Summer 2021|volume 14|Issue 4

    Raise Your Spirits

    A-maize-ing Bourbon
    Max Miller

    Max Miller

    The aroma of a freshly poured glass of Bourbon always moves me. I am not alone in this sentiment. I have come across many Bourbon drinkers/ connoisseurs/lovers, and in each instance, the spirit resonates with them, evoking memories of fun times with friends, the cozy time by the fireplace with a loved one, the celebratory toast. Until writing this article, my own sentimental journey tended to follow the same route. But, for some reason, this time questions meandered into my mind: What makes a good thing great? What is its essence? What is it that is at the heart and soul of this fine whiskey?

    Some might say it is the skills of the master distiller: blending Bourbon from barrels in different parts of the rickhouse (the warehouse where Bourbon barrels age) to create the perfect bottle every time. Some might say it is the fine new oak barrels made from Ozark mountain-range timber. Still others might say it’s the shape of the copper still or the char on the inside of every Bourbon barrel, where carmelization evokes the naturally occurring vanillin. My own contemplation of this point (over a freshly poured glass) led me to the notion that oftentimes, in order to understand the essence of a thing or to understand why something is the way it is, looking back to its origins is essential.

    The early 18th century brought a Scots-Irish immigrant population to colonial America. With them came a heritage of brewing and distilling Scotch and Irish whiskies. With their barley supplies diminished, due to incompatibility with the new American soil, and the growing scarcity of rum and brandy (the real spirits of colonial America), settlers turned to indigenous rye crops, especially here in Pennsylvania. This agrarian society used rye for various human and animal foods. Invariably there were surpluses, and it was common for farmers to use excess rye to create rye whiskey. Over time, rye whiskey evolved from use for personal consumption and bartering (paper money was scarce) to being a cottage industry, especially here in Western Pennsylvania. Westmoreland, Somerset, Fayette, and Greene counties were the hub of rye whiskey production.

    In the late 18th century, settlers migrated west through the Cumberland Gap. They were motivated by the Corn Patch Cabin Rights Act of 1776, which granted 400 acres of land to those building a cabin and planting corn in what was then Virginia territory but would be annexed in 1792 into the state of Kentucky. With this migration, corn became the key agrarian output resulting in the same surpluses that had existed tor rye. What evolved was a new corn whiskey industry. People liked the sweet, spicy and somewhat earthy elements that the corn brought.

    Soon corn whiskey grew in popularity and evolved into the Bourbon we know today. In the late 18th century, corn whiskey producers began placing their product in barrels and shipping them down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. These shipments usually left from the then-named port city of Limestone (now Maysville, Kentucky) from the “Old Bourbon” region. The barrels were marked accordingly. Folks downriver came to call the corn whiskey by this name.

    For a century, the popularity of “bourbon” corn whiskey grew. In 1964, the government finally implemented the regulatory codification of Bourbon. Now, if you look at the Code of Federal Regulations, you see that for a whiskey to be Bourbon it must: be at least 51 percent corn; come out of final distillation at less than 160; be at least two years old and aged in a new oak barrel that is charred on the inside; contain no added flavoring or coloring; be made in the United States; not be placed in the barrels at greater than 125 proof.

    Congress would declare: “Bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages.” In 2007, Congress passed a resolution declaring September Bourbon Heritage Month. Bourbon, therefore, is now synonymous with American heritage and culture both in practice and by law.

    Still, l wondered: If corn is so important in making Bourbon, how do Bourbon makers differentiate themselves in the use of corn? It turns out most Bourbons have 70 percent or more corn as a part of what is called their “mashbill.” The mashbill of a typical Bourbon consists of corn, barley, and rye or wheat. Bourbon distillers use varying percentages of corn to create their unique flavor profiles. Some keep their mashbill proprietary. Of all the grains used, corn yields the highest alcohol per ton. The science is to have the right yeast strain to consume the sugars of the fermented grains in the mashbill. There is art as well: managing the mix of grains to get consistent flavor.

    As I get to the end of my glass, I wonder if I’m moved by more than just the sweet aroma and chewy taste of Bourbon that corn offers with every sip. Maybe it is the connection to the earth and its elements. Maybe it is the indigenous, uniquely American origins. Maybe it is how imbedded Bourbon (and whiskey in general) is in our social and economic history. Or, maybe it is the halo of passion and artistry that surrounds the finest Bourbon expressions. Whatever your view, my ultimate take is that Bourbon is simply a-maize-ing!

    Max Miller is the president and chief tasting officer of Raise Your Spirits ( A former corporate attorney turned entrepreneur and college professor, Max has a hearty thirst for knowledge and for fine spirits. He is well versed in the differentiation of the complex flavors found in craft and luxury spirits, and he enjoys reading about the history of the brands, the science behind production, and the often whimsical anecdotes that are unique to each luxury spirit. His vision is simple: Make every experience memorable, exceptional, and uniquely yours.