Can New Grains Make a Better Bourbon?
Distillers are revolutionizing the taste of bourbon, by using new grains like triticale, rice, oats, millet, and buckwheat.
‘Triticale’ was a mystery word to me—as it many be to many of you—until earlier this fall when I drank a bourbon made with triticale…and had my mind blown by its truly unique flavor.
Triticale is a hybrid grain made of both rye and durum wheat. It was first bred during the late-19th century when European laboratories were looking to create a grain with the high yield of a wheat, but with the disease and environmental tolerance of a heartier rye.
For the past century triticale has been mainly used as livestock feed, but as of late it’s finally being looked at as a consumer-viable crop. That’s especially been good for whiskey consumers. This grain is the centerpiece of Jim Beam’s latest small-batch bourbon—simply called Triticale—which tastes unlike any whiskey I’ve ever had before.
“Imagine a sandwich made with wheat bread on one side and rye on the other—that’s Triticale,” Fred Noe, master distiller for Jim Beam told me. “(Using triticale for this bourbon) brings about moderate spice notes on the nose, a mild cereal taste with vanilla and light oak, and a warm light-bodied finish.”
This is actually more exciting that it may sound because, for the longest time, American whiskey-makers have been incredibly stubborn about what goes into their products.
Corn has to comprise 51% of a bourbon recipe (legally) (PDF), but it often comprises almost the entire mash bill of most American bourbons.
A typical bourbon’s secondary grain is usually a dash of rye or occasionally wheat like in Maker’s Mark or Pappy Van Winkle.
A little malted barley is used in most all major whiskeys as well, though that’s mainly due to its remarkable fermentation abilities.
Of course, alternatively, American rye whiskey is composed predominantly of rye, anywhere from around 70% to a full 100% of the mash bill—with WhistePig’s The Boss Hog a sparkling example of the latter type of recipe.
Finally, though, whiskey-makers are beginning to experiment with other grains. Even if they have the top-selling bourbon in the world already in Jim Beam White Label, Jim Beam might very well be at the forefront of this experimental grains movement with their Signature Craft Harvest Collection. The earliest releases in the series first came out in 2014.
“The inspiration came from former master distiller (Jerry Dalton). He prided himself on ‘thinking outside the barrel,’” Noe explains, “while researching and developing six different whiskies that had similarities to the standard Jim Beam grains.”
Besides that aforementioned Triticale which I truly loved, other Harvest Collection releases so far have included Brown Rice, Soft Red Wheat, Six Row Barley, and Whole Rolled Oat. All are outstanding, wholly unique in their own right, checking in at 90 proof and eleven-years-aged.
“We had to wait eleven years to find out what these liquids would taste like,” explains Noe, who became master distiller in 2007. “Thankfully, when I finally dug into those barrels, it was a pleasant surprise to find such interesting bourbons.”
Buffalo Trace—the distillery of the vaunted Pappy Van Winkle—has been secretly playing around with unique grains too, mainly as part of their Experimental Collection which was first launched in 2006.
“Our experiments are more for our personal learning than anything else,” Amy Preske of Buffalo Trace told me. “All of our experiments are part of this quest to craft the perfect bourbon, which we have dubbed the ‘Holy Grail.’”
So far, only the “results” of one of these unique grain experiments has been released to the public—a nine-year-old 2011 bottling in which both rice and oats were subbed in for rye as the secondary grain in their standard bourbon mash bill.
Buffalo Trace’s tasters found rice made for a very delicate whiskey, one with a clean aroma and a crisp flavor lacking the typical heaviness. While oats made for a more smoky bourbon, one with an earthier finish.
Still, there’s a reason whiskey makers have for so long stuck with those standard, predictable grains like corn, rye, and barley.
“Not all grains distill well or age well in a barrel,” Noe explains.
Oat is especially not an easy grain to work with, something you can probably guess just from trying to move your spoon through a bowl of Quaker Oats.
“Oat is very difficult and gooey to work with. It can easily lead to a stuck mash,” explains Tad Seestedt, the proprietor of Ransom Spirits. His Oregon distillery uses just 15% oat in their recipe for The Emerald 1865, something that not only adds flavor, but also a tremendous mouthfeel and viscosity to the whiskey.
On the negative, oat doesn’t convert starches to sugar as high as, say, corn, which make it even more surprising KOVAL Distillery makes a 100% oat whiskey.
In fact, this Chicago distillery makes a series of single grain whiskeys—the only ones of their kind on the market. Besides rye and oat, they also have one 100% comprised of millet.
Millet is an interesting grain to use for a whiskey as it’s perhaps more famed as a bird seed in America—though that’s not necessarily true in the rest of the world.
“Millet is commonly used for spirit-making in Nepal,” Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, KOVAL’s president and co-founder told me. “But we were initially curious about what millet would taste like as a whiskey, and were pleased to discover it mashed and distilled wonderfully.”
Hart likes this naturally gluten-free grain so much that KOVAL also uses it for the non-corn 49% of their bourbon mash bill.
Alternative grains make positive flavorful and financial sense for innovative companies.
Besides Ransom and KOVAL, on the micro-distillery side there’s New York’s Catskills Distilling who produces a buckwheat whiskey called The One and Only Buckwheat.
Made using 80% buckwheat, it legally can’t be referred to as a whiskey since, well, buckwheat isn’t technically a grain. Nevertheless, it’s sold extremely well and helped put the distillery on the map.
Nashville’s Corsair Distillery also produces a buckwheat whiskey (Buck Yeah) but even more intriguing—perhaps so intriguing it doesn’t even merit a punny name—is their Quinoa Whiskey.
Made from the popular South American grain long beloved by Birkenstock-wearers, the red and white seeds add a nutty earthiness to the liquid.
Corsair has several other experimental grain whiskeys on the market and in the works, including ones made from oat (called Oatrage), spelt, even triticale—all of which have culminated in a product fittingly called Insane in the Grain.
That limited offering is made from a whopping twelve different oddball grains Corsair has worked with in the past, including blue corn and sorghum. It’s an exceedingly complex offering, truly sui generis, though perhaps no surprise as Corsair’s co-founder Darek Bell literally wrote the book on “alt” whiskeys.
“When we began, the goal was to provide America with a new take on whiskey,” Hart adds, noting that, with their single grain whiskeys KOVAL actually was emulating the traditional European style of distilling that CEO and co-founder Robert Birnecker’s Austrian family once used for making brandy.
“When you’re making a brandy, you never put the ‘tail’ cuts (in other words, the lower-proof, bad portion of distillate) into it because it would muddle the flavor of the fruit,"says Hart.
“We took that mentality and applied it to distilling grains. We wanted to work with alternative grains to really showcase the difference in flavors, as well as produce spirits that were as bright and clean as they are unique.”
Uniqueness and setting themselves apart from the hundreds of other distilleries in America is probably why the big boys are also making sure they continue experimenting. They all want to make sure some ambitious upstart like KOVAL or Corsair doesn’t inadvertently stumble upon that ‘Holy Grail’ before them and pass them by in market share.
Maybe that’s why last month Woodford Reserve released Master’s Collection 1838 Style White Corn. By using white corn instead of the more traditional yellow field, or “dent” corn, the bourbon become lighter in body and sweeter in taste.
“White, or sweet corn, has a higher sugar content and therefore less starch than yellow dent corn does,” Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris says. “Everything we do at Woodford Reserve, from experimenting with innovative grain recipes to pioneering unique barrel finishes, is about creating flavor. We are not interested in being different for the sake of being different.”
Still, other grains are currently being tested out by Morris and his Woodford Reserve team.
“We have plenty of other grain experiments aging right now,” Preske likewise notes, though she refuses to disclose for competitive reasons what those other grains actually are. She did note there are over 4000 different barrels-worth of experiments going on at the moment, many of them grain-related.
Ultimately, though, whether it’s something like triticale, or just those standard “boring” grains that have been used since time eternal, Noe tells me: “People should drink bourbon any damn way they please, and we’re always looking for new ways to please our fans.”