When it comes to crafting great whiskey (specifically bourbon, which is today’s topic) there are four main components. The first is the water. You need a great source of water to make amazing whiskey. The second is the grains. When it comes to bourbon, corn is center stage. Pair it with rye, wheat, or barley. Add water and grain to the next most important ingredient — yeast — to ferment your mash and create alcohol before distilling and filtering your spirit.
Now comes arguably the most important step in the whiskey-making process — aging. Time spent in a barrel imparts flavor, smoothens harsh edges, and adds layers of nuance to the raw “juice.” When it comes to maturing bourbon, the wood used might be the most important piece, in terms of the eventual flavor. In fact, there are specific rules about using new American Oak.
Almost as important as the wood itself is the char on that wood. Along with bourbon‘s rule about new American Oak, there are also rules that the barrel must be charred. This is done to varying degrees — with four primary levels of char. The charred wood creates a carbon filter between the wood and the whiskey. It removes congeners and various nasty flavors and aromas from the top layer of the wood, while releasing flavors like vanilla, caramel, toffee, and brown sugar. Those flavors intensify or mellow depending on everything from the level of char to the time spent in the barrel to where that barrel is rested in the rickhouse for however long it ages.
To find the best bottles to illustrate the power of the barrel, we reached out to some of our favorite bartenders and asked them to tell us their picks for bourbon whiskeys with charred and woody flavor notes. Check their answers below!
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