Our home state of Kentucky is known for a few things: rolling bluegrass hills, fried chicken, thoroughbred horses, and perhaps most importantly, bourbon. Kentucky is the bourbon capital of the world and 95% of the world’s bourbon is aged here.
The key to great Kentucky bourbon is Kentucky weather. Kentucky temperatures can change dramatically and rapidly. We experience all four seasons here, with summer temperatures averaging in the high 80s, and winter lows averaging in the 20s. And, as anyone who’s experienced a Kentucky spring will tell you, sometimes we get to enjoy all four seasons in a single day.
How does this impact bourbon? It’s simple. While distillers carefully select their mash bills, the majority of the flavor and color of our favorite spirit comes from its time in the barrel. As the temperatures increase, the warm bourbon expands and drives into the charred wooden staves of the barrels. When the temperature drops, the bourbon contracts and is drawn back out of the staves. As seasons pass, the process repeats innumerably, creating the delicious oaky flavors and maple color bourbon fans love. In fact, after bourbon has been aged, a cross section of the barrel stave will show just how deeply the bourbon permeated the wood. Some bourbon is always left inside the barrel’s staves after the product is bottled, which is why products like beer and brandy have begun aging in bourbon barrels to impart a rich bourbon flavor.
During the bourbon aging process, there are many chemical processes happening inside the barrel, generating compounds that affect the taste of the product. For example, in warmer temperatures we see more furfural, which conveys caramel coloring, and tannins, which convey astringency. It’s the distiller’s job to regularly take samples and make sure that no one compound or flavor profile becomes too overwhelming. Many distilleries rotate or blend their bourbons to help even out the inconsistencies in flavor between barrels.
While Kentucky’s weather helps out, the product and processes are just as vital to a good bourbon. At Jeptha Creed, we start with heirloom Bloody Butcher corn, and malted rye, malted wheat, and malted barley. We age most of our bourbon in new 53-gallon white oak barrels from Kelvin Cooperage. Many cooperages and distilleries use propane fires to char their barrels, but Kelvin Cooperage uses wood-burning fires. We value old-fashioned methods and time-honored traditions at Jeptha Creed, and we think that wood-fire-charred barrel imparts a great flavor to our product. We store these barrels in tobacco-style barns, where the open design allows the barrels to fully experience our beautiful, if inconstant, Kentucky weather.
Bourbon doesn’t have to be distilled and aged in Kentucky to legally be considered “bourbon,” but with Kentucky’s dynamic climate, it only makes sense that we’re the bourbon capital of the world.