Jim Beam – Behind the Beam Tour

Jim Beam Distillery

This was the third distillery tour I enjoyed on our Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise in May 2018. The Jim Beam Behind the Beam tour costs a whopping $199.00 and lasts four hours. Because of those two factors, my wife declined to join me for this tour. The tour was a fun and educational experience and, in my opinion, well worth the time and monetary investment. It was a delight to spend time with our guide, Jennifer, the distillery’s Trade & Hospitality Manager. She ensured that everyone’s questions, and I asked many, were fully and clearly answered.

The highlight of the tour however, was the 90 minutes or so that our group of 24 spent with Master Distiller Fred Noe and his son Freddie. Both men were plain spoken, open and honest in their answers and explanations, and fun to be around. Fred Noe was especially entertaining, but did tend to use some salty language. Not an issue for an old Soldier like myself, but I can imagine some folks might be a bit put off. I highly recommend this tour for the serious bourbon enthusiast.

Jim Beam Ingredients

Jim Beam uses the famous Kentucky limestone filtered water, drawn from a nearby well, at each of its two distillery locations, for all its whiskeys. The well water is used as is for fermentation, but is demineralized for gauging or cutting the proof for barreling or bottling. Jim Beam sources its grains from multiple locations. It obtains corn from Kentucky and Indiana, rye from New England, and malted barley from North Dakota. All grains are milled on site on an as needed basis. Jim Beam uses a yeast strain, which they propagate themselves, that dates back to the 1930s. Jim Beam obtains its barrels from the Independent Stave Company. Each barrel receives a level 4 char, which requires about a 55 second burn. The barrels are not toasted before charring.

Jim Beam Product Line
The Entire Jim Beam Product Line

Jim Beam uses these ingredients to make a phenomenal number of products from the basic Jim Beam White Label to the highly regarded special “Booker” bottlings, such as the recently released Booker’s Bourbon Batch 2018-03 “Kentucky Chew”. This wide range of products helps explain the company’s dominance within the bourbon industry. There’s something for every taste and pocketbook. Between its two Kentucky distilleries, Jim Beam produces about half of all Kentucky Bourbon. Since about 90% of all bourbon produced in any given year comes from Kentucky, this means that Jim Beam is producing about 45% of the world’s bourbon. That statistic does come with an asterisk however. Jim Beam gets to claim its bourbon dominance only because the good folks at Jack Daniel’s choose not to call their fine Tennessee Whiskey a bourbon. If they did, they would be the world’s leading bourbon producer.

The Whiskey Making Process at the Plant #1

The milled grains and water drawn from the well are combined in the mash cooker. The cooked mash is then pumped into one of the plant’s 22 fermenters where the mash spends about 72 hours (3 days) to allow the yeast time to work its magic converting sugars into alcohol. Jim Beam, like almost every major bourbon producer, uses the sour mash technique, so some of the back set from an earlier distilling run is added to the fermenter along with the fresh mash. Once fermentation is complete, the mash, now called distiller’s beer, is pumped into the distillery’s column still.

The column still at the main plant in Clermont has 23 plates and stands about five stories tall. The distillate from the column still, known as low wines, comes out at 125 proof for most of the product line. Low wines for the Booker family of products comes out at 115 proof, which means more flavor and aroma compounds, good and not so good, are still in the distillate. The low wines move from the column still to a doubler that increases the distillate to 135 proof. Once again, the Booker line is handled differently and comes off at 125 proof. Plant #1 usually produces about 800 barrels per day, while the Booker Noe Plant produces about 1,100 barrels a day.

Dumping Old Overholt Rye
Dumping Old Overholt Rye

The new make is pumped into barrels and stored in one of Jim Beam’s many rickhouses. The company has more than 100 rickhouses scattered over the surrounding countryside. As of May 2018, Jim Beam has a little more than 2.2 million barrels of whiskey aging in its rickhouses. Once the aging process is complete, the barrels are returned to the distillery to be dumped. During our visit, they were dumping 3 year old Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. The whiskey is moved from the dump station to the bottling line, and then shipped out to wholesale outlets around the world.

Our tour took us to the Knob Creek Single Barrel dump station and bottling line. One person in our group had the honor of dumping a barrel, then we all moved to the bottling line. Once there we all had the opportunity to clean an empty bottle using Knob Creek left over from a prior bottling run. Also, for an additional fee, we had the opportunity to get our own personalized bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel. I, of course, could not resist the siren call, and bought a bottle. Later, in the gift shop, I was able to get my bottle custom laser engraved, for yet another additional fee.

Tasting the Whiskey

Fred and Freddie Noe
Fred and Freddie Noe

Next stop on our tour was to Jim Beam’s oldest rickhouse, where we linked up with Fred and Freddie Noe. As I noted above, both men were a joy to be around and openly shared information with our group. As an example, one person asked how Devil’s Cut was made. I expected a marketer’s answer suitable for a TV ad. Instead, Fred Noe told us they simply add some water to the barrels after they have been dumped, and allow the water to sweat out some of the whiskey trapped in the wood. The extracted whiskey is then blended with other Jim Beam bourbon to make the final product. Once inside the rickhouse we sampled some Jim Beam straight from the barrel, using a commemorative glass that was ours to keep. Our 12 year old sample was dark, 118 proof strong, and full of flavor. Some really good stuff.

We moved from the rickhouse to the T. Jeremiah Beam Home where we ate lunch and sampled more whiskey with Fred and Freddie Noe. Here is what we sampled:

  • Basil Hayden Dark Rye – A blend of Kentucky straight rye, Canadian rye from Beam’s Alberta Distillery, and California port-style wine. Bottled at 80 proof this was tasty and very easy to drink.
  • Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece – 10 year old Jim Beam finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 100 proof. I liked this one, but not enough to pay its high price to add to my bar.
  • Knob Creek Cask Strength Straight Rye – This has no age statement, but Fred Noe said it was aged for 8 years in Warehouse A. Bottled at 119 proof, it is a challenge to sip neat. It is better on the third sip than the first. It is full of flavor and would make a wicked good Old Fashioned cocktail.
  • Little Book “The Easy” Blended Straight Whiskey – the first whiskey created by Freddie Noe, it is a blend of 4 year old Jim Beam, 13 year old corn whiskey, 6 year old rye whiskey, and 6 year old malt whiskey. Freddie told us his goal was to recreate Jim Beam’s mash bill using finished whiskeys. At 120.48 proof, this really needs some ice or even some water to enjoy.

Of all the distilleries, large and small, I have visited over the years, this tour was head and shoulders the best. The tour was very informative, but the time we spent with Fred and Freddie Noe was what made the tour worth its $199 price tag. I enjoyed the experience so much that I intend to do it again sometime in the not too distant future. Assuming of course, I can convince my wife to let me spend the money.

Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise May 2018

 

This was my third trip to visit Kentucky, and was significantly more fun than my first two. My first, in the summer of 1974 for six weeks, was to Fort Knox. I was 17 and at the mercy of two Army Drill Sergeants. The second, in the summer of 1992 and also to Fort Knox for six weeks, was much better since I was older and a Major, but still not a fun time. They say the third time is the charm, and, for me, this trip on the Bourbon Trail certainly was.

My wife and I have traveled extensively throughout the United States, and quite a bit around the world. Kentucky is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places we have been, filled with friendly and welcoming people. To say we had a great time is an understatement. While there we toured several horse and bourbon venues. The horses for my wife, the bourbon for me. We both enjoyed everywhere we toured. We are already planning a return visit in the not too distant future.

Horsing Around

Our base of operations for all but two nights was the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. This is a wonderful, well run facility, with 260 RV campsites. However, these sites only have power and water hook-ups. None have a sewer hook-up, so plan accordingly. They also offer RV sites with no hook-ups and primitive sites for tent campers. Campground amenities include a store, pool, bathhouses, and laundry. Everything was neat and clean, and even over the Memorial Day weekend, quiet at night.

Kentucky Horse Park

Statute of Man o' War at the Kentucky Horse Park
Statute of Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park

We spent two days touring the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP), and could have spent more time there. In short, the KHP is Disneyland for horse people. The Parade of Breeds, offered twice a day, showcases various breeds from around the world. We were introduced to many breeds we had never seen before, including the Marwari. At the Hall of Champions show, also offered twice a day, we got up close and personal with retired champions such as Thoroughbreds Funny Cide, and Go for Gin, American Quarter Horse Be A Bono, Standardbred Trotter Mr. Muscleman, and Standardbred Pacers Staying Together, Won The West. We learned about draft horses and their harness at the Big Barn, and saw how Mounted Police train and operate at the Mounted Police Demonstration. We also toured the Saddlebred Museum and stopped at the numerous Memorials and Statues throughout the Park such as Man o’ War. Saturday night we watched Kentucky Spring Classic, FEI Open Jumper show, which brought in top tier competitors from around the world. The highlight however, was the International Museum of the Horse. We spent hours inside this well done museum, and could have spent even more time there. Going back is definitely on our to-do list.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland Race Tracks

Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs

No trip to Kentucky is complete without visiting at least one of these two magnificent thoroughbred racing venues, so we did both. We toured Churchill Downs visiting the paddock area and going trackside, and toured the Kentucky Derby Museum. Both are well worth the money. Keeneland wasn’t open for racing during our visits, but we were able to drive around the property and snap a few photos of this beautiful facility.

On the Bourbon Trail

Seeing and learning more about horses was wonderful, but the reason the Booze Cruzer was in Kentucky was … BOURBON. First stop, Moonshine University, yes gentle reader, there really is a Moonshine University.

Moonshine University – Executive Bourbon Steward Course

The Pot Still at Moonshine University
The Pot Still at Moonshine University

The the Executive Bourbon Steward Course is offered under the auspices of the Stave and Thief Society and in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers Association. This is an all-day course consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on opportunities in the university’s working distillery. As soon as I returned to our hotel room after class was over my wife asked me if I had a good time – yes I did – and if the day was worth the $500 tuition – yes it was. Yes, it was expensive, but I learned so much, and I’m sure the other 22 students did as well. The day’s coursework covered a deep dive into the Stave and Thief Society’s bourbon body of knowledge, the basics of distilling whiskey, and sensory training. I’ll provide many more details in future blog post.

Woodford Reserve Distillery – Corn to Cork Tour

Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel
Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel

I took the $30 Corn to Cork tour at Woodford Reserve. This was a very informative two hour tour that culminated in a tasting session back at the Visitor Center. This was without a doubt the most information filled tour of all the tours I took on this trip. The three gorgeous copper pot stills in the old stone still house are an impressive sight. Our guide, Stacy, was extremely knowledgeable and able to answer almost any technical or production question I posed. The only question she left unanswered concerned the production split between the Woodford Reserve Versailles facility and the Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville. In case you were not already aware, most of the distillate that ends up in a Woodford Reserve bottle comes from the Louisville facility. The highlight of the tour for me was the tasting since I had never sampled any Woodford Reserve product. I wasn’t overly impressed by the standard Woodford Reserve Bourbon, or their Rye whiskey. However, the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve Bourbon blew my socks off. Even my wife, who normally shuns whiskey, liked the Double Oaked. I’ll provide many more details on this tour in future blog post.

Maker’s Mark – Behind the Mark Tour

Maker's Mark Spirits Safes
Maker’s Mark Spirits Safes

At Maker’s Mark I opted for the $40 Beyond the Mark tour. I expected this would be a deep dive into the technical and production details of Marker’s Mark along the lines of the Woodford Reserve tour. Alas, it was little more than a standard consumer tour that lacked technical details and was more about marketing talking points. The only bonus was two commemorative Maker’s Mark wax dipped rock glasses. The highlight of the trip was tasting fresh off the still new make aka white dog from a dipper that the tour guide passed around. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Jim Beam – Behind the Beam Tour

Fred Noe Speaks to our Group
Fred Noe Speaks to our Group

This tour is only offered a few time each year, and at $199 per person is downright expensive. However, Fred Noe the Master Distiller himself and his son and heir apparent Freddie Noe, spent about 2 1/2 hours with our group. The tour of the distillery, conducted by Jessica, the Trade and Hospitality Manager, was informative and extremely well done. Fred and Freddie Noe joined the group at the rickhouse. Both were down to earth, plain spoken, willing to share personal and business stories, and just plain fun to be around. Each guest on the tour came away with a bottle of bourbon signed by Fred and Freddie, and some of us purchased a second bottle which was also signed.

I learned a lot about the distillery, their product line, and their family. Really a great visit and well worth the money. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Wild Turkey – Standard Consumer Tour

Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed
Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed

I hadn’t planned on touring Wild Turkey, but it was on our way home from touring historic Fort Boonesborough State Park, and we still had time to catch the last tour of the day. This tour is free for military, a nice touch that I really appreciated. The tour is your usual basic consumer tour, i.e., herd the tourists along from point to point, imparting marketing gems at each stop, with samples of three products at the end. No complaints, this tour achieves what it ought to do. The surprise bonus was the opportunity to meet Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller, in the visitor center where he was signing bottles. Jimmy was accommodating to everyone who came to him with a bottle, signing and posing for photos. He seemed the genuinely enjoy interacting with everyone.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products
Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products

Like Wild Turkey, this was a last minute addition to our itinerary, and we took the basic consumer tour. Buffalo Trace offers all of its tours free of charge, which combined with touring on a Saturday meant the place was packed with tourists eager to see the distillery and taste their products. We waited almost an hour after getting our tickets before our tour started. Our tasting was limited to two of the four products they offered, and was a cattle call at the bar affair. Not my cup of tea, or glass of bourbon, but the tour achieves what it ought to do, and the price cannot be beat.

Deciphering Whiskey Labels

It’s all about Marketing

Whiskey labels, in the United States, are little more that advertising billboards. As such, they are the realm of the marketing wizards of the whiskey world. While labels serve to inform us, their real purpose is to encourage us to buy. Therefore, those who design and write the labels are less concerned with informing us and more concerned with motivating us. Fortunately, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the United States Department of the Treasury, must approve a label before it can be used. However, while they have rules in place to prevent the most egregious marketing ploys, at the end of the day they allow wide latitude to the whiskey producers.

Whiskey or Whisky that is the Question

Makers Mark Label
Photo Credit Beam Suntory

The TTB does not mandate the use of one spelling over the other in the United States. However, typically, usually, normally, here in the US, we follow the informal rule of “E”. Within the wonderful of distilled spirits production, over time, an informal convention has come to prevail. Generally, if the country of origin has an “E” in the name of the country, it’s whiskey. If the country’s name doesn’t have an “E”, it’s whisky. As a result, in the United States, producers typically use whiskey, while in Scotland it is whisky. However, the producers of Maker’s Mark, George Dickel, and Old Forester have chosen to use whisky. Go figure. 🙂

Bourbon or Whiskey that is the other Question

I recently covered the six requirements TTB has established for calling a whiskey bourbon here. In summary, to be bourbon the whiskey must be made in the US, use a mash bill of at least 51% corn, be distilled to no more than 160 proof, be stored in an unused, charred oak container (barrel), go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Surprisingly to many, the TTB has not established an age requirement.

Other Key Terms

Most labels use many other terms, all of which convey important information, or offer the producer a valuable marketing opportunity. Here are some of the most common, and most important.

  • Age Statement – The TTB does not require an age statement, unless the youngest whiskey in the bottle is less than four years old. The “youngest” requirement is key. Whiskey producers usually blend from many different barrels to achieve a consistent product. Oftentimes, this means they are blending in whiskeys of differing ages. The TTB says the age statement must reflect the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
  • Kentucky Bourbon – The Commonwealth of Kentucky has a law that mandates the term Kentucky Bourbon can only be applied to whiskey that was distilled in Kentucky and aged for at least one year in Kentucky.
  • Straight Whiskey or Bourbon – To be labeled “Straight” the TTB says the whiskey must be aged at least 2 years.
  • Single Barrel – Single barrel products, usually sold at a premium price, are becoming increasingly popular. So, what’s the TTB legal requirement for putting “Single Barrel” on the label? Not a darn thing. That’s right, in the US, no legal requirement exists for the term “Single Barrel”. It’s simply a marketing term. That said, it is usually meant to indicate that the whiskey in the bottle came from a single barrel. It doesn’t mean it’s been bottled at cask strength. The producer can, and often does, cut the proof down to a level the distiller thinks best suits the whiskey.
  • Cask Strength – Like single barrel, this is a marketing term, and is generally understood that the whiskey is bottled straight from the barrel with no water added to lower the proof. Since the proof varies over time as it ages, this is the only way the TTB requirement of bottling at no more than 125 proof can be circumvented.
  • Small Batch – Once again, the TTB has not established a legal definition. Therefore, small batch can be used to describe a bottling run of a few thousand bottles or a few million bottles. It’s up to the producer and its marketing staff.
  • Handmade – Another marketing term. If you’ve been to a major distillery you undoubtedly noticed not that many hands are being used in the distilling process. It’s typically a massive industrial process with little human intervention. Of course, people are involved in numerous activities required to get the bottles out the door. However, to me, little in the process, deserves to be called “handmade”.
  • Flavored – Flavored whiskey products are becoming more and more popular, such as Jim Beam Honey or Knob Creek Maple. Legally, these cannot be sold as bourbon. Instead, they are a liquor or a distilled spirits specialty.
  • Jim Beam Double Oak Label
    Photo Credit Beam Suntroy

    Second Maturation – Once the whiskey, which may be bourbon, has aged somewhat, some producers use a second aging process to produce a distinctive end product to sell at a premium price. Examples include Jim Beam Double Oak and Jefferson Groth Reserve Cask Finish. If the producer intends to sell the finished product as bourbon, this second maturation process cannot take place in a used, non-oak, or non-charred container (barrel). If it does, as with the Jefferson Groth Reserve Cask Finish, the resulting end product cannot be sold as bourbon.

  • Bottle in Bond – Sometimes referred to as “The Good Stuff” the legal term Bottled in Bond (BIB) originated in the US with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. To qualify as BIB, all of the whiskey in the bottle must have been produced in the same year at the same distillery. No blending of different aged whiskey, even if it’s from the same distillery, is allowed. It also must be bottled at 100 proof, and must be aged for at least four years in a government bonded warehouse. The BIB law came into being during an age of anything goes in American whiskey making, which made it difficult for makers of quality whiskey to compete. This led some distillers, such as Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. (creator of Old Taylor bourbon), to advocate for a law that would allow them to differentiate their products from the swill being produced by so many others. Hence, the moniker “The Good Stuff”.

Repackaging

In my recent article about vodka, I described how some companies purchase distillate from someone else and bottle it as their own. Generally speaking, these companies are referred to as Non-Distilling Producers (NDP). Sometimes whiskey NDPs are craft distilleries who are just getting started and are working to build a brand. Other times, they are well known major producers who want to expand their product lines. Within the wonderful world of whiskey, prominent NDP whiskeys include some or all of the WhistlePig, Jefferson, George Dickel, and Bulleit product lines. As an example, George Dickel Rye Whiskey and Bulleit Rye Whiskey are both distilled by Midwest Grain Products of Indiana.

Dickel Rye Label
Photo Credit George A. Dickel & Co.

The TTB rules regarding the labeling of repackaged products aren’t as strong as I would like to see, allowing some NDPs to skate awfully close to the “telling stories” line. The key is to look for the words “Distilled at” or Distilled By” or some similar statement. The TTB doesn’t allow a NDP to claim credit for distilling. As an example, the label on George Dickel Rye very clearly states it is distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, home to MGP. Bulleit is a bit more subtle, and simply states their rye whiskey was produced by Bulleit Distilling Company in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Keep in mind that a NDP legally can have the word “Distilling” in their company name, even if they do not distill, or even bottle, anything.

So there you are, a handy dandy guide to reading whiskey labels. I hope this helps you make informed decisions about which whiskey to buy next time you are shopping around.

The Booze Cruzer

What Makes Whiskey Bourbon

Bourbon according to 27 C.F.R.

27 C.F.R.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Well, not actually. It was indeed a long time ago, 1978 to be exact, but not too far away. It was in Mobile, Alabama, and I was a senior at the University of South Alabama. My career ambition was to be an Army officer. However, my grade point average was so dismal my chances of being allowed on active duty seemed equally dismal. So I formulated Plan B for employment, just in case Plan A did not work out. Plan B was to enter into the management training program with the restaurant chain where I was working as a cook. My manager allowed me to cross train in multiple other positions in the restaurant to help me get a head start. One of those positions was bartender. One of the first bits of knowledge passed along to me was the difference between whiskey and bourbon. The bartender training me solemnly told me bourbon had to be made in Kentucky, and it had to be aged for at least three years in charred oak barrels. Until recently, that’s what I believed. Then, a few months ago, I began my quest for knowledge about all things concerning distilled spirits, wines, and beers, and discovered I had been grossly misinformed way back in 1978. Now I know what is, and is not bourbon, thanks to reading the United States law that governs whiskey and bourbon. That law is formally known as Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations (27 C.F.R). Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, Section 5.22 lays out all the pertinent facts. You can find it here (https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/27/5.22), if you have a burning desire to read the legalese.

Where it’s Made

Contrary to what I was told in 1978, Title 27 C.F.R stipulates that bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States. There is no requirement for it to be produced in Kentucky. However, the State of Kentucky has a law that specifies that the product must have been distilled in Kentucky and aged in Kentucky for at least one year to be labeled as Kentucky Bourbon. So bourbon can be produced anywhere in the US, even Alaska or Hawaii, which is not as farfetched as that might seem given the growing popularity of craft distilleries. Finally, even though bourbon does not have to be produced in Kentucky, as of 2018, somewhere around 95% of all bourbon produced in the United States comes from Kentucky.

The Mash Bill

According to Title 27 C.F.R, the mash bill, or the grains used to make the distilled alcohol, must consist of at least 51% corn. In practice, most bourbons use a mash mill somewhere between 60% to 80% corn. They can, and often do, use other grains such as wheat or rye to influence the flavor of the bourbon. Additionally, malted barley is almost always used to help jump start the fermentation process. As an example, Four Roses Distillery depends upon two mash bills for its entire product line. One is 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% barley, and the other is 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% barley.

Distilling

Title 27 C.F.R mandates that bourbon can be distilled to no more than 165 proof, or 82.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). In contrast, vodka must be distilled to 190 proof or 95% ABV. The reason this is important for bourbon is that the more pure the alcohol, that is, the higher the proof, the more compounds that we humans perceive as different tastes, are stripped out. If a distiller put 195 proof alcohol into a charred oak barrel and aged it for several years it would not taste like the spirit we know as bourbon. This is because many of the compounds that help give bourbon its distinctive taste were stripped away in the distilling process. That’s why vodka is usually described as having a clean, or neutral taste. That’s also why most bourbon is usually distilled to around 140 proof. The art of bourbon distilling is all about getting rid of compounds that impart a bad taste, but preserving compounds that, when aged, taste good. Even though 27 C.F.R. allows distilling of bourbon up to 165 proof, most bourbon distillers stop at 140 proof to preserve a wider range of flavor compounds.

The Magical Charred Oak Barrel

Interestingly, 27 C.F.R. does not mandate the use of a barrel. The law states “charred new oak containers”. Of course, the container of choice has been, and will likely continue to be, a barrel. The use of an unused or new, charred oak container, hereafter in this article referred to as a barrel, is one of the most important requirements that sets bourbon apart from other whiskeys. Many producers of fine scotch whiskey use charred oak barrels, usually used barrels from one of the American bourbon producers. The reason 27 C.F.R. mandates new barrels for bourbon is because used barrels do not transform those flavor compounds in the distilled alcohol into tasty flavors to the extent of a new barrel. As the alcohol ages in the new charred oak barrel, the liquid moves into and out of the wood fibers, passing through the charred layer as it does so. This intimate contact with the cells of the wood extracts some bad tasting compounds, and transforms others into tastes we like such as vanilla, brown sugar, or caramel. The barrel also provides 100% of the amber color that separates bourbon from whiskeys that are colored using E150a.

Barreling

The law tells the producer that alcohol destined to be labeled as bourbon must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% ABV. Again, the reason is all about the future taste of the resulting whiskey. As the whiskey ages in the barrel, the proof or ABV usually varies over time, either increasing in proof as the angels take their share, or even going lower in proof. This up or down, or even up and down process, is driven by the location and design of the rick house (where the barrels are stored), where in the rick house an individual barrel is stored, such as up high in the heat or down low where it’s cool, the weather, and whether or not the distiller rotates the barrels around the rick house.

Bottling

Bourbon, according to 27 C.F.R., must be bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or higher. Recall that bourbon cannot be barreled at more than 125 proof. So how do some bottles, such as George T. Stagg, get bottled at proof levels in excess of 125? The answer is those angels in the rick house. As noted above, some barrels will increase in proof over time due to the loss attributed to the angels. Some producers elect to bottle at “cask” or “barrel” strength, which can result in bottles at more than 125 proof.

Nothing but Bourbon

Bourbon based specialty products, or liquors, such as Jim Beam Apple or Knob Creek Smoked Maple as rapidly growing in popularity. They may taste good, but they are not legally bourbon anymore. Once the producer adds a flavoring agent, a coloring agent, or even puts the bourbon into another barrel that is not unused or is not charred it can no longer be sold as bourbon. Jefferson’s Reserve Groth Cask Finish may taste really good, (to you, not so much to me), but it is not bourbon. The moment the bourbon goes into the used Cabernet Sauvignon barrel it stops being bourbon. On the other hand, when the Jim Beam distillery puts their flagship White Label bourbon into a second unused charred oak barrel for further aging to produce their Double Oak product, it’s still bourbon.

Aging

I started off this article with the mistaken belief that bourbon must be made in Kentucky. I am ending with the mistaken belief that bourbon must be aged a certain number of years. It does not. Not four years, not two years, not even one year. The law, 27 C.F.R. again, simply says the whiskey must be “stored” in that new charred oak container. The length of time it must be stored is not stipulated. In theory, as one master distiller famously stated, the distiller could walk the freshly produced alcohol from the still to the bottling line in a brand new charred oak bucket, and call it bourbon. Of course, no one would, as the resulting whiskey would not sell well as bourbon. It would however, sell reasonably well as White Dog or Moonshine. One last note on aging. Some age requirements do exist. As previously noted, to be labeled Kentucky Bourbon it must be aged at least one year. Straight Bourbon must be aged at least two years. Finally, any bourbon aged less than four years must have its age noted somewhere on the bottle’s labeling.

So Now You Know

So now you know what makes bourbon, bourbon, according to US law. It must be made in the USA, with a mash bill of at least 51% corn, distilled to no more than 165 proof, stored at no more than 125 proof, in a new, charred oak container, bottled at no less than 80 proof, nothing added, and no age requirement.

By the way, I never had to use Plan B. Thankfully, the Army looked past my grades and allowed me to serve 20 years on active duty.

Cheers!

The Booze Cruzer