“The last time I turned down a whiskey, I clearly didn’t understand the question.”
Good bourbon starts with quality ingredients, and careful distilling; it ends with years in new American oak casks. There are many elements such as grain selection, yeast strain, distillation technique, and oak aging that can be manipulated to create countless different whiskies. That said, even with all things being equal the difference from cask to cask can be significant. These differences can be attributed to slight variations in the wood, or even the location within the storage facility.
To mark the launch of our Single Cask program we decided to bottle up a full cask of our best bourbon. I was charged with choosing our top few casks to be candidates for our first public Single Cask release. This requires hours of sensory evaluation, a tough job but someone has got to do it. While older doesn’t always equal better, our oldest stock is proving to be the best bourbon our racks. Typically when doing cask evaluation the idea is to consider how each cask will blend with one another in an effort to maintain consistency in the brand. In this case I am looking for a barrel that has a unique personality that will shine on its own.
The first step to choosing a cask is pulling a sample. For small amounts I use a barrel thief, a narrow glass cylinder with a small opening at both ends. For larger samples I simply siphon the desired amount directly from the cask. The first thing I notice is the amber shade of the bourbon, every cask is a little different. As you likely know, originally the color in bourbon comes from its time in charred oak. Most bourbon you see on the shelf is also dyed with caramel coloring to give it a darker hue and consistent color. I always enjoy seeing the subtle differences in Bourbon that hasn’t been altered with caramel coloring. The next thing I notice is the nose. Even before the sample is full the bouquet of aroma hits my olfactory. As the vapors rise I can smell the sweet caramelized wood sugars and the cocoa essence from the malted barley.
Once the sample is pulled I measure the proof. This is done with a hydrometer, a closed and weighted glass cylinder with a stem on top that is numbered with degrees proof. The hydrometer is floated in the bourbon and the proof measurement is taken on the stem at the surface of the liquid. Some adjustment is then required based on temperature, but that’s the basics of how I test the proof. In this case we have done a slow reduction of proof in the barrel. In the style of many cognac houses, we add filtered water to the barrel little by little over the years. The casks in the running for this release sit at between 88° and 93°, the whiskey has a well-rounded flavor and can be sipped straight from the cask. While I enjoy every aspect of making bourbon whiskey, maybe the most enjoyable part is drinking it. Not only is bourbon delicious, but a single dram contains a concentrated story that tells us where the whiskey has been, what it’s made of, and what it’s been through.
Keep following along these next few days for everyone’s favorite part of my job, drinking bourbon.