With all the great American whiskey we’ve been bringing in lately, I’ve had a lot of questions about the specifics of the product; some that have really tested my knowledge and put me back on my heels a bit. In order to make sure that I am up to the task of handling these inquiries, I have begun to re-read a great reference on the subject of whiskey: Chicago columnist Chuck Cowdery’s Bourbon, Straight. I read this book immediately after I got the spirits buyer position here at K&L, but I’m finding that a second time through is really paying dividends in my whiskey education, especially when it comes to the logistics of bourbon. I’ve only gotten about 20 pages into my second run through, but there are numerous facts that I want to share with you that I think will help shed some more light onto whiskey in the United States, even for those who already know quite a lot as it is. I would advise any serious whiskey fan to bookmark Cowdery’s page and, at the very least, purchase his informational book and read it slowly and carefully.
-Whiskey in the U.S. is defined as grain spirit that is distilled at less than 190 proof. Anything distilled at higher than 190 proof is considered grain neutral spirit (GNS), which is without color, aroma, taste, or character. Vodka, for example, is GNS with water (and Cowdery does not shy away from taunting the vodka drinkers from rationalizing how something neutral can be better or worse than a contemporary).
- All U.S. distilleries use No. 2 grade corn, rye, and wheat to make their whiskey, so all this talk about “only the finest grains” is a bunch of fluff. They all buy from the same suppliers.
- American whiskey has the entire mash, grains and all, go through the fermentation process unfiltered, unlike in Scotland and other countries where the filtered mash (called wort) consisting of only the sugary water goes into the still.
- Good water is crucial to making good whiskey. The spring water in Kentucky and Tennessee is filtered through natural limestone, which adds calcium and removes salt, making it favorable to yeast come fermenting time.
- What is sour mash? - Sour mash is made when slop (the already fermented and spent mash) is pumped back in with the unfermented mash giving it a sour taste. This is done to help keep the pH consistent to keep the whiskey uniform. It could be done differently now, but, as Cowdery states throughout the book, heritage and tradition reign supreme in whiskey making.
- Yeast is very, very important. Not all yeast is the same. It is major contributor to the flavor of a whiskey, much like wine, and knowing how to cultivate and control it is an important job of a distiller. If you didn’t know that Beaujolais Nouveau tastes like banana because of commercial designer yeast, then you need to contact me about other reading materials. Yeast is crazy important.
- In order to be called bourbon or rye, the spirit must come off the still at less than 160 proof. All whiskey distilled between 160 and 190 goes into blended whiskey. Flavor is inversely proportional to proof, so you want to keep it lower if you want the grain to come through.
- Bourbon and rye must be reduced with water to less than 125 proof and aged in new oak charred on the inside. The red color of whiskey comes from this charred barrel. Whereas warm weather causes the whiskey to expand into the wood, the cool evening temperatures contracts it and the whiskey pulls out the color, tannins and flavor of the barrel. The char from the wood helps to tame the negative congeners (the remaining flavors of the original distilled substance).
Speaking of congeners, Cowdery really makes clear what the art of distillation truly is: it lies in being able to retain the positive and good tasting congeners, while eliminating the other negative ones. The goal of distilling, as Cowdery says, is making the beverage palatable either by making it neutral (as with vodka) or by using herbs, fruit, spices, barrel aging, etc. Whiskey should retain the flavor of its original element, so knowing how to distill it properly and making it palatable is an art form.
All this information comes from about four pages of the 250+ pages in this book. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Then you can come into the store and totally put me in check with your extreme knowledge.