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).