The annual Kentucky Bourbon Affair provides the opportunity for distilleries to offer truly unique, behind-the-scenes experiences to bourbon aficionados. Last year, one of these events hosted by Heaven Hill allowed attendees to create a custom bourbon. Dubbed the “Build-a-Barrel” event, guests were given the dream job of deciding on key factors that influence the final outcome of bourbon. Heaven Hill would then distill a barrel to those specifications using their mini distillery at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (EWBE) in downtown Louisville. Last fall, the new make was ready to taste and the folks at Heaven Hill provided the opportunity for me sample it.
To read Chicago Bourbon’s recap of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, click here.
With great power comes great responsibility. There are many levers to pull when crafting bourbon, and deciding how to combine them all can be a bit daunting. Selecting the mash bill, the number of distillations, the barrel entry proof, the type of wood used to make the barrel, the rickhouse, and the floor within the rickhouse was up to us. There were 3 sections of rickhouse, 4 rickhouses, 5 barrel options, 3 char levels, 4 entry proof options, and the option to either double or triple distill. As my fellow math geeks out there have already computed, that’s 1,440 different combinations before you even bring into consideration the infinite number of mash bills!
Throughout the day we had breakout sessions that dove deep into grains, distilling, and aging. We learned the “rule of the distiller” that describes how different aspects of distillation can cause variation. Changing only the yeast strain can alter about 10% of the final flavor. Distillation, including the type of still, accounts for about 15%. The mash bill represents about 25% and maturation around 15%.
Since we had no control over the yeast or the still, the mash bill is of course what had the strongest effect on the flavor of the new make I tasted. During that breakout session on grains we experienced barley, corn, wheat, and rye in both whole and ground forms. We had the chance to pick up the grains and let them flow through our fingers. We tasted them in their raw form and baked into corn, wheat, and rye breads. Due to the nature of bourbon, it should come as no surprise that we spent a disproportionate amount of time focused on corn. #2 Yellow dent corn is the industry standard for bourbon. White corn has about twice the amount of starch and thus produces much higher yields, but it is much more expensive and thus rarely used in distilling.
During the breakout on grains we also tasted four different new makes side by side: a wheat whiskey, a wheated bourbon, a high rye bourbon, and a rye whiskey. I know what you’re thinking. You could probably guess without having a drop of liquor pass your lips that the wheat whiskey was sweet and the rye was spicy. That wasn’t really the point of this exercise. This experience allowed the group to trace the flavors present in each grain source to the finished product and to calibrate our palates so that we were speaking the same language. As with any tasting, discussing what we tasted and smelled among our individual tables only opened our taste buds and allowed us to better pinpoint flavors.
Unsurprisingly, deciding on the exact mash bill was tough. Heaven Hill’s typical mashbill is 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% barley which we used as a general reference. Although we were all in agreement that we wanted to create a bourbon not too far outside of a classic profile, there were still some areas of disagreement. A large fraction of the group wanted to experiment with using white corn rather than standard yellow dent. I personally wanted to experiment instead with the barrel, so I was hoping not to do anything too crazy with the mash. After much debate, we landed on a recipe that was only a little outside the norm. We opted for a somewhat high rye content, but tempered the spice with a little extra barley. Although barley’s official purpose is to convert starch to sugar during the fermenting process, we learned during the breakout session that it has a pleasant flavor on its own. We hoped that its mild sweetness would complement and enrich the spicy rye (and not cancel out its flavor as wheat is known to do). Our final vote determined a recipe of 65% corn, 20% rye, and 15% barley.
So, what was the result? When I arrived at EWBE I met with Kyle Fertig, who graciously escorted us to the board room of the building. There on the table were two bottles. One was our new make, and one was the standard new make produced at their Bernheim distillery. As I looked at the poured samples, my heart was beating fast. Frankly, I had low expectations. I thought back to the breakout sessions when beloved Brand Ambassador Bernie Lubbers waxed poetic about naïve distilling innovation. “We’re gonna do this because no one has ever done it!” he parodied. “Well, you should call Craig [Beam] because he has done it and it turned out shitty.” How could a room full of enthusiasts with no distilling experience possibly craft something delicious?
I held the glass of our distillate to my nose and took a breath. The nose was encouraging! I took a sip and was completely shocked: it was exactly the profile we had intended! The bold spicy rye was tempered with some sweetness presumably from the relatively high barley content. It has a slow-growing heat that covered the entire palate. For a baseline comparison, we also tasted their standard recipe. The Bernheim distillate had much more savory notes. It was smooth up front with a spiciness hitting the back of the palate.
Once relief washed over me, I was able to fully enjoy my surroundings. The room is gorgeous, overlooking Main Street (and partially hidden behind the giant upturned bottle that adorns the exterior of the building). I wish my work meetings were flanked by shelves of bourbon! The samples were served on an elegant tray ornamented in a Japanese style with a custom Heaven Hill landscape scene. The EWBE crew had even saved the barrel shaped whiteboard we had used to officially notate all the decisions that went into our custom barrel. Kyle made time to chat a bit about his experiences and how much they were looking forward to the 2017 Kentucky Bourbon Affair.
After the main event, the next stop was the EWBE gift shop for an added treat. Kyle opened a nondescript cabinet to reveal a secret stash of bourbon! (once again, I wish this was a feature of my office) He first poured a special taste of the Evan Williams 12 year red label. It still had the signature spice found in Evan Williams, but with a much more complex and mature palate. We asked Kyle about some of his favorite products and those that are less well-known. He highlighted the Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond, which I agreed was a great option for both neat pours and for use in cocktails. This is especially true for the price point, which we’ve seen around $30-35.
Needless to say, crafting a custom barrel of bourbon through Heaven Hill was a very special experience. Thank you to Heaven Hill for not only developing this event, but also opening their doors to us for years to come and providing tastings and updates. I am encouraged at the results so far, and can’t wait for future tastings after the barrel and rickhouse have imparted their flavors.