Many people do not understand why bourbons taste different despite being made from similar mash bills using the same selection of grains. Do you know why bourbons taste different?

Bourbon must use at least 51% corn by definition. The typical grains used to complete the mash bill (recipe) are rye or wheat, and malted barley. Every major distillery uses this combination of grains. There may be experimental releases using unusual grains, but their primary brands use either rye or wheat as a flavoring grain. Many of the distilleries list their mash bills while a few keep the exact percentages secret.

Other factors affect the taste of individual bourbons. In addition to the mash bill, the choice of yeast, barrel selections, fermentation processes, and entry proof are all part of the process.

For the sake of this post, we will focus on the differences of mash bills.

Grain, water, yeast, and barrel aging makes great Bourbon

Mash Bill

Keep in mind that despite only using similar grains, there can be wide variances in the percentages. Typically, the malted barley will stay in the 5 to 12% range. After that, the recipes can change dramatically.  Is the mash bill high rye or low rye?  High rye mash bills are usually in the 15 to 35% range while low rye would be 8 to 14%. For wheat bourbons, the flavoring grain changes to wheat. The most common wheat bourbon is Makers Mark. The mash bill for Makers is 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley.

Another consideration is the source of the grains. What variety of wheat, rye, or barley is selected and where is it grown? The different varieties of grains can influence the flavor profile. As you can see from the Makers Mark mash bill that 51% of corn is just the minimum requirement. The percentage of corn will vary from distillery to distillery.

More than rye and wheat

There are examples of bourbons that include both wheat and rye. This combination is rare, but a few distilleries offer unique bourbons. Limestone Branch offers their Yellowstone Limited Edition that uses rye and wheat as well as Hudson 4 grain out of New York. Jim Beam released a signature craft release made from Triticale which is a hybrid combination of rye and wheat. The 11-year-old bourbon was sold in 375 ml bottles only.

Most of the bourbon produced uses rye as the flavoring grain.  For example, the entire line of Jim Beam, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, and Bulleit products all use rye as the flavoring grain. Common wheat bourbons would be Larceny produced by Heaven Hill and of course, all of the Makers Mark offerings.

Enjoy the spring weather with some bourbon and friends!