Whiskey and Its Grains

Breaking down the ingredients for bourbon and letting science do its thing

IMGP0035Photos by Maggie Kimberl.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival just keeps growing, and among its new offerings this year was a class hosted by The Stave and Thief Society and Moonshine University. Stave and Thief is an organization that educates and certifies bourbon stewards, while Moonshine University is where folks attend classes and learn to distil in their Grease Monkey Distillery. It’s always interesting to hear from people from the production side of distilling because they are so into the nuts and bolts of what goes into the barrel, and that’s exactly where Tyler Gomez comes in. This year I attended a class at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival about A Whiskey And Its Grains taught by Moonshine University Operations Manager Tyler Gomez, who not only operates the Grease Monkey Distillery but also teaches aspiring distillers the ropes.

“There are a lot of variables that go into your brown spirit even before you distil it,” says Gomez.

IMGP0159We started off learning all about yeast and fermentation, and Gomez made an interesting point about bacterial infections of the mash – they’re not always bad because some can cause interesting flavors in the end product. We talked about different varieties of yeast and how they can contribute to the end product, how the water affects the mash, and everything that goes into the front end other than the mash bill.

Then it was time to talk about mash bills. As we all surely know in Kentucky by now, historically the reason they made bourbon from mostly corn is because it grew here in abundance. But it bears repeating for anyone outside of Kentucky or who hasn’t gotten the message yet. Bourbon is an agricultural product that developed from a popular method of preserving the harvest on the frontier.

Corn, Gomez says, is rarely malted because it has a low enzymatic potential.

IMGP0082What is enzymatic potential? The enzymes break down the starches into sugar so that the yeast can break the sugar down into alcohol. But in order to get those enzymes you have to malt the grain to release them, which is basically tricking it into thinking it’s time to grow. Once the sprouts begin and the enzymes are released, the sprouting is halted and the grain can now be used to ferment a mash (or lots of other things if you’re into health food).

According to Gomez, in order to get a 100% corn mash to ferment you’d basically have to malt the whole thing because it only has enough enzymes to ferment itself. Rye and wheat have a slightly higher enzymatic potential but again you’d have to malt a large percentage of it to distil a 100% grain bill whiskey from either one without adding commercial enzymes. But barley, when malted, has enough enzymatic potential to ferment a mash bill in which it only accounts for 10% of the volume.

IMGP0037One of the most interesting and informative parts of the class was the fact he had distilled clear spirits from 100% of each of the four grains, so we were able to try 100% corn, 100% rye, 100% wheat, and 100% malted barley new makes. Each one had distinct characteristics and it really illustrated how each grain plays into the final product.

Each grain in a bourbon mash bill attributes certain characteristics that are needed to make the final product taste like what we know as bourbon. Breaking it down into parts was a great way to learn why we love the sum of the parts so much that we decided to throw a festival.

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