A Distillation

Distillers Festival

Today I went to a distiller’s festival, sponsored by Rogue, featuring the products of local distilleries along with a set of talks on the subject. I never have quite gotten this topic straight in my mind, so this was very helpful and interesting, and I hope to get most of the salient facts into this post so I have a good record of it!

Some basics: the big classes of distilled drinks are whiskeys, rums, brandies and vodka. Distilling has been done for 500 years or more, and it involves boiling off the alcohol in a fermented brew, and condensing that steam and then producing a final product. There are various types of alcohol in a fermented brew, and they have different boiling points that are all less than the boiling point of water. The initial distillations are of pretty nasty stuff that is basically nail polish remover (called the ‘head’), so you don’t want to drink that. Then comes the ‘heart’ which is the drinkable alcohol. You can do many distillations, which tends to reduce the final product to just alcohol, and that’s essentially what they do for vodka – it is supposed to be distilled to 190 proof, then water (and other things) are added back in.

Whiskey is distilled from ‘beer’ – essentially some fermented grain brew, not what we buy in stores. Rum is distilled from a sugar brew, from molasses. Brandy is distilled from a fruit brew. Vodka can be made from virtually any brew, since it’s so distilled that the original flavor essentially disappears.

Details on whiskey: Scotch whisky is obviously from Scotland. Single Malt is the product of a single distillery, using a brew of malted barley. Blended Scotch is the product of a mixture of whiskys from multiple distilleries (there are currently about 90 distilleries in Scotland, but only about 3 in Ireland). Scotch often has a peaty flavor, from the fact that burned peat is used to dry the barley. The famous blended whiskys were made by shopkeepers with now famous names like Dewars, Chivas, Johnny Walker, and they really got established when there was a disease in the French grapes that devastated the wines and brandies (1880s). Single malts have come more into favor in recent years.

Bourbon comes originally from Bourbon county in Kentucky (originally one of three large counties in the Kentucky territory, now a much smaller county). Nowadays there are a number of rules that ‘define’ a bourbon: the brew must consist of at least 51% corn, along with some malt barley and perhaps some rye or wheat; it must be aged in new American Oak barrels; it must be aged at least 2 years; it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof; and surely some other things too. (Note that the ‘new barrels’ requirement results from some protectionist legislation). The amber color and various flavors come from the wood during aging; as temperatures vary during the year, the whiskey is absorbed into the wood and then comes back out. The used barrels are then often sent to Scotland for use in aging the Scotch whisky, which tends to make it the case that Scotch must age longer since some of the barrel flavor is already ‘used up’ from earlier use.  In Scotland they also use Spanish Oak barrels (those used for sherry, for example).

Canadian whiskey tends to be all blended, and there are not any very strict definitions of what it is, so a variety of things may be blended together, making it an almost ‘too smooth’ drink.

Distilling tends to be highly regulated. In the U.S. you need a federal permit as well as local permits, and you can’t get these unless you essentially already know the business and have the equipment. However there does appear to be a burgeoning local distilling movement afoot, one that’s getting a good start in Oregon, in part following the local brewing trend. Perhaps one day we’ll have an Oregon Whiskey that is as well known as the Scotch, Irish and Bourbon whiskeys!

The festival goes on tomorrow as well at the Gerding Theater in Portland.

Aug 30: Updated with a few extra details and corrections.

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  • Michael  On August 29, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Hey Curt –
    I’ve read a lot about Rogue getting into the distilled spirits game, but haven’t yet had the chance to taste any product. I have been a big fan of their beer for some time, however. In fact, last year, their Santa’s Private Reserve Ale was the consensus winner of my CityBeat winter beers roundup. (If you’re interested, you should be able to see the whole article at: http://citybeat.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A130935 )
    Now, regarding your write-up, above, I feel that it’s unlikely that the term “Bourbon” for Kentucky whiskey actually originated in northeastern Bourbon County, which is nowhere near the heart of Bourbon production, around Bardstown and between Lexington and Louisville in southwestern Kentucky. (Admittedly, Bourbon County in the late 18th Century was much larger than it is today, and the territory was subsequently divided into many smaller counties. I’m not sure what the original borders were, so I could be wrong about this.)
    It’s believed that when early American corn whiskey (which was then a clear spirit) made in Kentucky was transported for sale downriver to New Orleans, it was stored in charred white oak barrels for the river journey, which gave it that deeper copper color and warm, vanilla flavor we associate with the beverage today. Why did they char the barrels? Perhaps because the French citizens of New Orleans were drinkers of wine and French Brandy, and this aging process would have made American grain spirits more palatable to them.
    Now, I don’t think anyone knows for sure why Kentucky whiskey came to be known as “bourbon,” but it may have been an early attempt at marketing – obliquely referring to the Bourbon kings of France (after whom the county was also named), and with which consumers in the new, formerly French market of New Orleans would have been familiar.
    Finally, it’s an interesting fact that when whisky is from Scotland, it’s “whisky.” If it’s from anywhere else, it’s “whiskey.”

    PS: Here’s my favorite bourbon-related quote: “A man can take a little bourbon without getting drunk, but if you hold his mouth open and pour in a quart, he’s going to get sick on it.” — Lyndon B. Johnson

  • Curt  On August 30, 2007 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for the extra info & the charming LBJ quote!
    I’ve just done a very small amount of research on the ‘bourbon’ naming history, and here’s a short version I’ve found (which pretty well matches what I heard at the festival):

    When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region ‘Old Bourbon.’

    Located within ‘Old Bourbon’ was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped to market. ‘Old Bourbon’ was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. ‘Old Bourbon’ whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted, and they liked it. In time, ‘bourbon’ became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

    This is taken from How Bourbon Got its Name, which features a longer version with all the details. Apparently the original Bourbon Country was one of just three counties in the Kentucky territory, and it was subsequently divided into 43 counties.

    I also remember the guy at the festival giving some reason for the charring of the barrels, but I don’t remember exactly what it was – it could have been a cleaning/sterilizing exercise of some sort.

    Rogue had several rums (and perhaps a vodka as well) at the festival, but I did not taste them.

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