Bourbon has some of the tightest regulations defining the category of any whiskey but this does not need to stop innovation within these regulations. The regulations state that Bourbon has to be 51% corn, distilled at no higher than 160 proof, go into a brand new charred oak container at no higher than 125 proof with nothing other than pure water used to adjust the proof, bottled at no lower than 80 proof and made in the United States. These regulations leave plenty of room for innovation and individual flavor profiles. Craft distillers wishing to make their mark in the market should consider some of the following ideas.
Starting with the corn – it has to be 51 % corn, but the distiller can could use white corn or some other variety than the yellow corn used in most Bourbon today. The distiller could use 100% corn and malt some of the corn, or use a mixture of corn varieties in the mix. There is also the possibility of playing around with the remaining 49% allowed in the grain recipe. How about a two grain mash bill with only malted barley and corn. Wheat and rye are not the only flavoring grains allowed so experiment with other flavoring grains such as oats or un-malted barley. There is a lot of room for innovation with the grains without breaking the Bourbon rules.
Next is distillation no higher than 160 proof. That distillation maximum allows for a lot of innovation and still leave flavor in the product. What about Bourbon that was distilled at a lower proof range. Distillation in different styles of stills is another possibility. The room for innovation is not as great as there is in the grain but there is room to play with this regulation as well the grain.
Bourbon has to be placed in a brand new charred oak container. There is no size restriction and a lot of craft distillers are using smaller barrels, but how about larger barrels. Since most craft distillers don’t have rick houses to store their barrels they could play around with larger barrels for aging. Another idea is to try going back in time and use the standard 48 gallon barrel that was used before WWII caused the distilleries to increase the size of their barrels to save wood for the war effort. The entry proof is another area that craft distiller should look to the past for inspiration. Entry proof in the 18th century was anywhere from 90 to 105 proof. Aging a Bourbon where the final barrel proof was close to the bottling proof would give the Bourbon more flavor since it is watered down less in bottling. As long as the proof does not drop below 80 proof they would be legal Bourbon. The one part of this regulation that does not have any leeway is that only pure water can be added to Bourbon.
The final two regulations are fairly clear in that it has to be bottled at 80 proof or more and a product of the United States. Most people agree that Bourbon should be at least 80 proof and many think Bourbon should have a lower limit of 90 proof. There are some in Kentucky that think it should only be made in Kentucky, but there have been fine Bourbons come from other states and that should not change.
There are a lot of ways to adjust the production of Bourbon within these regulations. There is no reason for craft distillers to complain about the regulations as a limiting factor. I have tried some products produced by craft distillers using some of these variations in grain, distillation proof and barrel size and proof and they have made excellent whiskey within the rules.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl