24 July 2014

For Whiskey, Environment Means Everything.

The set of encyclopedias I've been lugging around from place to place for nearly 20 years is good for many things. Sure, net neutrality and common core educational issues are not within those pages, but history comes alive in other ways. Take whiskey, for example.

Years ago I wanted to learn more about whiskey. This is mostly because I knew that my grandpa and his brothers used to have a still hidden somewhere out on the plains of southwest Minnesota. Like Little House on the Prairie, with booze. 

I discovered that a key ingredient is the water. This seems common-sense now but, at the time, it just hadn't occurred to me that the quality of water would impact the quality of the whiskey. The ground water in a place like Bourbon County, Kentucky, is filtered through a limestone shelf and gives a clarity and composition unique to the area. It is an essential ingredient yet, surprisingly, not a regulated one.



The Bourbon Family Tree - courtesy of GQ magazine.

NPR recently ran a segment called "It's Not Tennessee Whiskey If It's Aged In Kentucky, State Says" by Camila Domonoske. In it, we learn that the environmental conditions of an area have a big impact on the final product. Temperature, humidity, and other factors all impact how the charred oak barrels and their precious liquid contents interact.
Regardless of what that booze was doing in Kentucky, does it really matter where exactly a barrel of liquor ages? According to Joe Barnes, founder of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, yes. 
"If you ask anyone in Tennessee, if they take their barrel down the street — much less across the state — they're going to get a different product, just by fluctuations in temperature and humidity," Barnes says. "Aging a product in Giles County is different from aging a product in Sevier County."

It is the whole environment, not only the water, but the wood, the air, the generations of expertise - the place itself - that ends up in those bottles of amber gold.

Also, for those of you wondering what the difference is between bourbon and whiskey, Natalie Wolchover at Live Science adds some insight: 


While bourbon whiskey has its roots in Kentucky, and continues to be primarily produced there, it is now manufactured in distilleries all over the United States. Manufacturers must meet the following requirements in order to advertise their whiskey product as "bourbon": 
It must be produced in the U.S. from a grain mixture (called "mash") made up of at least 51 percent corn. It must be distilled to a maximum strength of 160 proof, bottled at a strength of at least 80 proof, and barreled for aging at no more than 125 proof. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. To qualify as "straight bourbon," the spirits must meet the above requirements as well as being aged for at least two years and containing no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits. 
Many bourbon whiskey distilleries in Kentucky advertise their use of unique water filtered by the limestone shelf in Bourbon County; while this feature may add to the allure of Kentucky bourbon whiskey , the federal trade regulations do not stipulate about what water must be used.