The delicious taste of Bourbon ages much faster than Scotch, needing only to be barrelled for four to eight


All-American Whiskey
Bourbon: corny, delectable and a toast to the French.
By Keith Hoffman
eer and whiskey have a lot in common. Both start with the malting of grain, which simply means that grain is soaked in enough water, for a long enough time, for the seed to assume that it is finally fulfilling its evolutionary reason to exist. A bud is hastened out in an attempt to sprout forth from a hopefully nutrient-rich soil. At this very moment, the expectant grain is heavily endowed with a useful content of enzymes, for both growth, and, as it turns out, brewing. The evil brew master, primed with this knowledge, cuts short the life and dreams of this young malt by heat-blasting it, milling it into a powder, and finally drowning

Whisky, Whiskey and tennessee vs. kentucky


it in a bath of hot water. Life is over, but the fun has just begun. If it’s beer you want, one generally: 1) keeps that soup on the kettle, 2) adds some yeast (which converts much of the sugar content into ethanol), 3) soaks some flowers in it (hops) and, 4) does some filtering. If it’s whisky you desire, you simply don’t use the hops, and once you’re done filtering, you boil the swill over and over to collect and amplify the alcohol content. If you are in Scotland, especially on Islay, the process to kill the malt growth is accomplished via burning a hot, stink-filled, peat fire underneath the grain, the smoke of which imparts a distinctively

Seems the Scots like to denote their distilled beer with just a ‘y’, while the Irish and Americans prefer ‘ey’. That is all there is to that mystery. Tennessee whiskey is just like Bourbon except, prior to barrel aging, the precious liquid is ever so slowly leeched through over three metres of charcoal derived from maple trees. This “Lincoln County Process” is responsible for the mellowing and sweeter undertones of brands like Jack Daniels and Gorge Dickle. Charcoal is quite good at latching on to impurities and, so the theory goes, produces a purer, more drinkable product. If you live in Tennessee you swear by such. If you live in Kentucky, you equally pontificate that all that charcoal strips the soul from the swill and you don’t touch the stuff.

È The infamous Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Certainly not as smooth and easy going as the name suggests.

È Bourbon’s ‘sour mash’ method is a proud tradition.

Barrel roles

È Better than it looks: The sour-mash process uses mushy leftovers from previous production batches.

burnt taste. In Ireland, one can use either malted or unmalted grain, but the curing technique doesn’t include peaty smoke—it’s accomplished with direct heat. For bourbon, the rules are a bit different. True, bourbon uses malt in the same fashion as Scotch and Irish whiskey, but malt only makes up about 15 percent of the used grain. By law, 51 percent of the content that goes into the brew soup has to be corn (most modern efforts use about 70 percent), the rest is rye and/or wheat and that malted grain (again, for those enzymes). No peat fires are used. Corn imparts the resultant whiskey with a round mouth feel and a sweet taste. Interestingly, the different grains used in bourbon trigger the need for sequential milling and cooking steps as corn needs to cook at a temperature that would burn rye, and the malt needs the lowest temperature setting of all. Bourbon further differs from other whiskies in the fact that one hallmark production step is

akin to sourdough bread making. The sourmash process (noted proudly on most bottles of bourbon) involves taking some “spent” leftover mush from an earlier production run and unceremoniously dumping it into a nice new soup of freshly milled grain. The spent stuff is devoid of alcohol and acidic in nature, and therefore sour in flavour, hence the name. Some modern day bourbons start a new batch with up to 25 percent sour mash. The name is BourBon In the 1700s, Bourbon, the French Royal House, assisted the budding and appreciative US of A in their fight against the British for independence. (Some might say that this sort of brotherly cooperation still represents modern-day Franco UK relations.) In gratitude, the young government of America named one of their vast plots of land ‘Bourbon County’. Certainly no one in 1700s America could have imagined that the small

Bourbon is always aged in fresh American white oak barrels. The barrels, however, are charred deeply at the cooperage before any liquid is allowed to rest in them. The char produces some of the same effects as seen with charcoal filtering in Tennessee whiskey, but the long soak for bourbon also adds multiple flavour and colouring chemicals. After four to eight years, the barrels are emptied and shipped off to the UK as Scotch and Irish whiskies are often aged in them—sometimes for decades more. The oak is what gives whiskeys their colour, and a lot of their taste. In all barrel aging the process is the same—in warm seasons the liquid expands and forces some of itself into the meat of the wood where it marinates and leeches out numerous chemical compounds like tannins, while in cold seasons the liquid contracts back into the main barrel and thereby enriches the brew with woody goodness.


The steamers that cruised on Old Man River (that’s the Mississippi) always had a stash of Bourbon.

‘old recipe’ silliness

naming honour bestowed on the members of the House of Bourbon could have created such a powerful legacy. The French don’t seem to know it, but the enduring muscle of the Bourbon name comes directly from the amenability of corn to the art of distillation. No one describes how the name Bourbon became synonymous with American whiskey any better than the true bourbonophile that is Charles K Cowdery. He writes: “When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region ‘Old Bourbon’. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped to market. ‘Old Bourbon’ was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted, and they liked it. In time, ‘bourbon’ became the name for any corn-based whiskey.”

È Anglo-Franco relations in LA: something to celebrate.

Finally, bourbon ages in barrels at a much faster rate than Scotch. Scotch believers drool, myself included, over whisky that has been resting in a dingy barrel for 15 years or more. For bourbon, the goodness gained from a barrel terminates in less than a decade. Therefore, most bourbon is barrel aged for four to eight years. Next time you raise a glass of bourbon be sure to toast the American frontier spirit, thank the first cheapskate who decided to recycle the sour mash, and salute the tastes, colours and smells imparted by an extended soak in charred oak.

Don’t be fooled by all the marketing gibberish of ‘oldest registered distillery’, ‘same recipe since the 1700s’, ‘handed down across a 17-and-one-half generations’ nonsense. The bourbon of the late 1700s was nothing like it is today. For one, the early bourbons were made in pot, not column stills, like has been practiced for the last 160 years or so. Second, the ‘sour mash’ technique was not yet invented, which meant the lot-to-lot variability was quite high, and the product inconsistent at best. Thirdly, it was likely not until about the 1840s that the charring of the inside of the oak barrels was introduced, and this innovation alone produces a dramatically different taste and colour experience. In short, the result of some marketing focus group must have indicated that the ‘old recipe’ claptrap would sell more bottles, so we are stuck with countless references to such. You now know better.