Saturday, January 23, 2010

Corn(y) history

For those not in the know, all bourbon must be at least 51% corn in the mashbill by legal definition plus corn plays a significant role in the flavor of bourbon. After corn, you have the flavor grain of Rye or Wheat to give the bourbon a spicy (rye) or sweet (wheat) flavor profile. For those starting out on their bourbon crusade, I like to suggest that in addition to picking up various bourbons, adding a corn whiskey and a wheat whiskey to the bar will help in picking out flavor nuances. For the purposes of this blog, I want to touch on corn not only because it plays a significant role on the flavor of bourbon but also because today's corn going into bourbon isn't the same corn used in your dear old Grandpappy's bourbon.

I've had numerous discussions with fellow enthusiasts about the differences of bourbon found today compared to those I find in my dusty hunting and one distinctive difference I notice in some older bourbons is the viscosity is more pronounced. When speaking of viscosity I'm referring to the thick oily nature of bourbon. If you swirl bourbon in a glass, notice how the bourbon clings to the sides and runs down the inside of the glass producing "legs". Now, I'm not a scientist nor do I play one on T.V. but viscosity is something I notice and that of course produced the question; why does my 1959 Old Forester cling to the inside of the glass, slowly producing evenly spaced legs yet my Very Old Barton does the same but at a faster pace? I think one reason is corn, or rather the properties of corn.

A friend of mine gave me a DVD called "King Corn" to watch which discussed in interesting fashion, the corn industry from planting to the numerous uses corn has in our countries food supply, which would include a distilleries mashbill. About 2/3 the way through the DVD, one person discussed the engineered changes to corn over the last 30 or 40 years from corn that contained a higher degree of protein than what is found today, almost all starch. This was an interesting factoid and one that brings up the question. Did corn from 30+ years ago, which contained more protein than found today, influence the viscosity and mouthfeel of bourbon distilled during that era, or for that matter, 100 years ago? I guess the other question would be, for those that have access to older bourbons (I'm thinking of you Stoops), do they feel more oily or have a thicker mouthfeel than today's offerings? I think it does and in conducting tastings of older bourbons with fellow enthusiasts, there's a general consensus that if not the corn, then something influenced the thicker attributes of bourbon back then. Do you agree or am I just being corny? (yah, I know, that was dumb).


  1. I agree older bourbons are "thicker" than current offerings, but I wonder if that is not also due to changes occurring in the bottle over the years. I noticed the viscosity most in some Old Crow chess piece bourbon I had. I attribute that more to evaporation / oxidation / congelation over time than differences in ingredients.

    But... you have drank more bourbon, for a longer time, and of more diversity than I have, so I yield to you.

  2. Greg, I was alway under the impression that corn gave Bourbon its sweetness, not the wheat. I suspect that wheat just allows the corn sweetness to come through whereas the Rye's spiceness overpowers or subdues it. I have a wheat whiskey and it isn't as sweet as a wheated bourbon.

  3. You're correct that the corn does provide the sweetness (think corn syrup). But, wheat also provides a sweet quality to bourbon which is why I called it a flavoring grain. There are times when Rye does overpower the corn qualities (think OGD) but I think Handy is a good example of a nice balance of rye sweetness.

  4. I'm sure that the engineered changes in raw materials have affected the taste and feel of bourbon over the last few decades. This observation comes up among scotch enthusiasts, too.

    I think the major factor in the viscosity change you note, however, is the chill filtering of the spirit that has become routinely accepted practice both here and abroad.

    Chilling the whiskey to sub-freezing temperatures and running it through filter pads to eliminate the possibility of "chill haze" when a whiskey gets cool removes a lot of the thicker components of the whiskey, and inherently changes it to the detriment of taste and mouthfeel.

    There is a general cry for foreign distillers to eliminate this practice, and many are offering non-chill filtered expressions as premium releases. Maybe it's time for the same demands on our own shores.

  5. Excellent point Sam, thanks. The oily nature of older bourbons could very well be the fatty deposits prior to chill filtering, or maybe a combination of that and corn....who knows. I know I'm not crazy. I'm drinking a '79 Early Times KSBW right now and for an 80 proof, it's somewhat oily and very flavorful, something not found in many of today's 80 proof offerings.

  6. King Corn is a great documentary. I have told many of my friends to watch it and highly recommend it. The corn that they are referring to, that has been engineered is not the same corn you buy to eat. It is designed to grow closer together, grow faster, bigger and as Greg said have more protein. This corn is used for the feed industry and to make corn based products like high fructose corn syrup. I don't know if this type of corn is used in bourbon making but I would think that the corn that is used in the bourbon industry is the same corn, or close to it, that we eat.
    Great post Greg. Keep them coming.

  7. You're right Dan, I'm not sure which corn is being used for distilling but the engineering efforts of the feed corn were done to produce massive yields; an acre yield in the early 1900's was approx 30-40 bushels. Today that same acre can produce up to 200 bushels. I would think the growers of consumption corn would want the same yields, or something close to it.

  8. There's no reason to believe ALL corn hasn't been modified greatly in the last decade or two. Open-pollen corn, that which can propagate itself in the field from year to year, is nearly gone. Monsanto controls most of the available genetics of the plant at present, and most other seed companies are at their mercy. The same can probably be said of rye, wheat, and barley. Grain DNA is not a naturally-affected situation anymore, and the changes aren't anywhere near done yet.

    What does this mean for whiskey? Stay tuned!

  9. Sam - without coming out and saying just that, you made the point I was trying to make. As Dan correctly pointed out, the DVD focused on feed corn, but there's no way edible corn of today hasn't changed in some fashion, great or small, and one of those changes would have to include yield. What I know is what my mouth is telling me when I drink older bourbons and that is the depth and mouthfeel is simply different, and in my opinion, better than what is found today.