March 28, 2009

The Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace is a strange name, and the distillery's history begins with that name. When buffaloes roamed early North America, they made trails through the country. These trails and paths were known as "traces," and were followed by pioneering settlers as they explored the new lands and expanded into the western frontier. One trace in particular was called The Great Buffalo Trace, and it lead to a river crossing - the Kentucky River - in today's Franklin County, KY. By the late 18th century, a population arose in this area along the Kentucy River and soon began distilling whiskey. The Great Buffalo Trace thus provided the name to the modern distillery of today, which is the oldest distilling location in the U.S.

While distilling began when settlers first arrived, the first contemporary distillery was established in the late 1850's. By 1869, the distillery was bought by E.H. Taylor, and was named O.F.C. Distillery. The distillery was later bought by George T. Stagg, and overseen by Albert Blanton (Blanton's Bourbon). Blanton, who was master distiller from 1912 to 1952, was able to keep the distillery open through Prohibition - the distillery was one of three others that received a governmental permit to continue to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes.

In 1999, the George T. Stagg Distillery was renamed Buffalo Trace and Buffalo Trace Bourbon was introduced. Today, the distillery is owned by Sazerac, and it has earned more international awards that any other North American distillery. In addition to its flagship Buffalo Trace Bourbon, the distillery distills 11 bourbons, including Blanton's, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, Rock Hill Farms, Pappy Van Winkle, and W.L. Weller.

The above photo, by the way, is one of the distillery's rackhouses.

Finally, whiskey and bourbon enthusiasts (and newcomers) should visit the Buffalo Trace Saloon, at The Saloon is a free, and as described by the distillery, is a site for "fans to check out all kinds of things they like - sports, music, parties, contests," and of course, bourbon.

March 26, 2009

The San Francisco World Spirits Competiton Results Are In

The 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition was recently held. To quote the website:

"The San Francisco World Spirits Competition is the first comprehensive, international spirits judging ever held in the United States on an annual basis. Founded in 2000 by directors of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, Anthony Dias Blue and Carol Seibert, the Spirits Competition continues each year to grow in entrants as well as stature within the industry. This is a fabulous marketing and promotion opportunity for the top medal winners."

This year, the event was held at the Nikko Hotel in, as you may have guessed, San Francisco. Several judges were in attendance, and had the very tough and very enviable task of tasting and ranking spirits. American whiskey was only one of several segments tasted and evaluated, and the complete rankings can be viewed here. I don't want to regurgitate all the results, but thought a brief review of some bourbons was in order.

Bourbon as a broad category was broken down into Straight Bourbon, Small Batch aged for 10 years or less, Small Batch aged for 11 or more years, Single Barrel aged 10 years or less, and Single Barrel aged 11 years or more. Of note, both Jim Beam Black Label and White Label received recognition, being awared double-gold and gold medals respectively. It goes to show that Beam as a frat-house staple belies its true quality. The Small Batch 10 year results recognized all the usual suspects, including Baker's, Booker's, Knob Creek, and Woodford Reserve. Among the remaining groups, which included 11 whiskies, 6 were a product of Sazerac, which deserves some press.

I like seeing bourbons ranked at competitions like this not because I need someone else to tell me what's good, but because the results spike my curiosity. That subtle differences and nuances between such fine bourbons can be quantified gives me brief pause to appreciate someone else's opinion. Doing so is usually a good exercise.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Best in Show awards will be published on Saturday, the 28th.

March 24, 2009

Bulleit Bourbon Review

Bulleit may be my favorite of the moderately-priced bourbons out there (around $24.00). It is a Kentucky straight bourbon, and weighs in at 90 proof. I have read that Bulleit was initially made for the sole consumption of an attorney in Lexington, KY. True or not, the story adds some mystique to Bulleit's history.

Bulleit is golden orange in color, and its mashbill boasts a high rye content - 30%. I'm not sure of any other bourbon that has a higher rye content. Its label touts it as a "Frontier Whiskey," which I guess is some marketing ploy used to conjure up ideas of the "olden days" when families distilled their own bourbon. Thankfully, the recipe is not as old as the frontier, as whiskies in that time period were, generally, not aged much if at all. In keeping with the "frontier" spirit, the bottle is hip flask-shaped, sort of. I do think the shape is cool.

Bulleit's nose is grainy, but balanced. It's spicy and slightly floral. Mouthfeel is viscous, pleasant without being oily. As for taste, the high rye content certainly introduces itself unabashedly. The taste is peppery and oaky with a welcomed raw bite. Not too complex, but its beauty lies in its simplicity. Bulleit finishes with a dry, leathery note and a subtle burn. It is a solid bourbon.

Bulleit is my go-to when mixing a Manhattan. It's the type of bourbon that I buy as soon as I finish a bottle so I always have it on hand. Highly recommended.

March 21, 2009

That Which It Is Not

Understanding why all other whiskies cannot be called bourbon makes it easier to understand why certain whiskies can be. I talked about the legalities of "bourbon" here, and will explain how other whiskies are different.

To recap, "bourbon" must be:
- made with at least 51% corn,
- cannot be distilled at a proof higher than 160,
- cannot be barreled at higher than 125 proof,
- the aging must take place in fire-charred oak barrels,
- the barrels must be previously unused, and
- nothing can be added during the bottling other than water.

So what about all the other whiskies around?

Rye Whiskey essentially follows the guidelines of bourbon. The difference is that the grain used in its production must be at least 51% rye. Pretty simple difference. Rye brands include Wild Turkey Rye, Sazerac, Rittenhouse, Old Overholt, Jim Beam Rye, and Michters Rye to name a few.

Wheat Whiskey is, again, made per the bourbon formula with the exception that the majority of the grain must be wheat and not corn. Bernheim Original is an example of wheat whiskey, and comes from Heaven Hill Distilleries. To be honest, I've never tasted Bernheim, but am doing my best to get a bottle.

Malt Whiskey, just like rye and wheat whiskey, differs from the bourbon regulations in one way - by requiring at least 51% of the grain be malted barley. There are very few American brands of this, and the ones the do exist are, for lack of a better term, American-made Scotch. Clear Creek Distilleries in Oregon makes a malt whiskey, as does St. George Spirits in Alameda, California.

Rye Malt Whiskey must contain at least 51% malted rye grain. Anchor Steam's Old Potrero is made with 100% malted rye. As an aside, Anchor Steam's Junipero Gin is outstanding.

Corn Whiskey diverges significantly, in part, from the bourbon-type regulation template. Corn whiskey must be made with at least 80% corn grain and need not be aged in wood. In fact, if it is, the wood cannot be charred or fired. Basically, corn whiskey is an unaged spirit that resembles Prohibition-era moonshine. It's pretty nasty. Georgia Moon makes a corn whiskey. So does Platte Valley.

Tennessee Whiskey includes Jack Daniel's and George Dickel. These whiskies are filtered through maple charcoal before they are aged in barrels. This filtration, known as the Lincoln County Process, is unique to Daniel's and Dickel. There is some debate about the differences between Tennesse whiskey and bourbon, and some believe that there is no reason that these whiskies can't be legally called "bourbon." Chuck Cowdery explains this, in his usual expert manner, here.

Scotch must be distilled in Scotland. According to the Scotch Whisky Order of 1990, Scotch must be distilled from water and malted barley, to which only cereals and other whole grains can be added. The mash must be "converted into a fermentable substrate" by only endogenous enzyme systems, meaning the enzymes that play a part in the distillation must come from the grain initially added - not from independently introducing enzymes into the mash. Scotch must also be fermented solely with yeast. It's distilled to a strength of less than 94.8%, which ensures that the whiskey retains the flavors and characters of the raw materials used in its production. Further, Scotch has to be matured in Scotland in oak barrels for no less than 3 years and 1 day, and cannot contain any additives but water and/or caramel coloring. Finally, it cannot be bottled at less than 80 proof.

The most popular Scotches are the single malts. These include Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Macallan, Bowmore, etc., etc., etc. The taste, body, character, and color of Scotch varies greatly depending upon the region of Scotland in which it was made. My favorites come from the Islay, like Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

Canadian Whiskey like all other whiskies is produced according to specific regulations. It has to be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada for at least 3 years. Aging occurs in wooden barrels with capacities no greater than 700 liters. Canadian whiskey is made from a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products and the enzymes used to break down the starches of the grain need to be derived from malt "or other enzymes," and fermentation has to occur from yeast or other natural organisms. This whiskey can't be bottled at less than 80 proof, and it may contain caramel and flavoring additives.

Comparitively, Canadian whiskey has relatively lax regulations governing its production. Popular Canadian whiskies include Crown Royal, Forty Creek, and of course, Canadian Club, which was regularly smuggled over the border during Prohibition and distributed around the U.S. These whiskies are known for their subtle, light flavors and smoothness.

Irish Whiskey must be produced in Ireland or Northern Ireland to be labeled as such. Irish whiskey must be produced with cereal grains, and the starch in those grains have to be converted to sugar by enzymes contained in malt and/or other natural enzymes. Like Scotch, Irish whiskey is distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume to preserve the aroma and flavor derived from the materials used. It also has to be matured in wooden casks for at least 3 years, either entirely in Ireland, entirely in Northern Ireland, or some combination between them. Bushmills, Jameson, Redbreast, and Black Bush are some examples.

Whiskey is whiskey, right? Well, not exactly. The subtle differences in production can make marked differences in the final product. Go forth and taste.

March 16, 2009

Brrrr-bon - Does Bourbon Really Warm You Up?

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has reached for some whiskey (or any other booze for that matter) in an attempt to warm up on a cold night. Drinking it does give a warming sensation, but does it really raise our body temperature? Can bourbon replace your blanket when the heater's broken? Well, not exactly.

Booze actually reduces the body's core temperature when drunk in cold and even not so cold places. Let me explain - alcohol, chemically speaking, dilates the blood vessels upon drinking. When blood vessel are dilated, blood flows towards the surface of the skin, and warms the nerve endings there. While this gives the sensation of warmth, it actually makes us colder for two reasons: first, with warm blood near the surface of the skin, it is more easily absorbed by the colder outside air causing heat loss. Second, when there isn't alcohol in your system, your body draws blood to your organs when you're cold, which helps increase the core temperature. So, the dilation of vessels and the consequent blood flow away from the body's organs actually cools the body. It seems that the next time you are skiing, a flask of bourbon will more likely lead to hypothermia than to warmth.

Drinking booze also reduces the body's natural ability to shiver, which is one way your body creates warmth. Also, the quick warming sensation may be met by the natural reaction of sweating, and sweating during colder weather can drastically decrease your body temperature.

So, there you are - a science lesson. Bourbon may decrease body temps, but it certainly raises your spirits. Plus, if your barefoot and jacketless in northern Canada with no supplies but a fifth of Old Grandad, it's safe to say your troubles are far greater than those mentioned in this post.

March 12, 2009

Rackhouse Construction

As mentioned briefly in my post on barrels, temperature and temperature change has an affect on the aging of bourbon. Hot Kentucky summers lead to expansion and bourbon seeps into the barrels, while winter brings with it retraction. The rackhouse (or rickhouse) is where the bourbon barrels are stored and aged, and temperature regulation within these storage houses is thus crucial in bourbon aging.

A rule of thumb is that temperatures that dip below 40 degrees in the winter may halt the chemical interplay between whiskey and wood, and summertime heat above 90 degrees may cause too much expansion too quickly. The storage houses take this into account.

Traditionally, "old-style" rackhouses are layers of heavy wooden floors topped with a tin roof. Each floor holds barrels of bourbon. The walls are thick stone dotted with windows, and the basement is exposed dirt. The exposed dirt isn't a result of cost-cutting; rather, it helps to add humitidy to the dry winter months and softens the temperature changes between seasons. These warehouses were also built with ventilation as a priority - with the help of the several windows, the rackhouses were designed to allow cross ventilation, or lateral ventilation through each floor, and stack ventilation, which is the cycle of air from the top of the house to bottom and back again. All of this attention to detail is to the benefit of the bourbon.

These traditional rackhouses are relatively expensive to build, and thus aren't always a viable option for new construction. Newer, cost-effective rackhouses use less expensive wood, less robust exteriors, and cheaper, but highly reflective, metal roofings that deflect heat and reduce extreme temperature spikes inside. These newer-type warehouses don't allow as much control over the interior temperatures as the traditional ones. So, to make up for the temperature swings, the bourbon barrels are rotated throughout the rickhouse. Generally, the barrels at the top and near the outside walls of the houses are most susceptible to the varying climate. To compensate, barrels are moved from top to bottom and from outside in as they mature. Ideally, the rotation keeps consistency among the thousands of barrels.

Other types of rackhouses are made with a view towards accelerating the aging process. These houses are constructed with dark roofs to absorb heat, and meager walls that welcome the cold of the winter. The idea is that allowing temperature spikes will drive the bourbon into and out of the barrel walls quicker than other houses allow, and by fast-forwarding the process, a distillery saves a lot of time. However, this speed has its price, and bourbons that undergo this accelerated process are said to be of inferior quality to those whiskies that have paid their dues and spent years and years on the dark floors of the rackhouse. But, you decide for yourself.

I hope that with the past few handful of posts you are seeing a theme: bourbon is profoundly natural. Of course modern technology has permeated the industry, but at no point has it stolen the lore from the bottle. The appreciation and enjoyment of bourbon goes far beyond the taste of the liquid, and should not end when your glass is empty.

March 11, 2009

Brief History Of Bourbon, Visually

In an attempt to give you a break from the potential monotony of reading these posts, I thought some audio/video would suffice. Enjoy:

March 9, 2009

A Question of Barreling: Why Wood?

Pretty much everyone knows that bourbon spends some time aging in wooden barrels. Why wood? Why American oak? Read on.

Wood, instead of any other material, is the medium of choice (and necessity) for the storage and aging of bourbon and other alcohol because wood provides an idea place to bourbon to mellow out. When bourbon is first introduced into a barrel, it isn't the lovely shades of reddish-amber and brown you see in the bottled end product - it's clear and has a taste that you would never remember fondly. The wood of the barrel chemically interacts with spirit, and when the acids in the wood are introduced to the infant whiskey, over time the unpalatable harshness is blunted. Theoretically, and up to a point, the more time in the barrel creates a smoother drink. Yes, it is very much a science as it is an art.

Oak is used because of its grain. The very tight nature of oak wood's grain allows an ideal amount of oxygen both in and out of the barrels during aging. This ebb and flow of air through the pores of the oak is an essential part of the maturation process, and imparts taste to the bourbon. And, with the ebb and flow of air comes the absorption of the spirit into the wood itself. From the hot summers to the cold winters, bourbon expands and contracts into and out of the wooden barrel walls, sucking the acids, sugars, and colors from the charred wood to give bourbon its color and, in significant part, taste. It's manipulated nature at its best - 100% natural processes that wouldn't occur without human intervention.

The process of maturation is a topic unto itself, and will be discussed later in greater detail. In the meantime, I hope you understand that bourbon creation depends on all things natural. Indeed, a whiskey that has anything artificial added to it cannot properly be called "bourbon," nor should it ever be.

March 7, 2009

Bourbon As A Congressional Concern

Who says alcohol and politics don't mix? About a year and a half ago, on August 2, 2007, Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning sponsored a Resolution that declared September "National Bourbon Heritage Month" and paid homage to bourbon's role in American history. I think the Resolution further legitimizes bourbon as being part and parcel of America's development as a country, and validates the extent to which bourbon contributed to the American identity. Here's the text:
Designating September 2007 as `National Bourbon Heritage Month'.

Whereas Congress declared bourbon as `America's Native Spirit' in 1964, making it the only spirit distinctive to the United States;

Whereas the history of bourbon-making is interwoven with the history of the United States, from the first settlers of Kentucky in the 1700s, who began the bourbon-making process, to the 2,000 families and farmers distilling bourbon in Kentucky by the 1800s;

Whereas bourbon has been used as a form of currency;

Whereas generations have continued the heritage and tradition of the bourbon-making process, unchanged from the process used by their ancestors centuries before;

Whereas individual recipes for bourbon call for natural ingredients, utilizing the local Kentucky farming community and leading to continued economic development for the Commonwealth of Kentucky;

Whereas generations of people in the United States have traveled to Kentucky to experience the family heritage, tradition, and deep-rooted legacy that the Commonwealth contributes to the United States;

Whereas each year during September visitors from over 13 countries attend a Kentucky-inspired commemoration to celebrate the history of the Commonwealth, the distilleries, and bourbon;

Whereas people who enjoy bourbon should do so responsibly and in moderation; and
Whereas members of the beverage alcohol industry should continue efforts to promote responsible consumption and to eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate--

(1) designates September 2007 as `National Bourbon Heritage Month';
(2) recognizes bourbon as `America's Native Spirit' and reinforces its heritage and tradition and its place in the history of the United States; and
(3) recognizes the contributions of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to the culture of the United States.

March 1, 2009

Sour Mash Method Explained

Several bourbons indicate "Sour Mash" on their labels or otherwise indicate that the sour mash method was used in the creation of that bourbon. So what does that mean?

To understand what sour mash is, you first have to understand the term "mash." At the beginning of the distillation process of bourbon, cornmeal and water are mixed together at a high temperature. The temperature is then lowered, and then either rye or wheat is added depending on the bourbon. The rye or wheat are the "flavor grains," so using one or the other has an impact on the flavor profile of the final product. The temperature is once again reduced when malted barely is added. The barley is added because it releases enzymes that are necessary to convert starches into sugars, which is essential in distillation. Once all these ingredients are together, mixing a big tank at the distillery, it becomes the mash.

After sufficently mixed, the mash then goes onto the fermentation process where all the alcohol is distilled from the mash. The stuff left over after all the alcohol is distilled is known as the sour mash due to its sour flavor.

The sour mash, also called backset and spent mash among others, is then introduced to a new batch of mash when entering the fermentation process. So, sour mash is fermented mash that is left over from a previous distillation that is added to a new distillation. The process is used to control the acidity levels of subsequent fermentations, which in turn helps ensure that each distillation is consistent in flavor.

The Sour Mash method is used in the distillation of many bourbons, including Ancient Age, Evan Williams, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and Old Fitzgerald. It's a very traditional way of bourbon production, still used today despite modern technology's creation of alternate methods. This adherence to tradition and heritage is one reason I enjoy American whiskey so much. Cheers.