Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How To Taste What Rye Does For Bourbon.

The classes I teach for I Wish all involve tasting, so to simplify things we always do the classes in bars, i.e., a licensed premises. It's good for the bars because they get some business on a usually slow night and get some people into the place for the first time who might like it and come back.

Although I might make some suggestions, the bars usually pick what we're going to taste. We've been using good bars who have made good choices. Then I tailor my remarks based on what they select. I'm not sure why Rock's Lincoln Park picked the four bourbons they did, but it made for an interesting lesson in the use of rye as the most common flavor grain in bourbon.

We started with Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, which is made from Buffalo Trace mash bill no. 2. It has an average rye content. While they won't reveal the exact percentages, it's probably about 15 percent rye. Next we tasted Knob Creek, which is the Jim Beam mash bill and also about 15 percent rye. Then it was Buffalo Trace itself, which is their no. 1 mash bill, and lower, about 8 percent rye, so with ETL and Knob we're tasting two very similar mash bills but two different distilleries and two different yeasts, and a couple years more age in the Knob. Finally, we tasted Bulleit, which is about 35 percent rye, the highest of any bourbon.

One thing you notice is that low rye bourbons taste sweeter. They're not actually sweeter, but the rye tends to mask some of the sweetness with its distinctive spice and floral notes. By reducing the rye or substituting wheat, a milder flavor grain, you make way for the sweetness to cut through.


Unknown said...


I love finding out the nuances of the brands on the market. If Basil Hayden uses the OGD recipe and Knob Creek is the Jim Beam recipe, do you know what Beam Global uses for Booker's and Bakers?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Beam makes two bourbon formulas (not counting Maker's Mark), Jim Beam and Old Grand-Dad. The OGD formula is used for OGD and Basil Hayden, while the Jim Beam formula is used for everything else. They tweak a couple of things by brand, such as distillation proof and barrel entry proof, but that's the general breakdown.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, love the blog.
How did you get this information on the mash-bills for the BT bottles? I see contradictory information in various (less reputable) places on the internet.
Rich Ford

Chuck Cowdery said...

I usually get my information direct from the source, i.e., the distillery, as in this case.

AnotherSuggestion said...

I figured. As with anything else, there's a lot of misleading information on bourbon floating around the internet.

After a quick Google search, I could probably link to 5 different sites that either say that Elmer Lee is mash bill #2, or refer to Elmer Lee's high-rye mash-bill. How does bad information spread? I guess one or two guys get it wrong, and everyone copies what they said without verifying it first.

My confusion started yesterday when I drank some ETL - and loved it. ETL tasted light and sweet to me, like a slightly more refined version of Weller. Then I saw this stuff about it's supposed high-rye content, and I thought - what is going on? Glad I asked you. Keep up the great work.

mutantlovesongs said...


I am trying to put together a spec sheet for my bar's whiskey selection. Is the best way to obtain mashbill information just to contact the distiller? Or is there another resource that I can use for this info?


Pip Hanson
Marvel Bar

Chuck Cowdery said...

Contacting the distilleries is your best bet, plus getting to know them directly will have benefits down the road.

Ryan Murphy said...

Chuck, I was recently researching information on BT mashbills and came across this thread on straightbourbon: http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/showthread.php?t=4978

This thread seems to indicate that the information in your post is incorrect, and that Elmer T Lee is from the high rye mashbill while BT is from the low rye. Someone named Ken Weber, claiming to work at BT confirms this. What do you think? Is this a mistake?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The information in the post above was incorrect. I just fixed it. Thanks for catching it. E.T. Lee is an Age International brand. All of the BT brands are made from the #1 mashbill, while all of the Age brands are made from the #2 mash bill. I'm forever mixing them up.

By the way, BT correctly rejects the terms 'high-rye' and 'low-rye' for its two rye-recipe bourbons. At 8 percent (#1) and 15 percent (#2), 'low' and 'average' are better characterizations. 'Low' is anything less than 10 percent. 'Average' is 10 to 18 percent, and anything over 18 percent is 'high,' like Old Grand-Dad and Bulleit at 30+ percent.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, Just a fyi - Bulliet Bourbon has a rye content of 28%, with 4% barley and 68% corn. Cheers.