My front porch has the reputation of being the best Bourbon Bar in Louisville. I have plenty of whiskeys to try, it is a quiet neighborhood with lots of dog walkers strolling by and the conversation is always interesting. The other day I had couple of friends in the industry stop by for some drinks and conversation. One of the many subjects discussed was how the many small changes in the production of whiskey in the last 60 years have changed the flavor profiles of many popular whiskeys. I thought I would share some of that conversation with my readers.
For those who have been following me from the beginning, you know I wrote a blog called “Old Bottle Bourbon Flavor” back in 2016. In that blog I looked at the differences between 19th century whiskey and modern whiskey through the six sources of flavor. You may want to read that blog as well for more information on the subject. Here, I will concentrate upon the changes made in more recent times in this blog. I will look at the six sources of flavor once again.
Grain: Grain quality control has gotten better in the last 60 years, but so has hybridization of grain. They have developed strains of corn that produce a high yield of alcohol but at the same time, less variety of flavor. That is why I am excited to see artisan distillers choosing to use heirloom varieties of corn in their Bourbon. There is also the tendency to use synthetic enzymes in place of barley malt to get complete fermentation. This means there is less barley malt flavors in the Bourbon.
Water: There is even less use of well or spring water and more use of RO (Reverse Osmosis) water. This leads to less variety in flavor.
Fermentation: The big distilleries are using more grain in their mash, allowing for higher alcohol production, but it does change the fermentation process and different flavors are produced. Synthetic enzymes are also being used and they do not have much to contribute to the flavor of the whiskey.
Distillation: Copper is expensive and many distilleries have replaced their old copper column stills with stainless steel stills with only a few segments towards the top of the column made with copper. They also tend to distill at a higher proof today than they did 60 years ago.
Maturation: [There is barrel entry proof and I have written a blog on the subject back in 2015, but that is not the only change.] Smaller warehouses were more common 60 years ago. They age whiskey differently than the huge warehouses being built today. There are also more palletized warehouses in use today. Palletized barrels lose the influence of both heads as the top head does not have contact with the whiskey and the bottom head is continually flooded with whiskey and gravity keeps the flow in and out of that head to a minimum. Barrels in a palletized warehouse are packed in tightly and have less air flow between the barrels. One of the big things I notice when walking into a palletized warehouse is the smell. You don’t get as much of that wonderful aroma of the angel’s share as you do in a traditional Rickhouse.
Bottling: There have been many improvements in filtration over the last 60 years. Chill filtration has become the norm for today whereas it was uncommon 60 years ago. More importantly, in my opinion, is the “one size fits all attitude” for filtering whiskey. Most big distilleries do not alter their filtration between brands and styles of whiskey.
These are a few of the subjects we discussed on the porch the other day. It is interesting to see the changes in the whiskey that have taken place. Many of the changes have taken place over time and in a gradual manner. It has been a “death by a thousand cuts” in that each change does not make a huge flavor change, but taken all together, they have made a big change in flavor. Next time you open a dusty bottle from the 1960s and wonder why the whiskey does not taste the same as it does today, think of these changes.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller