Kentucky's Finest: Bourbon
Small-Batch and Single-Barrel Bourbons Revive the Good Old Days of Whiskey
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Noe, a giant of a man with a slow, deliberate down-home style, takes a large mallet in one beefy hand and rests the other against the side of the nearest barrel. With three sharp whacks on the barrel's staves, Noe skillfully removes the two-inch-thick softwood plug, called a bung, that protrudes from the barrel. With a pop, the bung almost flies out. "There's pressure builds up in a whiskey barrel this time of year," explains Noe, who is a retired master distiller and a self-appointed "ambassador of Bourbon." "In winter, it's just the opposite, and you've got to get hold of the damn thing with something and give it a good pull."
Using a copper siphon, Noe draws a glassful of dark-amber liquid from the barrel. He holds it up in the dim light to check the color, sniffs at it twice and reverentially offers it. "Here, take a good snort of this. It's just what Bourbon was meant to be, the way our forefathers drank it. I kept telling the marketing boys that we ought to be putting this in bottles, and they finally listened to me." The Bourbon has a rich bouquet of smoky spice and the full sweet flavor of burnt caramel and oaky vanilla.
"That's Booker's," says Noe, referring to the label under which this particular whiskey will be bottled. "It goes into the bottle just as it comes out of the barrel, at about 125 proof, not cut or filtered. It's a sipping whiskey, just right for the back porch in the late afternoon."
Later, during that same warm day, Bill Samuels, a lanky talkative Kentuckian with a maverick's reputation in Bourbon circles, tours his Maker's Mark distillery. Nestled in a quiet hollow at the corners of Marion, Nelson, and Washington counties, Maker's Mark retains much of the charm of the old Burke's distillery, which Samuels's father, William Samuels Sr., bought in 1953 for $67,000. The purchase price included the 200-acre Spring Hill Farm, a farmhouse, and a cluster of aging buildings, some dating back to the early 1800s. Most distilleries have an industrial air about them, with 1930s-style, vertical metal architecture and paved parking lots, but not Maker's Mark. With its meticulously restored buildings and tastefully landscaped grounds, the look is distinctly nineteenth century. And the pace is geared to match: Maker's Mark limits production to 40 barrels a day--tiny compared to the industry average of nearly 600 barrels.
"Our philosophy has always been that rather than make a lot and pick out that which is really good from the bunch, we prefer to make a little bit and have it all come out right," says Samuels.
After the tour, Samuels arranges for a comparative tasting of premium Bourbons in the distillery's small conference room decorated with family memorabilia: the revolver of outlaw Frank James, a distant cousin by marriage; a photograph of great-great-grandfather T.W. Samuels, founder of the defunct T.W. Samuels distillery, just up the road in Deatsville; a letter from Ronald Reagan thanking Samuels for a bottle of Maker's Mark delivered to the president's hotel room on the eve of a debate with Walter Mondale in Louisville during the 1984 presidential campaign. ("Reagan was just awful against Mondale in that debate," jokes Samuels, a lifelong Republican. "I'm sure that bottle of Maker's had something to do with it.")
Lined up along a tasting counter are 14 Bourbons. Mostly single-barrel or small-batch, they include some of the finest premium Bourbon whiskeys available: Hancock's Reserve, Rock Hill Farms, Blanton's and Ancient Age 10 Year Old from Ancient Age; Elijah Craig and Evan Williams from Heaven Hill; Wild Turkey Rare Breed from Wild Turkey; Baker's 107, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's and Booker's from Jim Beam; Old Forester from Brown-Forman; and Maker's Mark standard six-year-old and an experimental eight-year-old.
J. Bennie Miles, assistant vice-president for production at Maker's Mark, supervises tasting of the distillery's Bourbons throughout the aging process. A polite, soft-spoken native of nearby Bardstown, Kentucky, Miles has been at Maker's Mark for 27 years. "The best way to taste a bunch of Bourbons," explains Miles, "is to cut them all down to the same proof. Otherwise, you'll find that the higher proofs will be too hot compared to the lower ones, and your taste buds will get burned."
Miles picks up a glass of Hancock's Reserve and offers it along with some tasting instructions. "What you're looking for is any overaging, which gives it a bitter tannic taste; underaging, which leaves it grainy and sweet, and balance, which means the charcoal, alcohol and wood are all more or less right. Just take a little sip and let it hit the front of your lips, then back it around the tip of your tongue, roll it a little and spit it out."
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.
"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.
Most distilleries prefer to build their warehouses on hilltops, so they are fully exposed to seasonal changes. With their massive size and stark lines, they can dominate the landscape for miles. "Folks around here say the whiskey is going to prison when we put it up to age," says Russell, standing before one of Wild Turkey's 23 Bourbon warehouses.
Single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons are aged for at least six years, some for as long as 12. Few spend longer than that in the barrel, because the oak will eventually overpower all other flavors. Heaven Hill in Bardstown does bottle a very rare edition Evan Williams 23-Year-Old, the entire production of which is sold in Japan. (No, you can't even get a taste, let alone a bottle, in the United States, mostly because quantities are extremely limited, and the Japanese are willing to spend close to $200 per bottle.)
"Buildings age whiskey in different ways," says Noe, "depending on their size, whether or not they've got side aisles [alternating air currents throughout the building], how tall they are, and what not. And the liquor will age differently in different parts of a warehouse. On the very top, it's hot and dry; on the very bottom, it's cool and damp. That's why you get better aging and the best whiskey in the center. It's not exposed to those extremes."
Traditionally, distilleries rotated barrels during aging, so that each spent a given time at the various temperature and humidity levels in the warehouse. But the practice has been largely abandoned due to the cost of maintaining the unused space needed for movement and the amount of labor involved. Only two, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey, still rotate all their barrels, allowing for a more even aging process.
"All our new whiskey enters at the top and then is rotated down, depending on how it's aging and how the whiskey in the rest of the warehouse is aging," explains Samuels. "It represents a big cost, but it's the only way we can figure to get the quality we want out of all our product."
If there is one thing that seems to characterize all Bourbon makers, it is dedication to their craft. It takes decades to learn the fine art of distilling, and as a result, master distillers are a rare breed, men who have patiently learned their trade through long apprenticeships. Gayheart, for example, worked for more than 20 years under Ancient Age's master distiller emeritus Elmer T. Lee, who in turn learned the craft from his predecessor, Colonel Albert B. Blanton, who managed the distillery from 1912 to 1952. At Heaven Hill, master distiller Parker Beam took over from his father, Earl Beam, whose brother, Carl Beam, was master distiller at Jim Beam distillery for many years. Parker Beam is now training his son, Craig Beam, to take over at Heaven Hill.