally filled with water-white whiskey when they come off the line, and after two years, you develop some color and you lose some volume [to evaporation]; six years, you've got a lot more color and you've lost about a third in volume. After ten years, you're getting really dark color, and about half the volume is gone."

"Down here," adds Russell, "we call the third you loose to evaporation 'the angels' third.' The old-timers say if the angels didn't take their share, the whiskey wouldn't be worth drinking."

A Bourbon-aging warehouse is a large rectangular structure, eight or more stories high, built of traditional post-and-beam construction, sided and roofed with tin, with a neat row of small windows along each story. Inside, each floor is divided into three tiers of ricks, with each rick holding a row of barrels, extending broadside from a narrow passage down the center of the building.

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