Straight to Ale (STA) Brewing and Distilling

Straight to Ale Huntsville Alabama

A Renewal Story

I had the privilege of making a visit to one of Alabama’s largest production breweries. Located in Huntsville Alabama, Straight to Ale (STA) is more than just another craft brewery. Straight to Ale operates as a brewery, a distillery, a restaurant, and an arcade occupying 45,000 square feet in Huntsville’s Campus 805. Campus 805 began life in 1951 as one of Huntsville’s public high schools. In 1967,  as the city grew, the campus transitioned into a middle school. However, once again, as the city’s needs changed, the school was closed and the property passed into private hands. Working together with the city and two anchor tenants, one of them Straight to Ale, the developer set about creating a multipurpose entertainment venue. The end result brings together not one, but two craft breweries and distilleries, Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer, with other restaurants, catering services, event venues, a public park, and even an axe throwing business, Civil Axe.

A Story of Growth

Straight to Ale began life as a home brewing operation, but shifted into the commercial world with a 500 square foot space in the old Lowe Mill, a factory given rebirth as an arts and craft center. As sales grew, the owners shifted operation to a 10,000 square foot facility on the south side of Huntsville. Eventually, the business began to outgrow that facility as well leading the owners to begin looking for the next step. That next step, taken hand in hand with the developer, was the creation of today’s location in Campus 805. This new, and much larger facility, allowed STA to grow not only in size, but to add the distillery, the restaurant, and the arcade to ensure they offered something for everyone.

One of the keys to Straight to Ale’s growth has been the evolving Federal and Alabama state laws pertaining to the craft brewing and distilling industries. Some changes, such as the tax relief provided by the recent US Tax Act of 2017, have allowed Straight to Ale to invest into their manufacturing operations, both in personnel and equipment. The elimination of Alabama laws such as the ones that prohibited onsite sales also helped fuel Straight to Ale’s growth. Nevertheless, legal barriers such as record keeping, and restrictions on onsite sales, still exist.

My guide for this visit was Kimberly, STA’s Marketing Director. She was extremely helpful in ensuring my many and detailed questions were answered, and that I had the opportunity to see everything I wanted to see at STA. Thank you again for a wonderful visit.

STA Brewery Operations

The heart and major driving force of STA is the brewery. They produce a wide variety of beers and ales, most of which is available on tap or in cans throughout Alabama. According to Bob, STA’s lead brewer, the brewery is making about 700 barrels of beer each month. Most of STA’s brewing equipment was purchased from Premier Stainless in California.

Monkeynaut India Pale Ale (IPA)

Where the Magic Happens

Monkeynaut IPA is an American IPA style beer with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 7.25% and an International Bitterness Units (IBU) rating of 75. STA describes this beer as “citrusy, floral hop aroma, a strong malt body, and a crisp finish”. I love IPAs, especially with spicy foods, and I really enjoy this IPA. STA uses a mill system from Malt Handling LLC to mill all its source grains onsite. This allows them to pull from their silos of base malts on an as needed basis. Milling onsite helps them to produce a consistent product and facilitates the breakdown of sugars into alcohol.

STA uses a mash bill comprised of 2 row barley [] to produce Monkeynaut IPA. They add some Crystal Malt to the mash [] to add sweetness and color to the finished beer. STA uses a Centennial hop in Monkeynaut which creates a very nice balance of citrus and floral notes with the bitterness of the IPA style.

Monkeynaut IPA started from the founder’s homebrewing days and was scaled up and adjusted to match STA’s brewery equipment. This includes the choice of 75 IBUs since, according to STA, this is close to the original for this brew and is a perfect balance to the malty backbone. STA achieves this bitterness rating by adding several hop additions throughout the brew process along with a heavy doses of dry hopping. STA doesn’t use any other bittering agents in their Monkeynaut IPA.

Laika Bourbon Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout

According to STA this beer is a big bad Russian Imperial Stout that has lots of dark, crystal, chocolate, and flaked malts; along with a hearty amount of sweet molasses added in the boil. It is aged anywhere from 4-12months in used bourbon barrels. Laika is an adapted homebrew recipe, with an ABV of 10.1% that falls with the accepted style for stouts. I have not yet tried this beer, but it is on my have to do list for 2019.

STA Distillery Operations

STA’s still, which includes a 4 plate column, a 16 plate column and a gin basket, was purchased from Minnetonka Brewing & Equipment Company in Minnesota. They also have a small pilot still that they use to experiment with different products. The pilot still is currently being used to test producing absinthe.

Shelta Caverns Monkeynaut Whiskey

Whether its Whiskey, Gin, or Vodka, the Distilling Starts Here

When I first reached out to STA to ask if I could visit and write a blog post, I told them I wanted to focus on their Light Whiskey offering. When I asked about the mashbill for this whiskey, the answer was Monkeynaut IPA beer. My perceptive response was “Huh? Do you mean you make it from beer?” The answer was yes, and Glenn and Cade, the STA distillers, then proceeded to educate me about German beer schnapps. Turns out those crafty Germans have been turning excess or even poorly brewed beer into a distilled spirit for centuries. It is however, not something that is done today on a large scale industrial basis. In fact, it’s not something that’s done much at all. In the US only few craft operations such as STA and Arcane Distilling are turning beer into whiskey.

As we were discussing this amazing (to me) whiskey Glenn quickly poured up a small sample of the Whiskeynaut white dog for me. The aroma was incredibly floral, without any hint of the unpleasant congeners typical of white dog. Glenn explained that they distill the whiskey to 180 proof, nearly the level of vodka, thereby removing most of the non-ethanol compounds. The whiskey is distilled twice, first a stripping run using only the still, followed by a spirits run using the still and the 4 plate column. The raw whiskey goes into new oak barrels with a 3 or 4 level char at 100 to 120 proof. Oak chips are added to accelerate the aging process. Despite the high proof, the hops in the beer power through to give the distillate its wonderful floral aroma. Glenn then gave me a sample of the finished aged whiskey, which is bottled at 80 proof. Again, the wonderful floral notes were there, both in my nose and on my palate. The color was a nice pale amber reminiscent of a good scotch.

Shelta Caverns Gin

The gin uses a mash bill of 2-row barley and wheat, a dry yeast produced specifically for neutral washes, and juniper berries for flavor. The first step in making this spirit is to create a 190 proof distillate using the sixteen plate column. Fundamentally, this first run produces a spirit that could be sold as a vodka. This distillate is then diluted and redistilled through the gin basket at 100 proof which creates the characteristic gin flavor. The finished distillate is cut to 80 proof and then bottled.


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.

Touring the Jack Daniels Cooperage in Trinity, Alabama

Barrel Number One from the Jack Daniels Copperage

Touring the Jack Daniels Cooperage

I recently had the privilege of touring the Jack Daniels Cooperage in Trinity, Alabama for two hours, as part of a group from the Alabama Forest Owners’ Association. Brown-Forman opened this cooperage in July 2014. It is designed to produce 1200 barrels a day for a total of 285,000 barrels each year. All of the cooperage’s output is shipped to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Tennessee. Compare this to the output of the Jack Daniels Distillery in the 1890s when they produced 8 barrels a day and had only 6,000 barrels aging in their warehouses.

The Plant Manager, Darrell, gave us an introductory briefing, and showed us a short video that provided a good overview of the role the cooperage plays in the production of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, and the basic steps in barrel making. Bryon, one of the Team Leaders, then took us on a guided tour of the plant. He showed us every step in the process, except for the toasting process, which is proprietary and protected from prying eyes. Both men were gracious and extremely informative. It was also evident that both men were extremely proud of their plant and its role in producing Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

We were very fortunate to be able to tour the plant. Unlike the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, the cooperage is not open to the general public for tours. Our group was allowed to tour the plant due to our role in providing the white oak timber the plant uses to make the barrels.

This cooperage is one of two cooperages owned and operated by the Brown-Foreman Corporation, the owner of the Jack Daniels brand and distillery. The firm’s other cooperage, the Brown-Foreman Cooperage, is located in Louisville, KY, and provides barrels to Jack Daniels as well as other Brown-Foreman distilleries. The Jack Daniels Cooperage in Trinity exclusively supports the Jack Daniels Distillery.

Role of the Barrel in Making Whiskey

The Whiskey Line
The Whiskey Line

Aging whiskey in new charred oak barrels is what turns the clear, raw alcohol that comes out of the still, with all its rough edges, into the amber colored smooth tasting drink we love. In fact, many people believe the barrel is the most important ingredient in making American whiskeys. One caveat however, when talking about Tennessee Whiskey, such as Jack Daniels. In Tennessee, they believe, and in my opinion rightfully so, in the value of the Lincoln County Process in making smooth sipping Tennessee Whiskey. Nevertheless, the barrel adds one hundred percent of the color to whiskey, and the majority, perhaps as much as eighty percent, of the flavor. In other words, without aging the alcohol in a charred oak barrel you wouldn’t have whiskey, you’d have a liquid commonly known as White Dog.

Sitting in the warehouse, known as a rickhouse in the whiskey industry, the barrels and their contents, are subjected changes in weather. It is these seasonal changes, with alternating cooling and warming periods that drive the whiskey into and out of the wooden staves of the barrels. Sometimes the whiskey seeps all the way out leaving marks on the sides of the barrel and giving the angels their share. However, typically, the whiskey only moves part way into the wood leaving a discernible “whiskey line”, as shown in this photo of a stave from a used whiskey barrel. As the whiskey moves in and out, it leaves behind undesirable flavors and picks up good tasting flavors such as vanilla and caramel. I’ll cover the miracle of barrel maturation in a future blog post.

Barrel Components

"J" Rivets on the Hoops to Designate the Barrel was Made at the Jack Daniels Cooperage
“J” Rivets

A standard 53 gallon whiskey barrel produced at this cooperage is a rather simple object. They consist of only a few major components; two barrel heads, 31 to 33 staves, and six steel hoops. One stave has a bunghole, into which a maple bung is hammered once the barrel is filled with raw whiskey. In a bit of an unusual twist the Brown-Forman Cooperages use especially marked rivets to identify its barrels. Each rivet head on a Jack Daniels Cooperage barrel is marked with a “J”. Barrels from the Brown-Forman Cooperage are marked with a “B”.

Steps in Barrel Making

These steps are mostly in order, as performed at the Jack Daniels Cooperage. Most steps are accomplished sequentially, in a serial fashion, but some are performed in parallel.

The first step is to season the raw staves the plant receives from the stave factory. The staves are stored outside in large stacks for up to nine months. This ensures that the staves are dry and free from sap which would impart an unpleasant taste to the whiskey. The seasoned unfinished staves are brought inside the cooperage and milled either into barrel staves or pieces for the barrel heads. During this process, the staves are repeatedly inspected throughout the milling process to reject any stave that would result in a leaky barrel.

A Barrel Raiser at Jack Daniels Cooperage Adds Two More Staves to the Barrel He is Making
A Barrel Raiser Adds Two More Staves to the Barrel He is Making

Once the head is formed one side is charred in a special oven. In a separate part of the cooperage, raw steel coil is cut to size, shaped into hoops, and riveted to form the hoops. The milled staves are brought to a barrel raiser, the worker who will build the barrel. The raiser selects each stave and places them, two by two, into the barrel making jig. (see photo). The last stave is the most important. It must fit snugly to prevent leakage, but cannot be too tight which would result in an oversized barrel which would cause storage problems in the rickhouse. The raiser places temporary bands around the top and bottom of the barrel. At this point, only the staves at the bottom of the barrel touch each other. The staves must be steamed to allow them to be bent into the full barrel shape and to prevent microscopic cracks from forming which would result in leaks.

Once the staves are steamed, the top of the barrel is bent into shape, and secured with a temporary band. At this point, the incomplete barrel has that familiar barrel shape, but is open at top and bottom, and no permanent hoops have yet been applied. It is now time to run the barrel through the toaster. The Jack Daniels Cooperage uses a proprietary toasting process that, they say, increases the barrel’s impact on the flavor of the whiskey during aging. During toasting the barrel is slowly and carefully heated over an extended period of time. This ensures the barrel doesn’t catch fire – that will come later. Toasting permanently sets the bend into the staves, and produces a compound called lignin that helps to flavor the whiskey. According to Jack Daniels, the deeper the toast, the more flavors the whiskey can extract from the wood.

Charring the Barrel at Jack Daniels Cooperage
Charring the Barrel

After toasting, the barrel moves on to the char station. The barrels are placed over a gas flame that heats the inside of the barrel to over 1500oF. After burning for about 13 seconds the barrels move over a water jet that extinguishes the flames. This results in the optimal layer of carbon, and the “red layer” just below the char, which combine to produce all of the color and most of the flavor you enjoy when sipping Jack Daniels.

Once charred, the barrels move to the Cozier machine which shaves the barrel staves to the correct length. An angled groove, called a chime, is then cut into the top and bottom edges of the barrel into which the heads are then set. At this point the first two permanent hoops are applied, one at each end of the barrel. The remaining four hoops, the quarter and bilge hoops, are now applied. The worker at the next workstation drills the bunghole and inserts a temporary rubber plug. He then injects a few gallons of water and air pressure into the barrel to test for water tightness. If all is well the barrel, still with the temporary bung and water, is loaded onto a truck for shipment to the Jack Daniels Distillery where it is filled with about 53 gallons of raw Jack Daniels whiskey and laid to age in one of their many rickhouses.

My visit to the Jack Daniels Cooperage has given me new insights into the importance of the barrel aging process in making American whiskey, especially Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. I am grateful to Brown-Forman and the Alabama Forest Owners’ Association for arranging this tour for those of us who attended the association’s recent annual conference at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, AL.

Cheers – The Booze Cruzer

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”.


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 (, 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.


Title 27 C.F.R mandates that bourbon can be distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% 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.


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.


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.


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.


The Booze Cruzer