top of page
  • Writer's

Bourbon 201

I toured five bourbon distilleries while I was in Kentucky. Only one was in Bourbon County! I figured it was worth documenting what I learned. Ready for class?

Some Background

- Bourbon is a subcategory of whiskey.

- To be called bourbon, the product must (1) contain at least 51 percent corn; (2) be aged at least two years in a new charred barrel made of white oak; (3) cannot be distilled to any more than 160 proof; (4) cannot be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof; (5) be made in the United States (used to be only Kentucky but no longer.

The Business

- As of October there are 298 bourbons on the market.

- Jim Beam is the largest producer.

- A number of distilleries produce more than one brand.

- There are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people and horses. Beam itself has 1.7 million barrels aging. Talk about working capital! Heaven Hill has 1.1 million barrels in the aging process (second most).

The Process For Making Bourbon

Step 1. Milling

Depending on the recipe of the bourbon, grains are ground and weighed to the correct % of each grain. The grains used are corn, rye (often), wheat and malted barley. The grains are added to the cooker along with water and some of the “set back“ from the previous run (this is also called the “sour mash process…it’s the liquid that is left after the alcohol is all distilled out.)  The cooking process is done to release all the starches from the corn, rye, or wheat.

Step 2 Cooking

For making bourbon, corn is added first, then the rye and wheat and then the malted barley is added last.  Malted barley is very important.  “Malted” means that it actually sprouts and starts growing a plant.  When it does that it releases enzymes to feed that plant.  When the malted barley is added to the cook, those enzymes immediately turn those starches in to sugar.  The next process is fermentation, and since yeast can not feed on starch, the malted barley turns those starches in to eatable sugars for the yeast.

Step 3. Fermentation

After the mash is cooked and the barley has been added to turn those starches in to sugars, it is pumped over to a fermenter which is a simply a large tub (stainless steel or Cyprus wood) and yeast is added.  Yeast are single celled organisms that are just like people going to a Las Vegas buffet because all they want to do is eat.  As they eat, they belch out cO2 and piss alcohol, and they give off heat all during this feeding frenzy.  After about 3 days of non-stop eating, the yeast die off and that sweet mash that started out originally with all that sugar, now kind of tastes like a stale beer (and a little sour) and we have a low alcohol “distillers beer”.

Step 4. Distilling

That distillers beer is fed 3/4 of the way up to a column still, and steam comes up from the bottom of that first distillation in that column still (also called a beer still) under 212 degrees.  Since alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, the alcohol rises out of the top of the still. Cold water tubes surround that pipe of alcohol vapors and that condenses that vapor back in to liquid, and that is what comes off the first tail box (also called a trybox).  This still just raised the alcohol content from low proof alcohol, into a higher proof, usually around 125 proof or so, depending on the distillery and the product.  This is a pretty clean product, but it has a bit too many fusel oils (bad stuff that gives you a headache) so it needs one more distillation to be cleaned up.

The grains and liquid that are left over from the first distillation are separated, and the liquid is added to the next cook and fermenters to help the PH levels and helps give a consistent flavor profile from mash to mash.  The alcohol is sent to a second still that is not a column still (since it is only liquid and no grains) and it is a sort of hybrid pot still called a “doubler” (since this is the second distillation).  After it is distilled a second time the product comes out around 135 proof, and is very clean and less oily. This product is called white dog.

Step 5. Barreling

The white dog is sent to the fill house to a retention tank, since bourbon can’t enter the barrel at more than 125 proof, water is added to that product to bring it down from the 135 to 125 proof in that retention tank, and then it is entered in to the barrels and the barrels are put up in the rickhouses for aging.

Some Factoids

- The ingredients for bourbon are corn, water (the water in Kentucky has great chemistry for making bourbon), barley, wheat and most often rye. Rye is the ingredient that gives bourbon it’s spiciness/peppery taste. A bourbon made without rye (example, Pappy’s, Maker’s) will be smoother And is called a wheated bourbon.

- All the ingredients but the rye are sourced from Kentucky. Rye comes from outside the state.

- That burn you get after your first taste of bourbon is called a “Kentucky hug.” It is important to drink bourbon slowly, especially as the first sip fills your taste buds.

- Like wine, the suggestion is to breath the bourbon by tipping the glass and smelling it with your mouth open. This prepares your taste buds for the treat that is coming.

- According to the experts, there are only four ways to drink bourbon - straight (neat), over crushed ice, over ice cubes or with a touch of water.

- The magic is in the aging process. Each barrel, which can only be used once for bourbon, is charred on the inside to one of four levels. Then 53 gallons of white dog is put in the barrel, it is plugged and put in a “rickhouse“ where the barrels are stored horizontally. The liquid and the wood interact in a process called cycling driven in large part by the heat and cooling of the rickhouse. The rickhouses are upwards of seven stories tall without air conditioning or heating (with some exceptions). Some companies rotate their barrels from low to high; some fon’t.

- A small batch bourbon is made of a blend of 50 to 200 barrels.

- Straight whiskey comes from one barrel..

- The aging process in a barrel results in some of the product evaporating. The first year it can be 10 percent. After seven or eight years, the barrel may only contain half the original amount. But since water evaporates more easily than alcohol, the proof of the product increases over time.

- The evaporation results in the rickhouse having a sweet bourbon smell. That smell is called “angel’s breath” or “angel’s take.”

- the barrel contributes the color to the bourbon and also contributes to the flavor.

- since barrels cannot be reused for making bourbon, they are sold to other companies who can use them to make their product (Scotch, for example).


After all this learning, I’m pretty sure I’m not a bourbon guy. But if I had to I’d go with Woodford, Maker’s or Jefferson’s. Otherwise, give me rum.

19 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page