Friday, October 17, 2008

I Make Mash the Old-Fashioned Way.

Yesterday I told you about the new Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon that was unveiled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery near Versailles, Kentucky.

I was there and as part of the unveiling, they divided the assembled scribes into two groups and had us make whiskey mash the old fashioned way. One team hand-made a sour mash, the other a sweet mash.

During mashing, grain starches are dissolved in water and converted to sugar by enzymes, then yeast is added to begin fermentation. A typical bourbon mash is 70 to 80 percent corn, which doesn't dissolve easily. In a modern distillery, the ground corn is mixed with water and boiled for about 30 minutes. A motorized agitator stirs it constantly to prevent caking.

That wasn't possible in the old days. (The picture above was taken in 1905 at the Old Judge Distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky.) Instead, water was boiled in large metal pots, then dumped into large wooden tubs. Ground corn was slowly added, as several men agitated the mixture with wooden paddles and rakes. More boiling water was added from time to time. The men would continue to stir until an even consistency was achieved. This was repeated with the other grains and then yeast was added.

That's exactly what we did. The sour mash team started with some dregs from a previous mash in the bottom of their tub. The sweet mash tub was clean. Two buckets full of steaming hot water were added, followed by a bucket of ground corn. I joined the sweet mash team because I noticed their stirring implement was a rake, which is much easier to handle than a paddle.

I had read that making mash this way is back-breaking work. They weren't kidding.

After all the corn was added and stirred to an even consistency, the mash was allowed to rest for a few hours. Then more water (not as hot) was added along with ground rye. After more stirring and another rest, ground malt was added. Malt (malted barley) contains the needed enzymes. Then we added cold water to bring the temperature down to below 90° so the yeast could be added. The sour mash team also added spent mash, i.e., mash from a previous distillation, which is the essence of sour mash. The sweet mash team just added the yeast.

Much to the surprise of even our hosts, fermentation in both tubs began very quickly, more vigorously in the sweet mash tub.

I enjoyed the exercise immensely. Although the point was to show the difference between sweet and sour mash, and I suppose that point was made, what I really enjoyed was the hands-on experience of making whiskey mash with rudimentary instruments, much as it was done for hundreds of years before the modern era. It's a reminder that whiskey-making is a very old craft and although modern technology makes the job much less physical, the modern methods aren't so very different.

The way things are going, we may need all of the pre-industrial skills we can get.

The limited edition Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon will be in stores November 1.


Anonymous said...

I haven't bought your book yet but I intend to. Are there any distillers who offer sessions for the public in mashing or any other demonstrations? I'd be willing to pay for a tour, demo, and tasting!

Chuck Cowdery said...

The experiment I described here is based on the sort of thing they do at the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Academy, which they run several times a year at the Woodford Reserve Distillery. It's definitely worth checking out and not frightfully expensive either.