The word “blended” is often considered a dirty one when it comes to bourbon. This is in contrast to Scotch whisky, where blended products represent the vast bulk of the market, and it’s due to the way these terms are defined respectively. Whereas blended Scotch whisky is simply made at more than one distillery, and is otherwise bound by the other intrinsic definitions of Scotch whisky, blended bourbon means something else entirely. Chiefly, it requires the inclusion of just 51% straight bourbon per TTB regulations. Blended whiskey can be degraded even further, requiring only 20% straight whiskey. As such, both categories have long been derided.
The Artistry of the Blend
While producers in the US who make these categories of whiskey therefore have the green light to mix in a boat load of neutral spirit or additives, they don’t have to take advantage of these allowances. As of late, blended whiskey on the whole has seen an uptick in production and quality. Prime examples include Jim Beam’s Little Book series which is blended by Freddie Noe, 8th generation Beam distiller, as well as the releases from Utah’s High West Distillery. Blended bourbon itself is on the upswing, too. This includes bottlings that fall under yet another category: a blend of straight bourbon whiskeys. In this case, all of the components are straight bourbons.
A great example comes from Barrell Craft Spirits, and its batches of Barrell Bourbon. The brand doesn’t do any distilling in-house. Instead it sources bourbon from dozens of different distilleries across the country for these releases. The special sauce is the bourbon blending — combining those different components together. For many of its releases the brand applies unique finishes as well.
Take a look at Barrell Bourbon Batch 27. It includes a 6-year-old bourbon from Tennessee that the brand says is “fruit forward” and a 5-year-old “spice forward” bourbon from Indiana as the core of the product. Then a 13-year-old and 15-year-old bourbon are added for well-aged depth, a nine year old high-rye bourbon for spice, and five and eight year-old wheated bourbons for softer and brighter notes. Combining these different bourbon whiskeys together to create a unique product isn’t something Barrell Craft Spirits is hiding from. On the contrary, it’s the whole point.
Enhancing Your Own Juice
For a different take on blended bourbon, head on over to Bardstown Bourbon Company. This brand does a wee bit of distilling on its own. In fact its enormous double column system has taken it from a startup in 2016 to a top 10 capacity Kentucky bourbon producer in a few short years. But as a younger distillery, it has been showcasing its blending skills. Head on over to its website and the first thing you’ll see is the brand’s “a new blend of bourbon from a new blend of bourbon makers” slogan.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Fusion & Discovery Series /Photo Credit: Bardstown Bourbon Company
“We feel like we’re at the forefront of blending,” says Daniel Callaway, Bardstown Bourbon’s VP of product development. The brand’s Fusion series incorporates self-distilled bourbon with sourced bourbon, while its Discovery series is a selection of sourced bourbons blended together. Meanwhile, its Collaborative series showcases sourced bourbon with unique cask finishes, such as in Destillare Orange Curaçao barrels from Copper & Kings.
Across the three different series, what you’ll find on every label is precise indications of where the whiskey came from. It also details how old each component is, and what its mash bill is. While Callaway pegs 2023 as the release for the brand’s fully self-distilled lineup of core products, you shouldn’t expect them to stop having fun sourcing and blending. “It’s something that we really enjoy doing, blending, finishing and creating new flavor profiles,” he says.
Bourbon Blending for Consistency
Blending together sourced bourbon with self-distilled juice is something that a number of producers have been practicing, particularly as they transition towards using their own mature product. At the same time, other brands plan to make it a more fundamental and ongoing part of their ethos. This is the case at Milam & Greene which operates its own distillery and also sources from Bardstown Bourbon. The brand doesn’t consider it to be transitional at all, but rather a way to consistently incorporate a variety of different flavors, creating a final product with more depth.
“My job as blender is to pull those together and make sure it tastes like we want,” says Heather Greene. While the master distiller most typically gets the recognition in bourbon country, her title is that of master blender. In Scotland, that’s the role which is most highly touted.
An In-House “Blended Bourbon”
While we’ve been discussing bourbons that are defined as a blended bourbon, you don’t have to be a “blended bourbon” to emphasize that characteristic, though. Look no further than Four Roses, where, thanks to its unique combination of mash bills and yeast strains, the brand has 10 distinct recipes to pull from. “The 10 recipes are our thing,” says Master Distiller Brent Elliott.
Each of the ten recipes has its own indicator, such as OBSF. The “O” indicates the distillery where it’s made and the “S” indicates that it’s straight bourbon, and therefore neither changes. The second letter represents the mash bill, in this case it’s high rye, with 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley. The fourth letter indicates the yeast strain, with F said to provide herbal notes.
The other bourbon mash bill, E, features 20% rye. The other yeast strains are as follows: V, for fruity notes; K, for spice; O, for rich fruit; and Q, for floral notes. It’s a lot to sort through, but you can bet that Four Roses fans have it all memorized. “It allows us to create a lot of different flavors,” Elliott says.
Consider the newest edition to the permanent lineup, Small Batch Select. It incorporates six of the 10 recipes, aged for a minimum of six years and bottled at 52% ABV. Pulling on those levers offers Elliott a great deal of flexibility in crafting a “blended bourbon” all under one roof. Additionally it allows him to have plenty of fun along the way. “That’s really the magic of it,” he says. “There are so many dimensions to play with.”
The blend is coming on in bourbon in a big way. With all of the above examples, it’s something worth celebrating.
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