A new generation of distillers are turning to precision science and technology to bring consistency to the age-old art of bourbon making.
The state of Kentucky is famous for many things from thoroughbred races horses and Louisville Slugger baseball bats, to Colonel Sanders’ fried chicken and bourbon. The state produces about 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, a drink distilled using time-honored traditions and, recently, a few new tricks.
Distillers along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail boast bourbon roots reaching back to Kentucky’s first settlers in the 1700s. The amber liquid is the main ingredient in the mint julep, Kentucky’s most famous cocktail and the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby, where spectators consume 120,000 mint juleps over the two-day horse racing event at Churchill Downs.
The careful craftsmanship of turning “mash bill” grains—at least 51 percent corn—into tasty bourbon is sacred to distillers and casual connoisseurs alike.
A new generation of distillers is keeping one foot planted firmly in the past as it barrels into the future using science, technology and human ingenuity to make better bourbon faster.
Technology isn’t replacing artistry; it’s enhancing it, according to Caleb Kilburn, the 24-year-old head distiller of Peerless, which has family ties to bourbon making that trace back 120 years.
“There’s a fear with getting too automated, letting tech replace artistry,” he said. Yet Kilburn didn’t hesitate to install processing equipment and controls that he said make Peerless one of the more technologically advanced craft distilleries in the U.S.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Kentucky, Kilburn explored local distilleries and saw how some used rudimentary equipment while others used sophisticated tools.
“Both styles required a high degree of artistry, but the more technologically advanced systems were able to make more consistent products and operate on a larger scale than the more hands-on makers,” said Kilburn.
“Technology is definitely making the product of bourbon better.”
He sees the age-old art of making bourbon evolving with modern manufacturing techniques.
“Analytics ensure that only the highest quality and cleanest grains are used at our distillery,” he said. “Production processes follow the same parameters, and are corrected through the use of PID control loops, ensuring our finely tuned set points are maintained.”
PID control loops were first invented to automatically steer ships at the turn of the 20th century. This feedback mechanism has evolved and today is used in microcontrollers that power robots and other internet-connected devices.
“All of our barrels are tracked through a digital record system, allowing me to access everything that went into that specific barrel’s production—grain measurements, cooking times and temperature, fermentation progression, distillation parameters, alcohol yields and information about that barrel’s maturation,” he said.
For most, the bourbon community is still seen as very traditional.
“It’s old school,” said Chuck Hemann, a digital analytics and insights manager at Intel by day and a whisky aficionado by night…and weekends.
“If you’ve ever toured the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, you’ve seen the old wooden tracks they use to roll barrels from one warehouse to another.”
Hemann said that most people see technology only used in the marketing of bourbon. Last year, Jim Beam used virtual reality to show how its Devil’s Cut Bourbon is made. He said this same innovative spirit is transforming cocktail making, especially around new specialty bitters and serving temperatures.
Kegs and blenders are examples of how technology influences the way people drink, said Jason Sherman, founder of Beyond Zero in Louisville. He launched his company in 2008 to create a machine that does what many people thought was impossible: It freezes alcohol.
“When you’re talking to a bartender, a lot of language you use is telling them what to do with ice,” Sherman said. “Neat, on the rocks, shaken not stirred.”
But with his turbo version of a home ice-maker, which freezes alcohol into solid cubes in less than five minutes, people can make cocktails “in the rocks.”
Sherman said a pour of bourbon served “in the rocks” allows the person to appreciate flavor notes they otherwise couldn’t because the extreme cold—the cubes take a drink down to 20 or 30 degrees below zero—removes the ethanol burn of high-proof spirits.
For cocktails, he explained, the mixologist can use the same formula of water, bitters, spirits and other ingredients in the ice cubes, thus eliminating the last, disappointing drink of a watered-down cocktail.
“This really opens up the door to create a new way of drinking and present drinks in a different way,” he said.
The Need for More Bourbon
“A nice big chiller that keeps the right temperature for yeast means we can make bourbon for that julep year round,” said Marianne Barnes of the under-construction Castle and Key distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky
To meet demand, distillers like Kilburn are working to eliminate risks for human error. A computer programmed with his detailed instructions guides every step of the process, leaving nothing to chance—from precisely weighing the incoming grains to monitoring the barometric pressure in the distilling room.
The Problem with Aging
Older age typically signals higher-quality bourbon, but new techniques are challenging this notion.
“The new craft guys are trying different ways to get their product onto market without waiting four years or even two years,” said Colin Blake, an instructor at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville.
Chemical changes occur when the spirit interacts with the charred oak inside barrels. It’s crucial for developing a bourbon’s color, aroma and flavor. Smaller barrels can speed up those changes by decreasing the volume and increasing the surface area per liquid, explained Blake.
In an effort to make bourbon faster, one distiller in Cleveland, Ohio, some 350 miles northeast of Kentucky, is using pressure techniques and oxygen infusion to speed up the aging process.
“Instead of putting the alcohol inside the barrel, we put the barrel inside the alcohol,” Tom Lix, founder and CEO of Cleveland Whiskey told Inc. Magazine.
His whiskey is aged a short time in barrels then removed. The barrels are cut up, placed into a giant stainless steel vessel with the slightly aged bourbon and pressure cooked.
“Generally aged less than a year, it has some characteristics of younger whiskey, but it’s getting more complex,” said Blake, describing Cleveland Whiskey.
The Perfect Mix
“Every aspect of the industry is changing,” said Barnes, noting that every distiller wants to find a way to make and keep more bourbon.
“Barrel makers are looking at ways to decrease barrel loss,” she said. “Even the farmers are thinking of different ways to grow [grain] to make it optimal for distillers.”
As technology continues to improve, it will most definitely play an increasingly important role in this industry, said Peerless distiller Kilburn.
“Testing methods throughout the process will become more accurate, more economical, and the management of the data will become much simpler,” he said.
“Overall, the process of making bourbon will continue to be refined and improved, making for better and better products.”