April 21, 2009

Elmer T. Lee and the Creation of the First Single Barrel Bourbon

Elmer T. Lee, Master Distiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace, created the first single barrel bourbon. By doing so, he arguably precipitated the American movement towards premium bourbons in the 1980's.

Born in 1919, Mr. Lee grew up in Frankfurt, KY. After serving with the military, he earned his degree in engineering from the University of Kentucky and in 1949 got a job as a plant engineer in what it presently Buffalo Trace Distillery. For 15 years, Lee worked as an engineer and was lucky enough to serve under Col. Albert Blanton from whom he learned much of his bourbon-making knowledge. In 1978, Lee was promoted to plant manager and master distiller. Years later, in 1986, he retired.

In 1984, however, Lee released Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon to compete with the international movement towards higher-end whiskies (this was around the time single malt scotch was creating a name for itself). Lee decided America deserved a part of the premium whiskey pie, and his decision to market and sell single barrel bourbon did just that.

Despite being "retired," Lee still goes to the Trace every week, on Monday's I hear, to select the barrels to be used in the distillery's different products. For Blanton's, Lee prefers to select barrels from the middle floors of warehouses C, I, or K. According to Lee, these locations contain the most balanced and flavorful bourbons.

Lee is certainly among the most influencial characters in bourbon production, both from a modern and historic viewpoint. A great video featuring Lee is available from Buffalo Trace's website. You should definitely watch it.

April 15, 2009

The Importance of Water

Water is a critical ingredient in bourbon making, or at least the right kind of water is. As luck would have it, Kentucky's natural spring water is ideal for the creation of its native whiskey.

Allow me to go on a brief geological tangent. Limestone is abundant in Kentucky. This type of sedimentary rock was formed 460 million to 330 million year ago when warm, shallow seas covered what is presently Kentucky. The subterranean limestone now acts as a natural filter for Kentucky's spring water.

As is important to the bourbon industry, when groundwater flows through the limestone, iron salts are removed from it and calcium and magnesium are added. As a result, the water can react more favorably with the yeast during the fermentation process, as it provides an ideal environment for yeast to live and multiply. Without such suitable water, i.e. water that contains iron or other minerals, the water will react with the chemicals in the barrel wood and turn the bourbon bitter and black, and sometimes bright green. Again, the right water is a critical factor in making drinkable whiskey.

I guess ideal bourbon-making water is truly millions of years in the making.

April 10, 2009

Bourbon Fermentation and Distillation

I spoke about the creation of the mash in an earlier post. That mash has to go through some more key steps before meeting the barrel and beginning the aging process to become bourbon. Those key steps include fermentation and distillation. Generally speaking, fermentation is the process of alcohol creation and distillation is the process of alcohol collection.

After the sour mash, or backset, is added to a fresh mash mixture, yeast is introduced. Yeast is a living microorganism that has a specific role in bourbon (and, well, all alcohol) production: it feeds on the sugars created when, during mashing, the enzymes in the malted barley reacted with the grain starches. The by-products of the yeast's feast is carbon dioxide, the release of which makes the liquid bubble and froth during fermentation, and alcohol. After a few days of alcohol and CO2 releasing, the alcohol content rises to between 8 and 11%. Depending on the yeast strain used, the rising alcohol percentage eventually kills off the yeast and effectively completes fermentation. Yeast, by the way, should not be underestimated or thought of being merely a fungible commodity. Each yeast strain is different and is capable of influencing the flavor of the bourbon - some yeasts make bad-tasting whiskies. Distillers guard their yeast strains very cautiously; for example, Beam still uses yeast from the same mother batch used when distillation reopened after Prohibition.

The end of fermentation marks the beginning of the (usually) two step distillation process. The now-alcoholic mash is pumped into the first still, the column still, so named for it columnar shape. It can be several stories high, and is about a yard across. The fermented goop is pumped into the top of the still, where it slowly trickles down through a series of pierced horizontal plates spaced about 18 inches apart and attached to the inside of the column. As gravity slowly pulls the mash down through the grated plates, steam enters and rises from the still's bottom. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the hot steam vaporizes the alcohol and carries it up and out of the still, leaving behind all the non-alcoholic mash components.

The vaporized alcohol is then condensed into what is a clear, potent liquid before it starts its second distillation. Distillation number two occurs in another still, called a "doubler." The doubler removes even more water from the condensed alcohol, therby increasing the liquid's proof. And as you'll recall, law says "bourbon" can't be distilled to an alcohol content greater than 160 (80 proof). From the doubler, it's on to the barrel and aging.

Distillation allows distillers to regulate the alcohol content of what will eventually become bourbon. This is important as proof and flavor have a direct relationship, and in order for bourbons to meet the standards of their master distillers, control over the alcohol content at this early stage of production is vital.

April 7, 2009

Bourbon Tasting With Ex-Maker's Mark Master Distiller Dave Pickerell

Below is a YouTube feed that I enjoyed watching featuring Maker's Mark former master distiller Dave Pickerell. Dave talks about some of the nuances to tasting bourbon and talks briefly about Maker's distilling philosophy. I liked this video because it recongizes both the objectivity and subjectivity to tasting. Yet again, science meets individualism.