An introduction to bourbon whiskey: America’s great spirit – Part 1

Bourbon whiskey is a uniquely American spirit that, along with my homebrewed cider, has become my go-to alcoholic beverage. If you just want a list of great bourbons to try, skip to my recommendations in Part 2.

What is whiskey?

Whiskey is any fermented grain beverage (aka beer) that has been distilled, which concentrates its alcohol and removes the sugars and many other flavors of the original product, but keeps enough of them to still have the distinctively sweet whiskey flavor. Fermented fruit beverages, such as wine or cider, that are distilled are called brandy or eau de vie. The latter is French for water of life, and that same phrase in Latin, ‘aqua vitae’, became uisce beatha in Gaelic, which eventually turned into the English word ‘whiskey’.

Similar to brandies like Cognac, whiskies today are almost always aged a few to several years in oak barrels. Oak happens to be an excellent wood for barreling spirits because it doesn’t leak or poison you, and aging in wood improves the flavor by contributing toasty, wood-y & vanilla-y notes. Charring the barrel, which is required for bourbon, also mellows and purifies the whiskey, removing harsher flavors over time, as well as adding unique flavors. Think of this charred inner layer of the barrel as a charcoal filter that also adds deliciousness. Mmmm….

Non-American Whiskies

Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whiskies are made principally of barley, which is also the primary grain in beer. Malt whiskies such as Single Malt Scotch are made entirely of malted barley, whereas blended whiskies can be made of neutral grain spirits (aka vodka, usually made from corn because it’s cheap) or other grain spirits. The ‘Single’ in Single Malt Scotch refers to the requirement that the spirit be made in one distillery over one distilling season (as opposed to combining whiskies from multiple distilleries or whiskies from different years of distillation.) Canadian whiskies are somewhat similar to American ones in the grains they use, especially their frequent use of rye, but they are often blended with tasteless neutral grain spirits, and thus not as characterful as American whiskies.

What is bourbon whiskey?

American whiskies include bourbon, Tennessee, rye, wheat, and malt whiskies. Depending on the style, they are made of corn (maize to those of you outside of the United States), rye, barley malt, and sometimes wheat. Bourbon is the most popular type of American whiskey, and it must be made in the US to be called bourbon (but not exclusively in Kentucky, where most whiskey comes from, which is a common misunderstanding.) Bourbon is required by law to be made of at least 51% corn, with the remainder being rye, wheat, or barley. In practice, most bourbon is made with 60 – 80% corn, 10 – 20% rye (sometimes substituted with wheat instead), and 10 – 12% malted barley. Malted grains convert the starches in the other grains into sugars during the beer brewing process so that the yeasts can turn those sugars into sweet, sweet alcohol.

Bourbon must also be aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Since these barrels can only be used once for bourbon, they are often sent to Scotland to be used to age Scotch afterwards. The fact that they are used barrels is why Scotch has a mellower wood flavor profile than bourbon.

There is no minimum aging period for plain ‘bourbon’, but most whiskey sold is ‘straight whiskey’ (or ‘straight bourbon whiskey’), and that must be aged for at least 2 years, and must display an age statement if it is aged for less than 4 years. So, if you see something like ‘Kentucky straight bourbon’ with no age statement such as Jim Beam white label, you’ll know it’s bourbon made in Kentucky that’s been aged for at least 4 years. (And probably exactly 4 years, since it’s expensive to age booze!)

You can think of bourbon as the ‘mostly corn’ American whiskey. Rye whiskey is essentially made by the same process, but with a minimum of 51% rye, and the remainder corn or barley. Wheat whiskey is 51% wheat, and so on.

The one quirky exception to this 51% rule is the rarely-found corn whiskey, which has to be at least 80% corn. Another quirk of corn whiskey is that it can be unaged, but if it is aged, it must not be aged in newly-charred barrels, but in used or uncharred oak barrels.

Bourbon must also be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (aka 160 proof), put into the barrels at no higher than 125 proof (62.5%), and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40%.) Distilling to a lower proof means that more flavor stays in the spirit, whereas neutral grain spirits like vodka are distilled to much higher proof (95%, say) which ensures that pretty much only alcohol is coming out of the still, and the majority of the grains’ flavor is left behind (sad.)

What determines the flavor of American whiskey?

Age and charred wood

The length of time spent aging in the newly-charred oak barrel makes a big difference in the flavor (and price) of bourbon. While Scotch can age for as much as 25 years or even longer in its used barrels, with some notable exceptions, bourbon generally gets too much wood flavor from the newly-charred barrels if left in them for more than 8 – 12 years. You rarely see any bourbon advertised as older than that.

Unlike wine or beer, distilled spirits do not really change once bottled, so you’re paying for the time spent in the wood, not the glass. Sugars and other flavoring compounds formed in wood when toasted and charred contribute to the vanilla, smoke, tobacco, oak, and some other flavors found in bourbon. Barrels can be charred to different levels of burned-ness, but most whiskey barrels are either a #3 or #4 char, which is the middle of the #1 – #7 scale used, #1 being the least charred.

Temperature variation

The environment that the whiskey is aged in also makes a big difference. Temperature change is key as hot summers and cool nights apparently press the whiskey in and out of the wood as the liquid expands and contracts, resulting is quicker/superior aging. Thus, the top and outer racks in the large whiskey barrel warehouses known as ‘rackhouses’ yield the most flavorful whiskey. This is why hot, dry places like Kentucky are well-suited to whiskey production whereas coastal location like Seattle or San Francisco are not. Plus, huge rackhouses require a big footprint, so cheap land is a plus.

Bourbon barrels aging in a Kentucky rackhouse

Grain

The type and proportion of grains used in the whiskey also make a difference, with corn giving a sweet flavor, which is either balanced with the spiciness of rye, or allowed to come through with the mellowness of wheat. Barley is a small component of bourbon, and thus probably doesn’t contribute too much flavor, but I would guess it’s a sweet flavor too like that of Irish whiskey. Rye whiskey is therefore generally ‘spicier’ and drier-tasting when compared to bourbon, and corn whiskey, which is often almost entirely corn, might be very simply sweet, but with little of the complexity found in bourbon or rye. Roughly 95% of the bourbons you find on the shelf will be corn + rye whiskies, and only a few, notably Maker’s Mark, Larceny, W.L. Weller products, and most famously, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, will be corn + wheat whiskies. Some distilleries have recently experimented with ‘four grain’ bourbons, meaning they contain corn, rye, barley, AND wheat.

Yeast

The yeasts used by the distillery to ferment the corn and rye-based beer also contributes a lot of flavor, and are closely guarded by each of the major distilleries. These yeasts have often been handed down over many years, similar to an heirloom sourdough or beer yeast. The distinctive spiciness present in Wild Turkey’s whiskies is apparently due to its spicy yeast variety.

Water

Alkaline water like that which flows through Kentucky’s limestone caverns contains minerals that make for good fermentation of the beer. Distilleries like to emphasize how important their local water is for the quality of the whiskey, but that could be more because it’s a hard-to-reproduce marketing gimmick than a factor of major flavor importance.

Skill

All of the above factors, and likely others as well, make for myriad differences in the finished product. A Master Distiller and his panel of expert tasters are required to test all the barrels as they age, sometimes moving them around the rackhouse to age in a desired way. These skilled folks are responsible for combing whiskey from various barrels, or choosing specific barrels for ‘Single Barrel’ bottlings, to achieve a consistent flavor profile for all of a distillery’s products.

Whiskey producers generally use the same ‘juice’ (distilled spirit) for multiple brands (e.g.: Heave Hill’s Evan Williams vs the same company’s Elijah Craig) or product ‘line extensions’ (e.g.: Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Single Barrel). Since the yeast, grains, distilling apparatus & process, and barrels are all the same for a given ‘juice’ from a distillery, it is the age and rackhouse location differences chosen by the Master Distiller, and whatever other magic is going on post-distillation, that are responsible for the significant differences still found within a company’s brands or line extensions. This bourbon family tree gives an excellent visual representation of this. (Print it out and keep it near your whiskey stash!)

Now that you know all about what’s in the bottle, let’s start drinking it!

 

On happiness and choice: mindful ways to feel better about life

I watched a ‘TED Talk’ by author & psychologist Barry Schwartz on the ‘paradox of choice‘.  He explained why too much choice can make us less happy than we would be if we had fewer choices.  This is because with many choices we 1) have more regrets about our choices, 2) feel the loss of the ‘opportunity cost’ of the options we don’t choose, 3) expect more from the choice we make, and thus are more frequently disappointed, and 4) blame ourselves when we’re disappointed, since, with so much choice, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we make a bad decision.

Check out the video for more on this reasoning.  Schwartz’s arguments are a stark departure from the usual line of reasoning in Western thought which argues that more personal liberty and freedom equals more choices (and vice versa), and hence greater societal welfare.

As Schwartz argues, and as empiricalhappinessstudies have shown, this appears to be false for prosperous societies like ours.  While choice is wonderful up to a point, too much of it can be bad for us.  (Unlike poorer or dictatorial societies, whose problem is not enough choice.)  Studies suggest that, despite the proliferation in material & social gains, human happiness has not increased in the United States since 1950.

I wanted to share my own thoughts (warning: this is an ‘opinion’ piece!) on this, and provide some personal recommendations on how to minimize the harmful effects of too much choice.

Simplify, simplify

Take a page out of Thoreau’s book (it’s called ‘Walden’) and voluntarily cut down on choice by simplifying your life.  By reducing the things that absorb your time and energy without producing commensurate benefit, you can focus on what really matters to you.  Consider limiting your exposure to television advertising and shopping malls.  They increase your material options for things that probably won’t make you much happier after owning them for a couple months.

Experiences, on the other hand, increase in value over time.  Spend money & time acquiring good memories instead.  Or, provide more choices for those who WILL benefit from them by contributing charitably to poor nations.

The secret to happiness

Simplification notwithstanding, there are obviously many benefits to choice.  Being able to decide whom to marry, how many children to have, what job to work at, where to live, etc allow people to pick and choose the things that they believe will make them the happiest (within the range of their ability to attain these things.)  One of the problems with all of the great choices we have (think food, electronics, cars), is that people’s expectations have increased along with their improved options.  There’s much truth to Schwartz’s statement that ‘the secret to happiness is low expectations.’

To me, I think of this as a difference between absolute and relative value.  The standard economic model of human behavior is that humans care about absolute value, or how much stuff/money/time/pleasure we have on a zero to infinity scale.  Thus, if you can choose between 25 different digital music players, and can select the one with the most valuable features, you’re better off than only being able to pick from 2 players with less gadgets.

However, what humans also care about is how things match up to their expectations.  If you already expect your digital music players to do 10 things, and the new player does 11 things, you may only feel ‘1 thing’ better, but not 11 things better.  This may be easier to see in how people feel about their jobs.

Folks in the western world have more purchasing power, work less hours in more comfortable surroundings, and have more free time than any generation before us.  Despite this, many of us still hate our jobs, even though, on an absolute scale, we’re way better off than even our parents’ generation.  (Read ‘The Progress Paradox‘ if you don’t believe the last part of that sentence.)  A big reason for this is because we’ve come to expect certain characteristics in our jobs.  We measure our happiness by how much our job meets, exceeds or fails to exceed the things we take for granted.  (Like leisure time, health benefits, wages that allow us to live in large houses, own multiple cars, and never go hungry.)  If this is true, how do we learn to appreciate the ‘absolute’ value in the objectively luxurious (by historical standards) lifestyle we live?

Be appreciative at every opportunity

One way is to be actively conscious of how fortunate we are, and to remind ourselves of the good things in our lives (rather than constantly grouse about the negatives, something humans are particularly skilled at.)  For example, the next time you’re at the grocery store complaining about the unripe bananas in January, remind yourself of how amazing it is that we have access to cheap, out-of-season produce every day of the year.

Being appreciative is also important when confronted with even better versions of the stuff we already have.  Some of the happiness literature (cited above) suggests that envy is responsible for part of our failure to enjoy the immense material wealth that’s been created over the last 60 years.  When your neighbor gets a new BMW, your own Toyota Corolla doesn’t look so great in comparison.   (Never mind that your car has excellent comfort, performance and safety features, especially when compared to cars of just a few decades ago, or the fact that you were perfectly happy before your neighbor’s purchase.)

Be appreciative of people as well.  Complimenting those around you for what they do increases your happiness as well as theirs.  (Psychologists have shown this empirically; people who are more appreciative are happier than those who aren’t.)  It’s easy to take the nice things a spouse or friend does for you for granted.  Be mindful of when someone is doing something beneficial for you, and praise/reciprocate accordingly.

Be appreciative of random chance (or Providence, depending on your viewpoint) and remember all the good luck you receive, and try not to dwell on the bad.  Everyone can bring to mind the last time they were stuck in grinding traffic, but what about the last time your commute was a breeze for some inexplicable reason?  Did you remind yourself how fortunate you were at that moment?

Don’t be too hard on yourself

While I believe that people should hold themselves to high ethical and behavioral standards, I also think people beat themselves up over things that, when put in perspective, are actually quite trivial.  Even if you make a big mistake, it doesn’t make anything better to simply feel guilty about it.  Focus on the future instead: repair the damage if you can, cope with it if you can’t, and consider if you need to take preventative action going forward.

I know someone who has been agonizing about leaving a job they don’t like, mostly because they’ve invested a lot of time and effort into this career path.  They spent a lot on school to receive a specialized degree to go into this field.  They spent several years gaining experience on the job.  This person dislikes the job, but feels guilty about quitting because they’ve put so much into it.

The bottom line is, they can’t get back the time and money they spent for their current profession, so there’s no point in feeling bad about it.  Instead, they should focus on answering questions that matter like: will it make me happier to leave this career for a new one?  (Yes!)  How can I find a new career and avoid making similar mistakes in my next job?  Note that these questions deal with the controllable future, not the uncontrollable past.

Worry about what you can control, steel yourself against for the rest

This last suggestion is particularly apt to investing and my point about letting bad luck go.  In investing, the best you can do is make smart choices in the present with respect to your goals and needs.  For most people, low-fee stock index funds are the way to invest for distant goals, like retirement.  If you have $100,000 in such a fund for a retirement that’s 20 years away, and the fund drops by 25% the next day, should you feel remorse for your decision?  No!  When uncertainty is involved, rationally expected results should determine how you evaluate your decision-making, not actual results.  To see why this is true, imagine the following gambling scenario:

Multi-billionaire Bill Gates offers you the following proposition: You’ll flip a quarter, and if it comes up heads, you get $2 from Gates.  If it’s tails, you pay him $1.  Do you accept this flip?  (Make the decision in your head for the purposes of this thought experiment.)

Now ask yourself: if the coin comes down tails (you lose $1), does that mean you made a bad decision (before the flip occurred)?

Assuming your goal in this scenario is to make money, the answer to the first question is ‘yes, take the flip’ and the answer to the second question is ‘no, you made a good decision even though you lost.’  Let’s see why: 50% of the time, you win $2, the other 50% loses you $1, for a net average gain of $1 (= 2 – 1) for every two flips.  This is a positive ‘expectation’ (average result) of 50 cents per single flip.  With each flip you ‘expect’ to win 50 cents on average, so ‘yes’ you want to flip.

If the coin comes down tails, losing you a buck, did that change your expectation before the flip?  Of course not, you still had a 50 cent expectation.  Thus, even though you lost, you made the right decision in terms of maximizing your expected profit.  Similarly, your expectation for future flips is still a positive 50 cents, so you should offer to keep playing with Bill no matter how many times you lose (or win.)  (If you can flip fast enough and/or get Bill to raise the stakes, you’ll eventually bust one of the richest men in the world.)

This example can be applied to life, albeit with less clarity.  If you made a decision that seemed like a good one based on your rational evaluation of the information you could get, that’s the best you can do.  In the investing example, since market movements are impossible to predict with any accuracy (run from, or punch, anyone who tells you otherwise), there’s no point in kicking yourself if the market dives unexpectedly.  (The same goes for congratulating yourself on your wise intelligence if the market soars.)

Instead, be emotionally prepared to cope with the misfortune that is sure to come to everyone in greater or smaller amounts in life.  Counting the positive things in your life will help.  (I remind myself of my wonderful wife, friends, family, ridiculously good looks, and the existence of microbrewed beer whenever I’m feeling down.)

If your decisions repeatedly turn out badly, you should reexamine your thought process to make sure you’re really making rational decisions based on good information.  (This is because similar repeated outcomes suggest that luck is not the reason for them.)   Ask your friends or family to check your logic.  They should be quick to tell you if, say, you’ve dated obvious jerks in your last three relationships and need to stop kidding yourself about your ‘bad luck’ with love.

I’d love to hear comments from folks on how they’ve dealt with choice, and their thoughts on what I’ve written above.  Good luck implementing the above in your own life!