June 24, 2009

Aeneas Coffey and the Column Still

Aeneas Coffey was an Irishman who was born in France in 1780. Somewhat ironically, Coffey was an excise officer, and made a living investigating and shutting down illegal distilling operations. Perhaps his familiarity with whiskey production was the impetus behind his patenting of the Coffey still in 1831.

The Coffey still, a.k.a. the continuous still, the beer still, the column still, and the patent still, is the device that intially seperates the alcohol from the mash, discussed here. Coffey's still, which was really a revamp of an existing still designed by the Scotsman Robert Stein, inlcuded two columns, one named the analyzer and one named the rectifier. The analyzer essentially heated the cold mash that was pumped into it, almost to the point of boiling. The now-heated mash was then sent over to the rectifier. The rectifier is basically what has become the column still in virtually all of American whiskey distilleries (Woodford Reserve uses old alembic-style pot stills) and is where steam meets the mash and vaporizes the alcohol from everything else. Modernly, the need for the analyzer has fallen by the wayside.

The column still has several advantages of its pot still predecessors: it can be used continuously instead of emptied, cleaned, and refilled after every use like pot stills; it can produce much greater quantities of alcohol faster than a pot still; it is cheaper and more efficient to operate; and produces purer, higher concentrations of alcohol. These advantages made the column still ideal in the US for post-Civil War distillation, when distilleries began to turn their plants into large-scale production centers and efficiency was key. They remain a vital part of bourbon production today.

The column still has not overtaken the whiskey industry. Scotland refuses to use them, because they believe that their traditional pot stills produce higher quality results. To an extent, this is true, with the caveat that "higher quality" is a subjective term - since pot stills yield less concentrated alcohol, there necessarily remains more impurities in the liquid (the higher the alcohol content, the less room for impurities, such as cogeners and proteins), and it is these impurities that influence the whiskey's flavor. So, the argument goes, column stills strip away too many flavor-enhancing impurities compared to the alembic/pot stills. I will now happily end this post without opening any doors to a bourbon vs. Scotch debate.

June 17, 2009

Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton

Those who know high-end whiskey are no doubt familiar with Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon. The details about the man for whom that bourbon is named may be less known. Here's a quick bio.

Col. Albert B. Blanton entered the bourbon industy as a 16 year old in 1897, when he was hired as a clerk in what was then called the O.F.C Distillery in Kentucky. After learning about most of the aspects of bourbon making, Blanton was made the plant manager in 1912, at the same time the distillery changed names to George T. Stagg. A few years later, when Prohibition struck, Blanton kept the distillery alive by bottling bourbon, under Federal license, for medicinal uses. Blanton's was the only Kentucky distillery that did so, and was one of only 4 in the United States given this permission. Blanton was again promoted, this time to president, in 1921.

Near the end of Prohibition, around 1929, the George T. Stagg Distillery was sold off to Schenley Distillers Corporation. Blanton stayed on as plant manager and distiller, and guided the distillery into the more modern age of bourbon production in the 1930's and 1940's. Blanton retired in 1953, and in his honor, the plant was renamed the Albert B. Blanton Distillery.

In 1959, Albert Blanton died. He was one of the very few industy men to be part of bourbon both before and after Prohibition, and most importantly was able to use the traditions of bourbon making that he knew to shape the modern face of the industry. In 1992, Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon, the first of its type, was introduced by Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee to celebrate Blanton and his accomplishments.

Also noteworthy, the Albert B. Blanton Distillery became the Ancient Age Distillery in 1962, and in 1992 the physical premises were bought by Sazerac. In 2001, the plant became what we know today as Buffalo Trace. A statute of Blanton stands on the site, and its base reads,

Loved And Respected
Master Distiller And
True Kentucky Gentleman.
He Dedicated 55 Years Of His
Life To The Service Of
His Community And His Company.
That His Inspired Leadership
May Live In The Minds Of Those
With Whom He Lived And Of
Those Who Follow. This Memorial
Is Erected With Gratitude And Honor.

Oh, and Col. Blanton was not in the military - his title of Colonel is a civic distinction that was bestowed upon him by the State of Kentucky.

June 13, 2009

Filtration and the Lincoln County Process

Understanding the different filtration processes between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is understanding why Tennessee whiskey is not legally considered bourbon. Because products like Jack Daniel's and George Dickel use the "Lincoln County Process," they are technically not bourbons.

The Lincoln County Process is not a new thing. It got its name because Jack Daniel's Lynchburg, TN distillery was in Lincoln County before county boundaries were reassigned (Daniel's is now in Moore County). But, before it was called such, it was a practice used by many whiskey rectifiers to improve the often-times harsh taste of the unaged whiskey sold in the 19th century. The process, also known as charcoal mellowing or leaching, is one by which whiskey is filtered before it goes into the barrel. Here's how it goes:

Sugar maple trees are harvested in the fall, when the trees' sap content is low, and are then air dried and cut into 5 foot long boards. The boards are stacked crosswise on top of each other, like a lattice, until the pile reaches about 7 feet tall. These piles are called ricks. The ricks are then set ablaze while men with water hoses control the temperature - to high a temperature would reduce the maple to ash, instead of charcoal. Once all the wood is burned to charcoal, the charcoal pieces are dumped into a vat that's between 8 and 10 feet tall, creating a column of charcoal. Then in goes the unaged whiskey where it drips and filters through the charcoal column and out the bottom of the vat through a wool blanket. It takes a week to 10 days to complete its course through the charcoal. From there, the charcoal filtered whiskey goes into the barrel to age.

The effect of the charcoal filtering gives the whiskey a sooty characteristic (celebrated by Jack Daniel's fans) and gives the whiskey a distinct smoothness. Charcoal filtering also jump-starts the aging process by subjecting the green whiskey to the benefits of charred wood. You see, when whiskey is aging in its charred oak barrel, the chemical interactions between the wood and the liquid reduce the undesireable cogeners. Cogeners are fusel oils and acids that are naturally created during distillation. They are what give unaged, raw whiskey its awful taste. So, giving the whiskey time to flow in and out of charred barrel allows science to do its work, and blunt the offensive tastes by removing the cogeners. (Keep in mind that not all cogeners are "bad;" while some are toxic in high concentration, some are harmless and even add to the character and body of bourbons). So, filtering the new whiskey in the Lincoln County Process gives the mellowing abilities of the charcoal a head start before it's times for barrel aging.

Boubon is also filtered, but in a very different manner from Tennessee whiskey. The filtration of bourbon is largely a 20th century practice. It happens after bourbon has been aged, but before it's bottled, and has only cosmetic purposes. When bourbon is done aging, it has in it some harmless impurities. These impurities are naturally occurring fatty acids and proteins, and are the reason behind the dreaded chill haze - the cloudiness that appears in bourbon when it's chilled. Since consumers think this cloudiness is a sign of bad bourbon, distillers filter the impurities out. Again, it's merely for appearance, and some bourbon enthusiasts think the removal of these impurities removes some of the subtle tastes from their drinks. So, to appease their drinking public, distillers chill their bourbon before it's bottled and filter out the particulates. The bourbon is chilled for filtration because it makes the impurities easier to find and remove. If you haven't done so already, try some Booker's which isn't filtered at all.

Now, there is some debate about the real difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. The two differ only in that Tennessee whiskey undergoes the Lincoln County Process - it has an added filtration step. However, Jack Daniel's and George Dickel, which are the only two Tennessee whiskies, meet all the legal requirements of bourbon set forth by the Federal Regulations. So, where is the real difference? Technically, any bourbon could be charcoal filtered and still legally be called a bourbon. I suppose those that enjoy debating these types of things will comment on the taste differences between the two: charcoal filtering takes away too much taste, charcoal filtering adds too much taste, charcoal filtering makes it too sooty.... Whatever side of the fence, nay rick, you are on, my suggestion is to drink what you enjoy and let labels be labels.