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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

(continued from page 1)

Like most Kentuckians, Miles hesitates to criticize his neighbors. But he has definite preferences when searching for good Bourbon. Says Miles, "It should be clean, with a slight flavor of caramel, vanilla and charcoal, and a very light taste of wood."

Straight Kentucky Bourbon is to blended whiskey what a demarcated wine is to ordinary table wine. It takes its name from Bourbon county, Kentucky, once the major transshipment site for distilled spirits heading down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Barrels shipped from its ports were stamped with the county's name, and Bourbon and whiskey soon became synonymous. Today, 90 percent of all Bourbon is made in Kentucky, most of it in Jefferson, Franklin, Nelson, and Anderson counties, the heart of Bluegrass Country.

As with French-appellation wines, there are strict laws governing just what a Bourbon must be to be labeled as such. For example, at least 51 percent of the grain used in making the whiskey must be corn (most distillers use 65 to 75 percent corn). Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, white oak barrels that have been charred. Nothing can be added at bottling to enhance flavor, add sweetness or alter color. Though technically Bourbon can be made anywhere, Kentucky is the only state allowed to put its name on the bottle. And as Kentucky distillers are quick to point out, Bourbon is not Bourbon unless the label says so.

Therefore, some very fine American whiskeys aren't called Kentucky Bourbon. Many look the same, and some even taste very similar, depending on their production style. Jack Daniels, a Tennessee sour mash whiskey, however, is charcoal-filtered, which many experts say gives it a different character. But up to and after the charcoal filtering, the Jack Daniels's production is much the same as any other Bourbon. Gentleman Jack, a superpremium entry into the whiskey field, also doesn't carry a Kentucky Bourbon designation. George Dickel is another highly rated Tennessee whiskey.

If Bourbon is the appellation wine of American whiskeys, then single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons are the grand crus of Bourbons. These superpremium, high-cost spirits should not be confused with single-malt Scotch, which simply denotes a Scotch from a single distillery that has not been blended with neutral spirits or whiskeys from other distilleries. Since no Bourbon is blended, it would all qualify under Scottish law as single malt.

As the name implies, a single-barrel Bourbon, of which there are precious few, is a whiskey actually taken and bottled from one barrel. Small-batch Bourbons are whiskeys from a "batch" of barrels that have been mixed or mingled, as the distillers say, prior to bottling. For a common brand, the mingling batch could be as many as 200 barrels or more. In contrast, a mingle for a small batch might be 20 barrels or fewer.

"What you want to do with a small batch," says Jimmy Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey and a 40-year veteran of Bourbon-making, "is take your very best barrels, the cream of the crop, and mingle them to match the standard you're trying to achieve. It takes a lot of time and patience to produce a good Bourbon."

On a tour of the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, Russell carefully explains the various Bourbon-making steps: "All Bourbon whiskey, I don't care if it's single-barrel, small-batch, or whatever, is distilled from a fermented mash of corn, barley and one other grain, usually rye. Your fermentation will take three to four days, depending on the temperature you keep the mash at. Here at Wild Turkey, we still use the old-fashioned, cypress fermenting tanks for most of our production; some are more than 100 years old. I guess you'd say we're kind of traditional in our approach.

"Once it's been fermented, it's ready to be distilled," continues Russell. "We use a double-distilling process in our whiskey-making, which is pretty much the industry standard now. The first time through the still, your whiskey is a little raw and harsh tasting. The second time through, it comes out more refined, with a taste of grain and sweetness, but clean on your palate. After that second distilling, you're ready to barrel. The whole process, from grinding the grains to barreling, takes about five days."

It is the variations in each step of the production process, handed down from master distiller to apprentice--often for generations--that give the different Bourbons their distinct flavors. Take the grain mix, for instance. One distiller uses 80 percent corn and 10 percent each of rye and barley malt, while another cuts the corn to 78 percent, increases the barley malt to 12 percent, and uses 10 percent rye. At Maker's Mark, the only distillery in Kentucky to vary from the traditional formula, wheat replaces rye altogether in the grain recipe.

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