How is whiskey made? The alchemy of aging bourbon

 

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Perhaps more than any other product, bourbon whiskey is sold on the process. It's all filtering through charcoal for several epochs and wizened old men gently tapping gnarled barrels on verandas.

Seeing these kind of advertisements plastered on billboards all the time it's hard not to be cynical and imagine, given the major brands' ubiquity in bars, that in reality their liquors are produced in steel monstrosities staffed by orphans.

It came as a relief then, that pulling into Woodford Reserve Distillery in rural Kentucky I found the bucolic scene you'd hope for, an old wooden house that serves as the entrance centre being nestled between a lazy stream and green hills unravelling toward the horizon.

Woodford's Master Distiller Chris Morris greets us and leads us down to a patio for a light lunch and some bread pudding (with bourbon sauce, naturally), a man who is a bottle-signing celebrity among whiskey afficionados, but utterly humble in person, dressed in dad attire (jeans and a polo shirt) with a layer of dust from the distillery clinging to his cap.

I was feeling about as zen as possible, sitting on a wall near a barbecue fueled by charred whiskey barrel staves, rampantly-growing wild mint surrounding me, but it was time for the tour, to crack open a few barrels and learn how bourbon gets its complex, velvety and horrendously morish flavour.

The 5 basic stages of Woodford Reserve production

1. The mash

Mineral-rich, iron-free limestone filtered water is combined with a unique yeast strain.

It is added to grain, made up of 71% corn (it has to be over 51% to be considered bourbon), 10% malted barley and a high amount of rye (18%) which gives a spice character

2. Fermentation

The mash is transferred to cyprus wood fermenters, where the yeast converts the sugars into alcohol.

3. Distillation

Triple pot distillation takes place in copper pot stills (made in Scotland and shipped to Kentucky) as copper is an excellent heat conductor and reacts favourably with alcohol vapours to remove sulphite and impart flavour.

Mash from the fermentors is pumped into the first still, known as the beer still, where heat forces the vaporised alcohol up the goose neck and passes through a condenser which turns it into a 40 proof spirit known as 'low wine'.

The low wine is then pumped into the second still, where it is heated and vaporised again, creating a 110 proof spirit called 'high wine'.

High wine then goes through to the spirit still, producing a crystal clear 158-proof spirit referred to as 'new make'.

4. Maturation

The barrels are of utmost importance to good whiskey, and Woodford's are made in their own cooperage, crafted, toasted and charred before being filled with the new make.

During maturation the bourbon expands into the barrel in warm temperatures and is drawn back out in colder ones. Temperature controlled warehouses allow them to enhance the flavour developed from the charred wood.

5. Then, after many months, comes the fun bit, uncorking and pouring.