Bourbon gets interesting. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the latest stage in the evolution of America’s home grown spirit.
First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2017 edition).
It’s impossible not to compare different styles of whisky. People will always be measuring one thing against the other, especially things with a similar purpose. When weighing up American whiskey alongside the other big styles, I’d always felt that it was a bit limited in its range of flavour. I justify this opinion objectively with reference to its casks in particular: whereas Scotch in contrast (or Irish for that matter) uses new and refill casks, made from American and European oak, treated by charring or toasting, with sizes and shapes from barrels to butts, seasoned by bourbon or sherry typically, but a wide variety of other liquors as well (and draws on this wide scope for its flavour profile), straight American whiskey is legally restricted to new, charred, oak, commercially restricted to white oak, conventionally restricted to barrels, and inevitably constrained as a consequence to a tighter band. It’s been the blue-collar worker, the enlisted man, the poorer cousin, of the whisky world. But things are a-changing, and bourbon is moving on up.
When I take a deeper look at any product I like to refer to its definition, the essence that gives it its identity and its constitution. These are usually found floating about on Wikipedia and in various other crevices, but I decided in this case to get as close to the source as possible. The site for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) of the United States publishes those for bourbon and straight bourbon as follows:
- Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers
- (Straight bourbon is) bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more
- “Straight Bourbon Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state […will big straight bourbon blends become a thing?]
The exercise allowed me to make two interesting observations, one peripheral the other central, which I otherwise wouldn’t if I hadn’t sourced the original reference: firstly, that the legislators in the US have used the “whisky” spelling rather than the conventional “whiskey” spelling. This may be vestigial, having remained in place from the earliest laws governing production, before the Irish and Americans introduced the e to differentiate their products from Scotch; and secondly, that there is a huge variety of whiskey styles in the United States, the bar for most being very low. This reinforced to me that the credibility of American whiskey as a broad category rests on straight whisky. The ability thus to generate complexity and variety within the scope of these definitions is critical.
The bourbon regulations allow more latitude with stills, and mashbills, relative to some other styles. This is the reason why a brand like Woodford Reserve is able to employ a triple pot distillation to distinguish its product and flavour profile from most other bourbons, which are double distilled in column and doubler stills (essentially a combination of a column still and a pot still). The still types and distillation techniques may promote flavour subtleties between one bourbon and another, but it’s a measured contribution, not a revolution – the stuff of a sergeant’s stripes, not a commission. The mashbill is more impactful. Corn must be predominant, but thereafter, in the selection and weighting of the secondary ingredient (known as the flavour grain, because of its pivotal influence), there is room to play – with three basic styles resulting: wheated, rye, and high rye. The former tends to be softer and sweeter, with cereal and grass flavours prominent – and there’s a preconception that it matures more gracefully, largely on the back of the Pappy van Winkle legacy I would think – whilst the latter two are bolder, spicier and fruitier. A bourbon becomes high rye when this component approaches and exceeds 20% of the mashbill. These three styles are well populated but the inclination to further tap this ostensibly rich vein seems muted. Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor Four Grain, using corn, malted barley (the standard tertiary ingredient, there to assist with fermentation) and BOTH rye and wheat, is a recent rare iteration (although there have been others). This is a transcending era though, so it’ll be interesting to see what else springs from this well in the next few years. Maybe an entirely new grain could be attempted, like unmalted barley.
We don’t get many American whiskeys in South Africa – perhaps that’s indicative of my starting point in itself – so we’re a little behind on the latest developments. Sadly too, the Buffalo Trace distillery, one of the more innovative producers, is not presently represented locally. We’re unlikely therefore to be seeing any Taylor bottles on our shelves anytime son. Interestingly however the heralds to our shores of bourbon’s new swagger are products exploiting the most restrictive aspect of the definition: that guiding the maturation. New charred oak only? It’s a hell of a limit, but one that absolutely had to be challenged if any headway was to be made – time and wood are whisky’s single most important sources of flavour.
The wonderful Knob Creek, one of the standout bourbons to which we have ready access, is evidence of the initial forays, pushing charring to its maximum to better access the flavours in the woods and to carve a route for the liquid to travel and make deepest possible contact. Jim Beam’s Double Oak, one of the latest arrivals, takes a leaf from Scotch with its double maturation (albeit both in same barrel styles), producing a succulent whiskey that’s rich, sweet and oaky, and highly drinkable. I cracked a bottle with some colleagues after work, intending a quick drink before ducking home, but before I knew it a few hours had passed and the bottle was done. Most inspiring though is the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. The distillery has become known in the past while for its innovative work with wood – their Maple Wood Finish in particular was ground-breaking, although like many of the other products in their Master’s Collection it can’t be called a bourbon, so probably destined to stay niched. The Double Oaked is most certainly a bourbon, also double matured like the Jim Beam, with the second racking being in casks that were deeply toasted first then submitted to a light charring. The resulting depth of flavour has put my notions about the constrained potential of bourbon to the sword.
There’s a lot more that’s happening, and that can and will happen: the use of other oak species, of larger casks (particularly for a spirit that overcooks easily), of White oak grown in different eco-systems, to name just a few possibilities. We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg but it’s enough to convince me that maturation – ironically, bourbon’s more confined and restrained space – is where the vital play is being, and will continue to be, made. The innovation that’s being wrought is its ticket to the big stage, to an eventual equal billing with its more fancied forerunners. I look forward with eager anticipation to the fruits of the endeavour. May the dram be with you.