Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: Corn and good barrels make good bourbonBy JIM BEAUREGARD January 31. 2018 4:19AM
Last time, I gave you a bit of the history of bourbon. Now, let’s talk a little bit about how it’s actually made.
To qualify as bourbon, the initial mix of grains has to be at least 51 percent corn, but there can be some variation in the other grains added. The combined grains are ground down into a meal that is then cooked at a high temperature with a bit of malted barley that starts to liquefy the corn, and then some rye or wheat are added.
The purpose of the heating is to start breaking down the starches (large complex sugars) into simple sugars that, when they come into contact with yeast, undergo the process of fermentation. Fermentation lasts about three days on average, yielding what’s called “distiller’s beer.”
The “beer” next heads to a still, traditionally made of copper, but also nowadays sometimes made of stainless steel, where the alcohol is turned to vapor and concentrated and then returned to liquid.
Once the distillation is done you have bourbon, which is then put into new American oak barrels that have been charred black on the inside. This is where the type of oak becomes important. While winemakers highly prize Limousin oak from France, American oak (especially new oak), gives the bourbon lots of color and flavor, which runs along a spectrum that includes vanilla, coconut and sweet spice as well as occasionally pine. Chocolate tobacco and cherry flavors can also be taken from the oak.
Once the bourbon finally makes it to the barrel, it will age for two years.
The barrels are traditionally stacked and aged in rack houses, buildings seven or so stories tall that have significant temperature fluctuations from floor to ceiling. Those variations affect the barrels differently, depending on where they’re stored, resulting in differences in flavor. Thus it’s necessary to blend the contents of the barrels to achieve a consistency of flavor.
Not all bourbons, however, are blended. Nowadays, you will find single-barrel or small-batch bourbons, where little or no blending has taken place and the taste may vary from barrel to barrel. What you get is what you get. The term “small-batch” is not a legally regulated one, it just means that there is a small number of barrels from which the blending took place.
So, once all this is done, you have a bottle of bourbon. Let’s look now at a couple of drinks traditionally referred to as “whiskeys”:
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey, barrel number 1598; 94 proof (47% alcohol by volume). A rich amber-colored beverage with golden hues, bright and inviting. Slow, thick legs. A clean, sharp nose that initially brings aromas of wood from the oak, and some vegetal notes. In contrast to the spirits we looked at last time, this is a very dry whiskey, with good alcohol and medium body. The flavor intensity is medium and it is rich in flavors of cedar, char, some hints of sawdust, vanilla, caramel in the background, a little bit of burnt sugar, and some meaty notes. Adds a hint of leather along the back of your palate as it moves toward the finish. The fruit notes tend toward citrus. Strong and refreshing.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Barrel number 1597; 94 proof (47% alcohol by volume). Just a shade darker than its companion above. Clear at the rim, a fairly pale pour. The oak again comes through first, but the fruit notes are more noticeable on the nose right from the beginning. This is also a dry whiskey, with smooth alcohol that is very well integrated, medium body and medium flavor intensity that encompasses a hint of orange, as well as lemon, some orchard fruit (by which I mean pear hints), slight mint flavor, and just a little bit of mulch. The oak flavors are, of course, there as well, in this case more toward the cedar and vanilla part of the spectrum. A very long finish and delicious.
Contact wine and beer writer Jim Beauregard at firstname.lastname@example.org