I would make a lousy owner of a distillery because I would be more interested in experimenting with making the whiskey than selling it. I would quickly go bankrupt! Still, I like to think about what I would do to make my perfect Bourbon. It is not as easy as some may think. Yes, Bourbon has tighter regulations than most whiskeys, but there are still a lot of variables that can change the end results. I like the flavors of many of the older bottles I have opened, so I am going to look at picking out some of the best practices of 19th century distilling and present my thoughts on making perfect Bourbon.
Mash Bill: Bourbon has to be at least 51% corn, but there are a lot of varieties of corn to choose from for making the whiskey. I would pick an heirloom variety of corn. Bill Thomas and I used Hickory Cane white corn when we contract-distilled 3 barrels at Kentucky Artisan Distillery, but I have been impressed with other heirloom varieties as well. Jeptha Creed and Widow Jane use Bloody Butcher red corn and Balcones uses a blue corn in their products. I like the whiskeys using those corns and would want to experiment with those varieties, but also with some heirloom yellow corn.
The flavoring grain is also important. Bill Thomas and I used 20% rye in our barrels, but I would like to play around with wheat as well. I am also curious about using a small percentage of oats as a flavoring grain like the old mash bills I saw from 1905 at the Glenmore Distillery. Then there is the malted barley. Bill and I used 12% regular distiller’s malt and 3% chocolate malt. I would like to play around with the beer malts. E.H. Taylor said he used two and a half times more malt than most distillers of his time because he liked the nutty sweetness malt brings to the whiskey. I agree and I think 10-15% malt would be in my whiskey. No artificial enzymes for me.
There are hundreds of combinations to try just in these grains. I can see different corn varieties reacting differently with different flavor grains and malt combinations. It would take me years just to try them all and decide which ones I want to explore further.
Water: This would be the easiest thing to decide – I would use Reverse Osmosis water because that is the safest and most practical thing to use in this day of ground water pollution.
Yeast: This is another area with a multitude of variables. Unlike in the 19th century when the distiller collected his own yeast and stuck to it when making his whiskey, there are many varieties available commercially to the modern distiller. I would talk with Pat Heist at Wilderness Trail and FermSolutions, and pick out a few varieties that appeal to the flavors I like in my Bourbon. I like a fruity yeast and a spicy yeast. I am sure that Pat could point me towards three or four strains that have those qualities. Once again, I am sure that different yeast would react differently with different mash bills.
Distillation: I like the clean flavors produced by a column still so that is what I would go to and I would use a pot still doubler. I would want a low distillation proof in the 120s after the second distillation. Let those grain and yeast flavors come out in the whiskey.
Maturation: I am not a huge fan of a lot of wood tannins, but I love the vanilla and caramel that come from the wood. I would have a 53 gallon barrel that was heavily toasted with only a number two char. I would toast the barrel heads, but not char them. I would enter the whiskey at 103 proof or lower to extract these sweet flavors. I would store the barrels in traditional barrel racks with the heads horizontal, not on pallets with the heads vertical. I do not want to lose the flavor the heads contribute. I would age the whiskey for at least 4 years in an ironclad warehouse.
These are my thoughts on making the perfect Bourbon. As you can see, it is a complicated process and that is why there are so many flavor profiles on the market today and why I respect good distillers. I hope that I have inspired some artisan distiller to experiment and inform me of the results in a few years.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller