Last year, actually late December of 2013, I decided, after a lot of research and conversation, to make my own bourbon. Well, sort of.
In truth, I was hoping I could distill a batch of gourmet hooch (per bourbon’s recipe requirements) and then age it in the same barrels required to make bourbon (albeit MUCH smaller barrels). Unfortunately, while it’s legal to purchase and own a still, it’s not legal to use it to distill alcohol to drink (unless you have a special license), and I don’t own any farm machinery to use it in, so I was pretty much out of luck.
So I thought.
Actually, making bourbon is a process requiring a number of prescribed steps, each one critical to its outcome, and each one required by law for the final product to be called bourbon. While I couldn’t (legally) distill a bourbon recipe’s mash into alcohol, the product coming right off the still isn’t yet bourbon. It’s a product the industry calls White Dog or New Make. It’s clear and has a decidedly grainy taste.
It tastes NOTHING like bourbon. In the end, most of bourbon’s flavor, and ALL of its color, comes from the barrel–an American White Oak barrel, one that’s charred on the inside. That, I CAN do, and thus, make bourbon. So, I purchased a number of bottles of New Make liquor from the Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky and purchased a few new charred-oak barrels to age it in. Finally, I took some time on a bitterly cold day last December and filled my barrels.
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What I had been told would happen actually DID. After only a few months, what went into the barrel clear now had a distinct dark amber, almost mahogany color, almost the same color as a bourbon would look if aged in a large 53-gallon barrel for about 4 years. My barrel was barely a gallon and a half. Obviously, all that surface area of the smaller barrel really did the trick.
I poured. I tasted. Could it be that you could actually create a 4-year-old aged bourbon in only months? Can bourbon be rushed? Well? Sadly, no. In this case, looks can be deceiving. While it looked like a 4-year-old bourbon, it still tasted predominately of grain, albeit with some woody, oak and char notes. There was no real hint of the sweetness of caramel, dark fruits, toffee, spice or dozens of other flavors that a complex, mature bourbon can have.
What was missing?
My trip to bourbon country in April now had another mission—to find out what was missing. After touring nine of Kentucky’s major distilleries and all eight on the official Bourbon Trail, the answer was clear (or in this case Mahogany). Beyond color and the taste of wood and char, bourbon’s BEST flavors come from deeper inside the wood, a layer they call the red layer. It’s where the complex flavors of caramel and other notes come from, softening the grain alcohol into a smoother, more pleasing drink.
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Oak is, in a way, a sponge. It soaks in the alcohol, and as with making tea, it infuses its flavors back into the alcohol. Essentially, the alcohol soaks into the wood when the weather and alcohol is warm and the cells of the wood are more open. Then it’s squeezed back out of the wood and back into the barrel’s contents when the winter weather comes and the wood’s cells contract. Think of it like pouring water onto a flavored dry sponge and then squeezing it afterwards.
Over time, this migration of the liquor in and out of the oak’s red layer flavors the alcohol and turns the alcohol’s grain taste into a more flavored one.
Time is the key here.
The good news here is that in one season (a hot summer and cold winter), I can likely replicate this migration in ¼ the time.
I can already taste a big difference after having my barrels resting in a hot garage over the summer months. With the weather getting cooler, the flavors in the red layer are coming into the liquor. It’s decidedly better and much more complex.
Though I feared I might have really blown this one, all it took was some education, some patience and most importantly, some time to realize that some things, you just can’t rush.
I’m planning on bottling the final product some time toward the end of the year, about one year from when it was first barreled. And while one year is a long time to wait for something, some things are truly worth the wait.