September is designated as a month of celebration for America’s only native spirit. Like most Kentuckians, we‘re loud and proud about our love of Bourbon. To commemorate Bourbon Heritage Month this year, we asked Master Distillers from around the state to share some of their secrets with you...
Tell us about your Collaborative Distilling Program.
Our Collaborative Distilling Program brings together some of the most experienced distillers in the industry under one roof. This completely unique and inclusive process allows our customers to create alongside us and drives education, innovation, and experimentation. We produce nearly 40 unique mash bills for some of the finest whiskey and bourbon brands, including Jefferson’s, High West, Belle Meade, Hirsch, Calumet, James E. Pepper, Cyrus Noble, and many others, led by three masters and a first-class team of operators, using some of the most sophisticated technology in distilling.
Tell us about your custom distilling.
Bardstown Bourbon Company’s custom distilling program provides access to consultation with our distillers, creating a transparent relationship with the team of operators.
This approach is fundamental to our core company philosophy of collaboration and transparency. Additionally, this completely unique and inclusive process allows our customers to create alongside us, providing both an education component and the capacity for true innovation.
What is Ignition?
Bardstown Bourbon Company’s open-source scalable SCADA platform Ignition has allowed internal programmers to design a system that efficiently controls processes, tracks and displays key data points, and allows us to analyze all captured data without limits. It’s a highly automated, state-of-the-art system that allows us to provide unmatched and unprecedented flexibility, transparency, and control of the whiskey production process.
What is a Master Distiller? What are the three most important aspects of the role?
A Master Distiller is one that has mastered their trade. It comes through experience and measured by the products that they make. Most important aspects would be; Quality driven, Functional and technical strength, People-focused.
How did you get started on your path to becoming a Master Distiller?
Getting started, I thought it was important to develop a good career path along with getting a good foundation of knowledge, whether it be through experience or education. Once the path was set,
I chose our distillery because I saw the potential and knew that there were lots of room for growth. I started at the bottom and worked my way through each challenge.
What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?
Whiskey is a category and bourbon is a type. There are many types of whiskeys, and bourbon is one of them.
What are the differences between brewing and distilling?
There are many similarities with regards to quality processes upfront. The grain handling, the yeasting – however the type of yeast and fermentation is a little different – and of course in distilling, there is the added step of the distillation processes. The way you treat the final product, and the time frames are quite different between brewing and distilling, with distillation and aging sometimes taking decades.
Where do you see the bourbon industry headed?
We see the bourbon industry continuing to grow into the near future. There are many opportunities globally, and we see no reason that bourbon cannot compete on a global scale. Bourbon has so many strengths, like flexibility, quality, history, value – just to name a few – so there is no reason bourbon can’t hold its own globally.
What is the difference between brewing and distilling?
There are countless similarities between brewing and distilling, but the main difference lies within managing the open fermentation cycles and embracing the controlled chaos that inevitably occurs with co-fermentations of wild yeast and bacteria. At New Riff, we are big believers in flora and fauna, the terroir of our distillery.
SIP ON THIS: Bourbon is an $8.6 billion signature industry in Kentucky, generating 20,100 jobs with an annual payroll of $1 billion.
What makes your bourbon different from other brands on the market?
We have been very lucky to have the backing of our family ownership to really do things “the right way,” even when it’s not the most profitable. This means we have been able to source the highest quality ingredients from around the world, use the best equipment in the industry, and wait the 4+ long years needed for our whiskey to fully mature.
What is your bourbon mash bill and why is that important for your brand?
Our flagship bourbon recipe is 65% corn, 30% rye & 5% malted barley. At New Riff, we consider ourselves a “rye-centric” distillery which simply means we love all things rye. The 30% rye contributes a nice peppery, citrus-forward nose that also balances the overall sweetness that people often associate with bourbon.
What do you enjoy most about being a Head Distiller?
Working within a tight-knit team that learns and grows together while making the best whiskey we possibly can.
What are the three most important aspects of being a Master Distiller? How do you feel about your title?
The role is a fiery mix of risk taking, mistake making and whiskey tasting. I feel like production and development is such a huge team effort, and I have a great team at KAD. I know there is so much to learn and apply to the craft that it may take a lifetime for me to accept the title.
How did you get started on your path to becoming a Master Distiller?
In a very non-traditional way. I was a part time bottling employee that fell in love with the industry and the production methods that are used. I had a background in logistics and operations management, which did pair well with my willingness to learn the new trade. I re-enrolled in college at Western Kentucky University and completed the Brewing and Distilling Sciences program, alongside taking international courses at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. I also had the support of Steve Thompson and Trey Zoeller. When I showed interest, they were able to help me get started and give me just enough freedom to make some mistakes and learn a lot.
What makes your bourbon, Whiskey Row, different than other brands on the market?
We have worked to be a throwback bourbon. We concentrate on good ingredients, good barrels, and good technique. This allows us to give this bourbon the attention it deserves through the process. This attention to detail, I feel, comes through on the final product. Our bottled in bond is an estate-grown, double copper pot distilled bourbon from Oldham county Kentucky. If that doesn’t make your mouth water, I don’t know what will!
For Whiskey Row, we are always blending for taste. So we go out and taste as many of the barrels as we can pre-blend, making sure we hit the flavor notes we are seeking. This process is normally a combination of distillery employees to give us varied palettes to compare flavor.
As for single barrels we normally mark certain barrels during the blending process that are highlights or “NOG’s ... Nectar Of the Gods. These barrels we set aside for special projects and single barrels.
What is in your bourbon mash bill and why is that important for your brand?
We strive to keep as much of our production local as possible, with 96% of our grains coming from less than a mile away from our distillery at Waldeck Farms. They grow a great product and we love to keep production as close to traditional as possible.
How would you explain the art of tasting and selecting bourbon?
Tasting is complicated because everyone has different palettes and likes different things but that is a good thing. This makes selecting and blending a product that everyone enjoys harder but much more satisfying because you know the customers are going to love it. My attempt at a definition would be the utilization of a variety of palettes to create a product the consumer will always be happy with.
How did you get started on your path to becoming a distiller?
Almost 4 years ago my original plan was to go into liquor sales, but I wanted experience in every part of the process so I could be an expert on my product. I began in bottling at Kentucky Artisan, and every day after my shift, I would go in back and bug Jade with questions. Eventually, he let me try my hand at distilling and I’ve been in love with it since
What do you enjoy most about being a distiller?
I’d say the pride in making a product that consumers enjoy so much, they will pay to see how I make it happen. I love interacting with tours that come through and answering questions or just making them feel special. It’s really cool to me that people are so interested in what I do everyday that they make trips from all over the world to learn and see how I do it. Since I started, I’ve said, “If people are willing to pay $10 and an hour of their day to come watch me do my job, then I must have a pretty cool job!”
Where do you see the bourbon industry going in the future?
I only see it skyrocketing. Bourbon has been flying off the shelf in the past ten years and I’ve seen some seemingly basic bourbons start becoming rare as they are so desirable. I think we will follow in the footsteps of craft beer boom and we will see a big craft spirits barrels we set aside for special projects and single barrels.
Why is aging so important to bourbon?
Aging or maturation is where bourbon derives a majority of its flavor and all of its color. All of the woody, oaky, and mellow flavors that whiskey lovers crave is all from the bourbon penetrating the charred layer into the barrel. And without aging, bourbon would be clear and not the beautiful amber that looks so good on the shelf or in a glass.
What makes your bourbon different?
It draws its inspiration from the origins of bourbon history. What really makes it so unique is it incorporates bourbons from states all along the Ohio River, much of which many people would not have an opportunity to try.
Why does Castle + Key not have a Master Distiller?
We have not had an individual in the Master Distiller role for over two years. Instead, we use a team of individuals that work collectively to create our spirits and represent our brand. We have multiple individuals that represent the different roles of a Master Distiller, such as research and development, distillery operations, quality, blending, and public relations. We value the collective effort of an entire team rather than an individual.
SIP ON THIS: Bourbon is America’s only native spirit, as declared by Congress in 1964. It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, stored at no more than 125 proof, and bottled no less than 80 proof.
How would you describe the art of tasting and selecting bourbon?
Being a distillery that is still in its infancy means that we have no historical data on how our barrels will age and mature on-site; therefore, we have to take a much more thoughtful approach to barrel selection and blending. The main rickhouse that we store barrels in, Warehouse B, is unlike any other in the world. It is five stories high and six hundred feet long and made entirely of brick. We carefully monitor the environmental conditions in our warehouses to predict how our bourbon will age, while also sampling and tasting our barrels often. We try to find the delicate balance between art and science by being both qualitative as well as quantitative in our evaluation process. For us, we desire bourbon that is not only high quality but has very unique characteristics, so we are always looking for those barrels that showcase the diversity of our whiskey.
What makes your rye whiskey different than other brands on the market?
We take a slightly different approach with our spirits; we strive for a consistency in quality rather than consistency of flavor. Each blended aged spirit will have a unique flavor profile based on barrels that were blended together and will be associated with a release year and batch number. The release year will be indicated on the gold foot badge at the bottom of each bottle and the batch number is specified on the back label. This vintage strategy is very commonly used in the wine industry.
What is in your bourbon mash bill and why is that important for your brand?
We make a traditional style rye bourbon as well as a wheated bourbon, both made from Kentucky-grown white corn. We also make a rye bourbon that is made with Hickory King corn, which is an heirloom variety of corn also grown in Kentucky. It is important to us that we honor the tradition of our historical distillery by using grain and yeast that is similar in profile to what would have been used at this site over a hundred years ago while also using a modern approach to bourbon production.
What is new on the horizon for your distillery? Anything new coming to the market?
We believe in creating all of our spirits from scratch and that approach has required us to be patient as we wait for our brown spirits to come of age. In December of 2020, we released our first rye whiskey, Restoration Rye. Our Restoration Rye 2020 Batch 1 won double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which was a testament to our incredible team and the time it’s taken us to release our spirit in what we feel is the right way.
This upcoming year will be a very big year for Castle & Key, since we’ll be releasing additional batches of our Restoration Rye as well as the first ever Castle & Key traditional and wheated bourbons.
Their char is different.
It takes just 40 seconds of fire to achieve Maker’s Mark customary number-three char. The process of firing barrels opens pores in the staves and caramelizes the natural wood sugars. This helps give Maker’s Mark those pleasant vanilla notes. But before the firing can happen, the cooperage (or barrel-building company) must “season” the new American white oak used for our barrels outdoors for nine months, including summer. This helps remove the bitter tannins in the wood that would otherwise go into the bourbon.
Their yeast strain is older than Maker’s itself.
Sometimes the best, freshest ingredient available is an heirloom yeast strain that’s more than 150 years old. In fact, this highly guarded microorganism has been passed down to every bottle of Maker’s Mark ever produced. Would it have been easier to switch to cheaper stock yeast when everyone else was? Sure. But, it wouldn’t be better. And, it wouldn’t be Maker’s Mark.
The yeast ferments in tanks that are original to the old Burks Distillery that predates Maker’s Mark. They’re made from cypress planks more than 100 years old. Hard to source these days, cypress is ideal because it has no effect on the flavor of Maker’s Mark.
Why red winter wheat mash?
Soft red winter wheat is the Maker’s Mark® flavoring grain and star of its mash bill. In a day when distiller’s rye – which can have an unwanted bite – was the go-to grain for whisky makers, Bill Samuels, Sr., set out for a flavor that would let his new bourbon stand out in the crowd. After some trial and error, he discovered exactly what he was thirsting for.
Why is Four Roses different? Why two mashbills?
Four Roses is the only Bourbon Distillery that combines 5 proprietary yeast strains with two separate mashbills to handcraft 10 distinct Bourbon recipes, each with its own unique character, spiciness, and rich fruity flavors. Up to all 10 recipes are mingled by hand to create Four Roses Bourbon. Six are mingled for Four Roses Small Batch Select Bourbon. Four are mingled for Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon. One recipe is hand selected for Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon.
We employ two unique mashbills (grain recipes) in our production. One is 60% corn, and the other is 75% corn. The lower corn mashbill contains 35% rye, significantly more than other Bourbons, resulting in a spicy, full-bodied taste.
Limestone-rich water from the spring-fed Salt River is added to the mashbill. Each mashbill is cooked
to perfection by tightly controlling the temperature to protect the delicate flavors of the different grains.
How is your warehousing different?
We’re the only distillery using single-story rack warehouses during the aging process to provide a gentle, undisturbed, and more consistent maturation process. The temperature varies by about 8 degrees Fahrenheit from the top rack to the bottom. Traditional, metal-clad, multi-story warehouses in Kentucky will vary in temperature by as much as 35 degrees.
Tell us about your two distillers.
Chris and Elizabeth have been integral in driving innovation and shaping the story of Woodford Reserve, sharing the belief that the keys to making the World’s Finest Bourbon are not only time and patience, but science and art.
As the second Master Distiller at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, Chris was an integral character in the development of Woodford Reserve. As head Master Distiller of one of the world’s fastest-growing bourbons, he spends his days innovating and planning future releases. Chris began his career in bourbon in 1976 as a trainee in Brown-Forman’s central lab. In 1997, he found himself as an understudy to Lincoln Henderson, Woodford Reserve’s Inaugural Master Distiller, who in 2003 Chris succeeded.
Woodford Reserve Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall, CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) is the second generation of her family to work in the bourbon industry and one of the youngest female distillers in the United States. She followed in her mother’s footsteps starting as a sensory expert and working in the quality department
How is your maturation different?
We mature Woodford Reserve in new, charred, white oak barrels of our own making. The barrel is a key ingredient in our process, contributing flavor, complexity, and balance. That’s why we craft, toast, and char bourbon barrels at our very own cooperage. After filling, barrels age in our unique heat-cycled warehouses until mature.
What makes Angel’s Envy different?
ANGEL’S ENVY is what happens when 200 years of bourbon tradition meet an independent master craftsman’s instinct to improve. It’s a total return to the art of craft-first, hand-blended batches of 8 to 12 barrels at a time.
We personally taste every barrel throughout each step of the aging process to ensure that the spirits meet our perfectionist standards. This would be enough for any other premium bourbon, but we think you deserve more. That’s why we finish every one of our whiskeys in hand-selected finishing barrels. For an added layer of flavor and complexity, our bourbon and special cask strength are finished in ruby port casks, and our rye is finished in rum barrels. There’s no set time for this process.
Scotch has been finished in fortified wine barrels like Sherry or Port for generations. So we wondered, why isn’t anyone really doing this seriously with bourbon? The finishing process can really enhance the whiskey with a subtle sweetness and complex flavors.
As we tasted our bourbon, a Port finish really seemed like it would fit our bourbon’s flavor profile perfectly. It added just the right layer of richness to our whiskey.
While it took us some trial and error to figure out the ideal aging window for Angel’s Envy, we knew that we had a winner once we found it.