How to Make Whiskey

Bourbon:  Our American Friend

When the offer for free land on the frontiers of Kentucky went up, the Scotch and Irish settlers in the heavily populated Northern colonies brought their stills, and their skills with distillation, to the South.

When they shipped their spirits downriver to New Orleans for trade, they stamped their barrels with the point of origin:  Bourbon County, Kentucky.  And that’s how America’s most famous whiskey came into the light.

It’s no small thing distilling the greatest spirits.  Anyone with a pot, a stove, and a coiled tube can make moonshine, but making good whiskey is almost alchemy, which requires a precise touch, and of course, the right variety of yeast.  Don’t forget that.

Yeast, which is a living organism, feeds on the sugar produced by a grain, a vegetable, or a fruit, which it converts to alcohol, expelling also heat, and carbon dioxide, which the plant used during photosynthesis to create sugar.  The strain of yeast is of vital importance in regards to the flavor characteristics of the spirit, called, technically, congeners.  The yeast eats up the sugar, and then it eats up everything else, including itself, strengthening the pre-distilled alcohol.   This process is called fermentation, which produces not only ethanol alcohol, which is the one we like, but various other kinds, like methanol and propanol, which a distiller will discard or retain depending on their taste for the final product.  It all starts with the yeast, though.  Without yeast, there would be no alcohol.

But how do you make bourbon?

You start with corn.  By law, in order to call your whiskey bourbon, it has to be made from at least 51% corn, to which is added a selection of grains, like rye, wheat, or barley.  Some of the finest are made of as much as 70% corn, but the required minimum is 51%.  It must follow strict rules in regards to the levels of alcohol it needs to reach and maintain at certain points of distillation, aging, and bottling, which is a lengthy and numbersome list that would appeal to certain statisticians, and obviously all distillers, but really doesn’t answer the question of where the bourbon comes from.  It comes from all that corn and grain slurried together into what’s called a mash bill, that is fermented and balanced through a process called sour mashing, and sent to a still.   

The most flavorful spirits come from a single pot still, as it’s called.  What that means is one starts with a copper pot, because copper does the job best.  It distributes the heat evenly during the boiling up of the liquid to vapors process, being a conductive metal blended in upwards of forty different usable alloys.  The heat opens up the molecules to drink in the vapors and slow them back down to liquid drops and rails which creep along the inner surface of the coil, which is usually cooled externally, and also made of copper.  These creepers, driven by the force of the vapors racing through the coil, are the whiskey.

What had come from what was essentially just a beer brought about naturally by the fermentation of corn, transforms into the volatile spirit that eventually trickles out of the coil and into the appropriate storage vessel.

That’s only one kind of still, of course, the single pot kind.  There are a number of other types of stills, but the principles of distillation are the same.  Bourbon is often distilled more than once, to refine it, sometimes in more complicated stills, but it starts off life with the basics, and back in those frontier days, a single pot still was all they had.  

The new spirit itself is categorized qualitatively into low wines and high wines.  The low wines are heavier with congeners and come through the still first.  They are often still too full of varieties of alcohol that cannot be consumed, and so must be redistilled.  The lighter and immediately consumable high wines, sometimes called the white dog, are collected and blended with redistilled low wines or left alone, depending on the sought after flavors, and barreled for ageing.

All spirits are clear after distillation.  It is the barrel aging that imparts the caramel reddish hues that are associated with bourbon.  By law, bourbon must be aged in new charred 200 liter American Oak barrels.  That’s where those signature tastes of vanilla, tobacco, and sweet spice come from.

Then it’s all about the aging.  The amount of time it is aged, the temperature of the rackhouses that the barrels are stored in, whether that rackhouse is wood or brick, all affects the whiskey that is finally bottled and shipped out to the greater drinking public.

And that’s where it all comes from, bourbon, your friend and mine.


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