“Yeast is weird. Do vegans drink bourbon?” I wrote in the margins of the Bourbon Making Workshop workbook.
To be fair, it was before lunch and after a spirits sampler, so when Colin Blake, director of education at Moonshine University, described yeast as things that “eat up sugar, poop out alcohol and fart out CO2,” my mind immediately went to yeast as critters. And if critters die in the process of making bourbon, how could a vegan justify drinking it?
I was wrong, tipsy and tired. Yeast are not critters (I honestly knew that); they’re fungi. They’re still a little weird. There are thousands of varieties of yeast, but it has only been commercially produced for a little more than a century. Brewers and bakers relied on airborne yeast until then.
Other fun facts from bourbon class:
• Not a bourbon fact, but the British Navy got a ration of rum every week until the 1970s.
• The “rules” governing bourbon are: It must a) be at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill (the grain recipe), b) be made in the United States (not Kentucky as some people claim), c) come off the still at 160 proof or less, d) be cut to 125 proof or less before bottling, and e) be put into a new charred oak container.
• The “new” part of the above definition was mandated during the Roosevelt administration as a workforce effort influenced by the coopers’ (barrel-makers) union.
• Note that the definition does not specify “barrel” or require a specific amount of aging. Blake told us that technically, you could pull off the distilled liquid into a charred oak bucket and walk it to the bottling line, and it would still be bourbon. You just have to use a new charred bucket each time.
• A ton of bourbons are “sourced bourbons,” meaning they’re distilled at a mega-distillery and then sold to a brand that bottles it and sells it. Even though it’s all about marketing, do not fear the sourced bourbons — some of them are really good.
• One of those distilleries, MGP in Indiana, makes 80 percent of the ryes out there.
• “Single barrel” and “small batch” are basically marketing terms. There are no regulations regarding either, so those terms can be thrown around pretty liberally, and often are.
• Distillers get pretty feisty about their preference in grain mills. Roller mills have teeth that mangle the grain. Hammer mills have tiny hammers that smash it. Brown-Forman is one of the only large distilleries that uses a cage mill, which has cylinders with tiny holes that grind the grain. You want your distilling grains to be as fine as cornmeal; any finer and you’ll just be cooking dough balls.
• The fact that Kentucky’s limestone water is good for bourbon-making is well-documented. Limestone helps remove iron (no one wants a bloody-tasting bourbon for sure), but the benefits of iron-free water are not just about taste. Iron turns alcohol black. In the olden days, that’s how people made ink.
• Not-bourbon Jack Daniel’s churns out six barrels a minute. Also, when you Google “Jack Daniel’s,” the second term that comes up is “Jack Daniel’s bourbon.”
• The first cut that comes out of the bourbon distilling process is called the head, and it tastes terrible. Its alcohol content is so high, it makes a good cleaning fluid. Moonshine University has squirt bottles of the stuff all over the distillery for cleaning purposes.
• “Bung” and “bunghole” is still fun to say, but they’re pretty much only used for initially filling the barrel. These days, rather than pull down the barrel and eject the bung from the bunghole to sample the bourbon during the process of aging, distillery workers will leave it where it is and drill a small hole in the barrel and plug it with a small cork. This way, there is less danger of breaking a barrel.
• Maker’s Mark is pretty much the last major distiller who is still rotating their barrels throughout their rick houses.
• Blue corn bourbon — bourbon made from blue corn — is a real thing, and no, the bourbon isn’t blue.
• Coopers — people who make barrels — know their wood. When coopers decide (based on smell, the grain of the wood and the color) that a barrel is going to make a really good bourbon, they mark the barrel and set it aside. These are called “honey pots” and are sold at a premium.