Update 08/08/2012, below with a link to some highly recommended reading on bourbon.
Regulations. I’ve talked about regulations regarding distilled spirits when writing about absinthe. Absinthe is not as highly regulated as are other spirits produced in the U.S. It can’t contain anything harmful and the label has to be approved by the Feds, but nothing says what it can or can’t contain, flavor-wise. This makes for a continuing practice of marketing grain alcohol flavored with essential oils and food coloring as “absinthe” even though that term should ideally only be applied to an end product made through the maceration distillation of whole herbs and spices; at least containing the “trinity” of grand wormwood, anise seed and fennel seed, which, if it is colored, the coloration is gained by the chlorophyll extracted into the distilled product through the steeping of fresh herbs.
It’s not the same with bourbon. There are minimum requirements a distilled product has to meet before one can slap a label that says “bourbon” on it. It’s not geography; while this style of whiskey gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, there are no laws saying it has to be made there. Briefly, the regulations state the mash bill (mix of grains ground and cooked with water to make the “mash” (“wort” if you’re familiar with beer-making)) must contain at least 51% corn; there are limits and minimums on alcohol content at various stages of production and bottling; and it has to be aged in new oak barrels. [Side note: someone could do a master's thesis on the recycling of old bourbon barrels, since they can be used to make bourbon only once, the used barrels are exported all over the world and are used in aging rum, Scotch and Irish whiskey, as well as Tabasco sauce.]
The differences between brands of whiskey come in due to a number of factors and in the flexibility of the factors that are not regulated. At the base of it all is the mash bill, especially differences in the the grains other than the required 51% corn. I’ve learned that most manufacturers up their recipes to call for around 70% or more corn, give or take a few percentage points. Other grains usually include barley (to provide enzymes needed to turn starches in the mash into sugar, which the yeast eats during fermentation and turns to alcohol) and wheat or rye, but, it seems, never both.
On a personal note, I never did like Maker’s Mark bourbon. I wanted to, it seemed traditional, had a great bottle, etc., but I never really cared for its taste. My favorites over the years included Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek on the higher end; Old Charter and good old Jim Beam on lower end. I also had a professor, a Southern-drawling gentleman, who offered the class this observation: “That Jimmy Beam is a damn fine whiskey” that always played in my mind when shopping for booze. Later I learned that the high-enders were all Jim Beam brands. Back then (mid-1990s) other premium brands like Bulleit and Woodford Reserve weren’t really available.
In 2008 I discovered Tales of the Cocktail and started learning a lot more about spirits. It began as an assignment to write about absinthe being newly-restored to the market, and my attending one of Ann Tuennerman’s Sazerac Academy events. The Sazerac cocktail, official cocktail of New Orleans, is made with rye whiskey. I was attached to rye from then on. It’s drier than bourbon, is sharper than bourbon, and has, I came to realize, more character than bourbon. Rye whiskey has it’s own set of regulations, the important one being, it has to be made with at least 51% rye. But rye isn’t appropriate for all drinks and there are fewer brands by far of rye out there than bourbon.
Back to Makers Mark: I later saw an interview with one of its founders, who said that when they were gearing up in the 1950s, they thought it impractical to brew and distill several different recipes, wait for them to age, and then pick which one they’d run with. Instead, they baked bread with different ratios of grain and picked their mash bill from there.
I found this astounding, as there are so many chemical changes that happen during fermentation, distillation and aging that would affect the whiskey’s taste that baking bread couldn’t replicate. The founder also noted one thing: the mash bill they settled on contained no rye.
But when I learned that Maker’s Mark, a whiskey I just could not love, had no rye, it was a revelation.
“No rye! That’s why I don’t like you. It’s not me, it’s you!” I yelled at the bottle.
Now we’re getting to the title of the post, the Saturday tasting room featuring Larceny bourbon. On hand were some folks, the master distillers, who were Beam family members. At least their last names were Beam. I never figured out what the connection was, because Larceny is produced by Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky.
During the tasting, which featured a short skit, of all things, that attendees had to watch before being allowed to grab a sample bottle, I asked one of the reps what the mash bill of the whiskey was. [Pro tip: if you meet a whiskey maker, ask what the mash bill of his product is.] He said, and I forget the exact amounts, something like “75, 15 and 10, corn, wheat and barley.” I said, “No rye?” He said, no, they never use wheat and rye in the same recipe.
The skit, by the way, featured an actor who played the legendary Fitzgerald, a treasury agent who kept an eye on the barrel warehouses and stole a bit of product every now and then; he was said to have ferreted out the best-tasting barrels, which became known as “Fitzgeralds.” The long-time Heaven Hill produced brand “Old Fitzgerald” is supposed to honor this agent. They’re now resurrecting the story in a bit of branding shenanigans with Larceny, Heaven Hill’s brand-new brand named for Fitzgerald’s “infamous act” of stealing some “damn fine whiskey,” as a Southerner might say.
So, I finally got to taste it and Larceny was, I’m afraid to say, dull. It was well-aged, had a good oak character, a complex flavor profile only careful aging can produce, etc., etc., but it was dull. It just lacked something, which is that sharp bite rye provides.
I had wrongly assumed that Maker’s Mark was an anomaly. I started doing some research after the tasting and learned there is a whole slew of what are known as “wheated” bourbons. Maker’s Mark, Old Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Van Winkle and Rebel Yell among them.
And, upon further review, I learned that my favorites from the past, the Booker’s, Bakers, Jimmy Beam, Old Charter and Knob Creek, are all rye recipe whiskeys, as are Bulleit and Woodford Reserve.
So we learned something. There are “wheated” bourbons and there are rye recipe bourbons, and, to quote the mythical most interesting man in the world, “I don’t always drink bourbon. But when I do, I prefer rye recipe bourbons.”
Update: On cue, I see this article about Julian Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace making his family’s wheated bourbon recipe in Garden and Gun. It’s a great story with a lot of history and details the nuances in bourbon production.