Why do essentially the same style bourbons made from different distilleries taste so different? The laws on the books for producing bourbon are very restrictive. The law states that “Bourbon Whisky is whisky produced at not exceeding 160 proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51% corn, and stored at not more than 125 proof in charred new oak containers”. Our Master Distiller at Heaven Hill Conor O’ Driscoll puts it this way. “There’s only so many levers we can pull.” Yet bourbon tastes different from one distillery to the other.
What is it that makes them taste different? I describe the difference in a large part is “House Style”. House Styles are talked about with Cognac and Tequila distilleries, and it’s something I’ve been talking a lot about lately with bourbon distilleries too.
Especially now since there are around 1,800 craft distilleries, along with the 10 major distilleries. Those 10 by the way produce about 95% of the worlds bourbon.
Here’s something I learned from Greg Davis who has distilled at Barton, Maker’s Mark, and now Beam told me about the “Distillers Rule Of Thumb”. This really opened my mind and my eyes to how a distiller looks at their whiskeys.
DISTILLER’S RULE OF THUMB
10% Yeast Strain
25% Small Grains – recipe
If I produce two different bourbons and use the same exact recipe, using the same still, distilled to the same proof, entered in the same barrels at the same entry proof and place them in the same spot in the warehouse, but use a different yeast strain for each…those bourbons will taste 10% different from each other when they are finished.
If I use a pot still with one, and a column still with the other, and perhaps even change the distillation proof and keep everything else the same; those bourbons will taste 15% different at the end.
If I change the recipe, but keep everything else the same, they will taste 25% different. And if I put them in a different barrel char or type, and/or in a different position in the Rickhouse for a different period of time or use another style of warehouse; then they can taste up to 50% different. And this is a sliding scale, so if I age that whiskey for 20 years or so, that aging portion can count for a higher or lower percentage.
Because aging counts for at least half of the equation, let’s look at different methods of aging.
Buzick Built Open Rickhouses
There’s only one company that specializes and holds their own patents on their construction that also has the expertise to build open Rickhouses efficiently, and that is Buzick Construction in Bardstown, KY. The newest Rickhouses are built the same way they were built in the late 1800’s, they’re just built bigger. They use over 1 million board feet of wood, have 400 working windows, and construct ricks that the barrels rest on. This was patented by Frederick Stitzel in 1879.
Since they rest on these ricks and not each other, you can stack them tall. They are called “open” because the floors have spaces in them and the ricks are all open, so the heat rises all through the house to the top of the Rickhouse. Parker Beam called this “the chimney effect”. These ricks also help greatly with spaces for air flow. Parker also told me, “If you have good airflow, you have good bourbon.” You can also access the bottom barrels easier since you don’t have to unstack the barrels to get to those barrels on the lower floors.
They have concrete footers, but also have dirt floors under the ricks and this helps with moisture and environment on the lower floors especially. The frame is just wrapped with tin, so they get the extreme heat in the summers, and the extreme cold in the winters, and then the varying climates in the Spring and Fall.
The advantages to these warehouses is that if left alone, the barrels on the top floors where it is hot and dry will age faster and lose more water to evaporation resulting in the proofs rising dramatically from the entry proof. The highest I’ve ever seen is a barrel that went from 125 entry proof, to 170.1 proof after 30 years of aging! But typically you will find barrels rising to 140 to 150 proof after aging for 10-12 years. A good example of this is Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
In the center floors of the Rickhouse the whiskey ages slightly slower, losing less water to evaporation keeping closer to the entry proof. Aood example of this is Booker’s Bourbon which is usually around 126-130 proof.
Barrels on the lower floors where it is moist and cooler age slower, and water can actually penetrate the barrel lowering the proof in the barrel from the entry proof. I’ve seen a barrel go from 125 proof at entry, to 99 proof after 16 years of aging on the bottom floor of an open Rickhouse.
This creates a large array of flavors that a distiller and their teams can create different whiskeys and bourbons from. Even those sharing the same recipe because the aging can affect all the barrels differently in varying points of the Rickhouse. (there’s that 50%+ from the Rule of Thumb)
The biggest disadvantage of using Open Rickhouses, is the labor cost. Teams of up to 8 men and women roll each barrel and pass it to each other in a relay fashion (think bucket brigade) to not only place each barrel one by one in to the Ricks, but also each person touches it as it is pulled out of the Ricks after maturation. Another disadvantage is that large wooden structures wrapped in tin sitting in the middle of an open field does put those tin and wooden buildings at risk of lightening strikes, causing the 20,000 to 57,000 wooden barrels filled with high proof accelerant to be in harms way.
Most people think that every distillery uses these open Rickhouses, but that is not true. There are other types of warehouses.
Open Rick Brick Warehouse
These also have ricks inside them, but every other floor has a concrete floor, so that keeps the airflow down and the heat from rising upward is thwarted. (chimney effect) The walls are up to 3 bricks thick, so they are not as affected by the extreme temperatures, and are usually sprinkled, so they are heated in the Wintertime so the pipes do not freeze. These buildings can be very tall and hold up to 80,000+ barrels. The resulting whiskey ages slower and the proofs generally go down in the aging barrels over the years on a lot of the floors, but will rise some in the higher floors, but not as dramatic as the tin wrapped open Rickhouses.
Advantages to these are that you can go higher with them and larger, and also lowers the chance of a lightening strike. The disadvantage to these houses are that you don’t get the dramatic swings in temperature and dramatic differences in the resulting aged whiskey, and of course the labor costs are still high because you have to use barrel teams placing and harvesting barrels. The whiskey is very good, just more more mellow…a different style of whiskey.
These are one story warehouses that are usually 6 barrels tall. They use ricks for airflow, and all the other advantages of using ricks. but the whiskey in these houses will age slower and the proofs mainly lower in the barrels over the aging period. They are also wrapped in tin, so they get all the extreme temperatures, along with the microclimate they create inside.
Advantage is that you can still access the barrels on lower ricks without moving the ones on upper ricks, and you still get the extreme temperatures since the houses are not climate controlled, and you get good airflow with windows. Disadvantage is the labor it takes to place the barrels in the ricks and access them. You don’t get the big complex flavors that you do from a 7+ story open Rickhouse, but it does get some really good mellow bourbon since the whiskey ages slower on the lower floors.
These are large airplane hanger like warehouses. They have concrete floors and no windows, and are not wrapped in tin and are usually heated in the winter because they are sprinkled. The barrels are placed on their ends on a large wooden pallet and stacked about 6 barrels/pallets tall.
The advantages to this is labor. Only one person on a forklift places several barrels at a time in position, both going in to the warehouse, and taking them out of the warehouse. The disadvantage is you forego the extreme temperatures during aging, as well as there is minimal airflow since they are stored so tightly next to each other instead of being spaced on Ricks. There are also no windows in these warehouses, so that doesn’t result in good airflow either.
“Anything Goes” Warehouses
I call it this, because most of the newer small distilleries just opening up have to build what ever they can build, or what is available to them on their property. They only have a couple hundred barrels in storage so they don’t need 20,000 plus barrel capacity, or have the $5.5 million investment to build an open Rickhouse. I’ve seen mixture of everything from regular warehouse space, to building Ricks inside a shipping container.
Here is where creativity and necessity comes together. There really isn’t any long term track record on specific distilleries, but follow the double gold medals, and you’ll see who’s figuring it out for their whiskeys. This is really exciting to see I can’t wait to see which methods result in great whiskeys because the major distilleries aren’t going to experiment with these types of houses.
Barrel Size All major distilleries use the standard 53 gallon (200 liter) barrels charred to a deep level of Char No. 3 or 4. A lot of newer distilleries use barrels as small as 5 liters up to 15 gallons or so, or a combination of smaller barrels and standard barrels.
Now that we’ve reviewed the different styles of Rickhouses and barrels, we can get back to the Rule Of Thumb and how it opened my eyes and the way I look at different distilleries and how they go about their House Styles.
Let’s look at a few different distilleries and my observation of their House Styles.
Maker’s Mark is one of the only major distillery that produces one and only one bourbon, so they work hard to keep it as consistent as they can. They do have the barrel proof, but it’s the same bourbon, and Maker’s 46 is the same bourbon finished off in different staves. Let’s look at their House Style for accomplishing that.
They have one recipe and one yeast strain. They use Vendome column stills, and traditional Buzick built Rickhouses in the same types of barrels, but what’s unique about their house style is they rotate their barrels. The bourbon spends a couple years at the top of the traditional open Rick warehouses, and then they move it to the bottom floors to sleep the remainder of their time. This makes a more consistent product because barrels typically taste slightly different, even sitting next to each other. A disadvantage to rotating barrels, is this adds more their labor costs.
They don’t age it to a specific age, but “age to taste” between 5-6 years and mingle barrels together for a consistent flavor profile.
Then they so some hand finished touches like they print and cut their own labels and they hand dip each bottle. This doesn’t affect the taste, but it’s all a part of their House Style.
For decades, Four Roses was a Seagrams brand, and only produced blended whiskey for the U.S. market. So they use open rick Low Houses. When Jim Rutledge took over as Master Distiller he decided that instead of razing these low houses and building all new taller Rickhouses, to use their strengths and expertise of blending straight bourbons together, along with these unique rickhouses.
Because they are not getting the same concentration of aging in 7+ story open rickhouses, they use the other factors in the Rule Of Thumb. So they use 2 recipes (25% differnce) and 5 different yeast strains (10% difference) and produce 10 different bourbons, and then use a % of those barrels to make up their small batch bourbons.
Bulleit uses a combination of sourced whiskey, and whiskey distilled in a new distillery. Their rye comes from Lawrenceburg, IN, and their bourbon is sourced from there and other distillery(s), and since 2017 have produced whiskey at their own distillery.
They age their whiskeys in Palletized Warehouses. This will result in slower aging, but really helps with the labor costs of moving and storing barrels.
Woodford Reserve uses triple pot stills. (15% difference), and mingles barrels from their Early Times Distillery in Louisville. Then they age their whiskey in large palletized warehouses. Then they use small batches of barrels to create Woodford Reserve by mingling in whiskey produced at their Louisville Early Times Distillery with the bourbon produced here in Versailles at their Woodford facility.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace makes 3 different recipes of Bourbon, Rye Whiskey, and produce have a wide array of brands for 2 other companies (Pappy Van Winkle and Age International) and they their own line of whiskeys. They have brick and block rickhouses for the most part. They are currently constructing new Open Rick Warehouses, but that will be yielding their first whiskeys in a few years.
They also are big on experimentation, leading the industry in this with their own Experimental Rickhouse X
Heaven Hill Distillery
Just as Maker’s Mark is the only major distillery that makes just one recipe, Heaven Hill is the only major distillery that produces 5 different whiskey recipes. (Corn Whiskey, Bourbon Rye, Bourbon Wheat, Wheat Whiskey, Rye Whiskey) They use Vendome Column Stills and Buzick built open rick warehouses, with a couple Brick Open Rickhouses.
Heaven Hill typically ages their whiskeys longer, from their flagship Evan Williams, to their10 year age stated Henry McKenna, their Old Fitzgerald Decanter Series, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 12yr, 18, and 23 year old age stated whiskeys. They also bottle their whiskeys at higher proofs. Because they have the 2nd largest inventory of barrels in the industry, they also produce the most Bottled in Bond whiskeys, and produce many smaller historic regional brands (ex. JTS Brown, JW Dant, Mellow Corn)