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Bountiful Bourbon

Jason Wilson writes a big story for the Washington Post about bourbon. It's a good read overall, but particularly for this gem of a quote:

Heaven Hill, for instance, uses the same yeast strain and mash recipe for all 150 of its bourbon products. "The only difference in our brands is age and proof," Hafer said.

Wow on both accounts. I don't know quite what to say about that.

What do you have to say about it?


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The truth is finally being revealed, slowly but surely.

Bourbon: The World's Most Honest Lie.


@ Martin: "Honest lie"? Not necessarily. It all depends upon how you look at it.

What is Heaven Hill "lying" about? Each and every one of their Bourbon products has the proof and age listed on the bottles, in plain view for the consumer.

If you know that, for example, you like young, 86-proof Bourbon, then maybe Evan Williams is the one for you. Want some age and higher proof? Then go for Elijah Craig 12-yr. Got a big tax refund that you want to blow on something special? Try last year's 27-yr Parker Heritage Bourbon. Heaven Hill has something for everyone.

And please, you cannot tar all Bourbons with the same brush. Contrast Heaven Hill's approach to, say, Four Roses, which uses two distinct mashbills and five different proprietary yeast strains to create 10 different Bourbon recipes. Other Bourbon producers might have two mashbills, one emphasizing rye and one emphasizing wheat. It's not "dishonest", it's merely proprietary.

If anything, Bourbon is the most HONEST of brown spirits since, by law, NOTHING can be added to it after distillation, except water to reduce the proof. Do your research: it must be distilled from at least 51% corn and be aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels.

Clear so far? Okay - now compare that with scotch whisky where the rules seem to be that there ARE no rules! Use any kind of barrels for maturation that you want! New! Used! Sherry wood, Bourbon wood, Madeira wood, et. al. Add caramel coloring! Chill filter it if you like.

Next you'll say that gasoline brands are "dishonest" because they are only different due to octane levels.

Choose to be offended if you wish, but you're seeing lies where there are not.

Mr Manhattan

I dunno about lies, but I recently read that Baker's is simply a "cut" made out of the standard Beam distillation run. All the barrels are managed and rotated identically as the bourbon is matured. There's a designated place in the warehouse and whatever barrels (of the proper age) are sitting there when they need more Baker's are "it." Nothing more to it than that. No special mash bill, no special cooperage, no special love.

And, FWIW, the distiller's @ Heaven's Hill are themselves members of the Beam family. ;-)


Eek, if you could delete that last comment it would be awesome, since auto-fill accidentally put my email up there... Thanks!

You know, just because a given bourbon is simply another iteration of something they already make doesn't mean it requires any less effort or inspiration to create - they still have to manage the aging and blending just as carefully, simply with a different goal in mind. It's not like they get Baker's by just not adding as much water to the white label dreck, there's a different flavor profile that they have to regulate for.

I think the fact that one blend can yield so many different varieties, ranging from foul to delicious, is really rather interesting and a testament to the intricacies of the production process and the power of oak.


Take it easy there, Crash.

All I'm saying is this: I have long been fascinated by the idea that there are only handful of distilleries in the bourbon industry producing hundreds of different brands. I am fully aware of differences imparted by age and proof, and of course the mash. But I've always wondered just how much variety there is at the large producers. I would have assumed that there were at least a few different mashes and yeast strains at Heaven Hill, but apparently there aren't.

You don't have to tell me how it's made- I know. That's precisely why I said "honest", because it is one of the best regulated spirits. But that to me begs the question of why something perfectly decent can be $11.99 and then you blend in a splash of something else (of the same age) and a pretty bottle and now it's $40. It's not like shitty mixto tequila on the bottom shelf of the grocery store, or gin from San Jose.

So of course there are no lies in the actual production of the product, and how the details are displayed (Although Evan Williams does not have the age displayed on their label, nor do they have to, provided it's at least 4 years old)- although the historic accuracy of the product has to be somewhat diluted, unless you believe that Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Parker Beam, Henry McKenna, etc. etc. etc. all used the exact same mash and yeast. :)

I am fully aware that there are smaller producers like Four Roses using different mashbills, and folks like Maker's producing just one product (which itself has a great backstory- which is apparently all a lie if you ask the Van Winkle family).

There's great variety out there, just not as much as advertised. I am not offended in any way, and will continue to happily pour bourbon (my second favorite spirit) down my gullet with joy.


As the guy who wrote the article and recorded the quote from Hafer in my own notebook, I have to say I think Camper raises a slightly unfair question, and I think Martin is slightly offbase when he writes things like "the historic accuracy of the product has to be somewhat diluted".

First...accuracy and the booze business?...um yeah...Ne'er the twain shall meet...BUT no one is marketing Elijah Craig or Evan Williams or whomever as if it were those actual gentlemen's special recipes. In the bourbon biz, they always named bourbon brands after old revered distillers. In fact, if you go to the bourbon museum in Bardstown, all the antique bottles say Old [Fill in Name here]. One older distiller named Foote joked that he was afraid that when he died they'd name a bourbon after him called Old Foote.

I think what's being overlooked here is that whiskeys, the world over, are ALL about the aging and the barrel. It makes a huge difference whether that barrel has been charred for 40 seconds or 50 seconds. It makes a huge difference whether a barrel sits on, say, the south side of the 8th floor of a warehouse versus one that sits on the north side of the 2nd floor. I think the significance of the micro-climates within that warehouse can't be underestimated. No one would argue with a winemaker in Sonoma, for instance, that claimed his vines on one hill create a different grape that one on that hill over there yonder. [Although, perhaps people in the Bay Area might be more skeptical if that tanned, denimed winemaker with the trophy wife said something was "over there yonder" in a KY accent?]

But different floors on different rickhouses... that's the terroir (for lack of better word) in the bourbon biz. After 8, 9, 10 years, the various barrels become completely DIFFERENT whiskeys. If the master distiller knows that in Rickhouse #69, the barrels on the 6th floor make X 8 yr old whiskey with Y flavor profile, well...then, they blend or declare single barrels accordingly.

I mean, I failed college algebra, but even I know that-- all floors being the same size--there are are more barrels on floors 1 through 5 than there are on floor 6. So there's only so many 6-floor barrels that can be used. And the rest may not be as fine of whiskey, and so they're blended into those $12 bottles that Martin talks about.

What I'm saying is...I think because the process of making bourbon looks so SO industrial it gets judged unfairly -- there are still a lot of natural factors involved, and every one of those factors makes a different whiskey, and many of those whiskeys have different price points.

p.s. nothing but love for both Martin and Camper, just disagree...

Camper English

Thanks everyone for your comments- this is the kind of discussion I was hoping for.

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