An inside look at what it takes to make bourbon
o be called Champagne, sparkling wine must come from a certain region of France. Tequila, similarly, must be made in Mexico.
Whiskey is distilled all over the world — but by federal law, only whiskey made in the United States with adherence to very specific guidelines can be called bourbon.
“You can do the exact same process in Canada and it would just be Canadian whiskey,” says Philip McDaniel, co-founder of St. Augustine Distillery in St. Augustine, Florida. “Bourbon is America’s whiskey.”
The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) Spirits Beverage Alcohol Manual details the guidelines as designated by Congress in 1964. To be called bourbon, a spirit must be “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.”
Let’s break that down, shall we?
Stage 1: Ingredients
The initial grain mixture, called a mash bill, must be at least 51% corn. But the rest of the recipe is up to the distiller and can include wheat, rye and/or malted barley (raw barley that has been soaked, germinated and then dried to halt the germination process).
Stage 2: Cooking
“You enter the corn first, bring it to a boil and hold that for a set period of time,” says David Defazio, co-founder of Wyoming Whiskey in Kirby, Wyoming. “Then you reduce the temperature and add your wheat.” The same process is repeated until the rest of the ingredients are added, breaking all the starches down into sugars. As soon as the cooking phase is over, the mash must be cooled as quickly as possible. Wyoming Whiskey pumps its mash into what’s essentially a giant radiator, bringing the mash down to about 80 degrees F in a matter of minutes.
Stage 3: Fermentation
The cooled mash is then piped into a fermentation tank and yeast is added. Different strains of yeast can produce different flavors. “The yeast consumes the sugars and it kicks off three things: heat, carbon dioxide and alcohol,” Defazio says. This process produces “wash,” the liquid used for the distilling process.
Stage 4: Distillation
The wash is then pumped into a still to vaporize the alcohol from the rest of the wash.
“Distillation pulls the alcohol off and leaves everything else behind,” Defazio says. The vapor is then led into a condenser where it liquefies again, creating raw whiskey. This can be done several times, and each time more impurities are removed, resulting in a higher and higher proof product. At Wyoming Whiskey, their product comes out of the still at 130 proof; water is added to reduce it to 114, a standard practice in bourbon-making.
Stage 5: Aging
The raw whiskey is then poured into new, charred American oak barrels and stored for a period of time, soaking in the flavors and colors of the barrel. There’s no minimum required time, so distillers make that choice. At St. Augustine Distillery, their Double-Cask Bourbon is aged for, on average, three years. Wyoming Whiskey’s bourbon is aged for around five years.
Stage 6: Bottling
Once the bourbon reaches the desired maturity, the barrels are sampled and selected, then the final product is bottled and sold.
There isn’t anything in the TTB’s manual about how a bourbon is “finished,” meaning what happens after all the requirements have been met.
After the initial aging is complete, distillers sometimes finish it to add complexity to the spirit’s flavor — like age the bourbon for a few more months in barrels that were previously used for port wine.