Never delay kissing a pretty girl or opening a bottle of whiskey.”
– Ernest Hemingway
It’s not a secret that bourbon has gained popularity over the past decade. You see more and more distilleries popping up and additional batches being put out by the more well known ones. Now you have probably asked yourself the question ‘how is bourbon’ made before, and while you don’t need to know how bourbon is made to enjoy it- it sure doesn’t hurt!
So, how is bourbon made?
Unsurprisingly, bourbon is made following the same process as whiskey: Harvest, Fermentation, Distillation, and Aging, but with a few unique differences.
Step 1 – Harvest
Obviously, before any grains are fermented they need to be harvested and removed from their stalks and sheaths. (Now I’m just imagining people trying to distill whole ears of corn, what a disaster!) The grains that are usually harvested are corn, rye, wheat, and barley.
Step 2 – Fermentation
The grains are dried, then combined with water, and cooked to create a mash. As long as the mash is at least 51% corn, it’s bourbon! Many distilleries will add up to 81% corn, but the additional grains will adjust flavors.
- Rye adds more spice.
- Wheat adds sweetness and softness.
- Barley adds a nutty quality. (Although barley is often added strictly for its natural fermentation enzymes. It’s the only grain cam ferment without added help.)
This first mash is left out to sour overnight.
A second mash is created and most of it is combined with the previous day’s sour mash to induce fermentation. Yeast is often also added to begin breaking down starches and sugars into alcohol. (Specific distilleries keep their own strains of yeast to guarantee consistent taste across all batches!)
Related: The Basics of Bourbon
Step 3 – Distillation
Distillation is a two-step process. The whole mash is run through step one and its product then runs through step 2.
Step 1. Column Still
Column stills remove the alcohol from everything else in the mash.
Step 2. Copper Pot Still
Copper doubler pots will cause interactions within the newly extracted alcohol that improve flavors. The final distillate that leaves these stills is actually clear and is called “white dog.”