Bourbon: from grain to glass- A moment of science

Storm Team 2

You know what it’s like out of a bottle, but do you know the long journey that bourbon and other spirits take to get in that drink?

“A lot of folks hear I’m a distiller and not really sure if that’s a brewery or a winery or what. But what we do here is real similar to making a beer but we take that beer and then actually separate the alcohol from the beer through distillation,” said Chris Jude, head distiller at High Wire Distilling in Downtown Charleston. They’re known for their bourbon, which begins its journey as corn.

“Here at high wire we’re using 100% Jimmy Red corn, it’s an heirloom red corn that actually originated here in Charleston County.”

 A half of ton of this corn is ground down into what is essentially grits, then added with water to this tank which heats the slurry. This will make the yeast’s job easier to convert the sugar into alcohol down the line.

This sugary mixture, called mash, is then cooled down and transported to another tank for fermentation as yeast is added to it. After 5 days, the yeast has converted the sugars in the mash to alcohol to make a “basic beer” with an alcohol per volume of around 10%. This makes for a very strong beer, but nowhere close to the 40% range expected in a spirit. For that- distillation must occur.

“You’re not increasing the alcohol, you’re separating the alcohol from the water portion.”

“As that 10% alcohol heats up it evaporates the water and alcohol vapors to a column which allows multiple distillations to occur in a single run- increasing the purity and concentration of the alcohol.

These vapors rise and cool, eventually condensing to bourbon! Notice that the color isn’t that characteristic amber just yet as liquid that is coming off the still is always clear- it gets its color through aging in barrels.

And those barrels is where this bourbon will stay and age for awhile, this batch a minimum of 2 years. This will mellow the spirit as less desirable compounds evaporate while some of the alcohol is absorbed into the charred oak barrels- imparting that smoky flavor while giving it that color. 

This is nearly the end of the journey, as the barrels are tapped, the bourbon is bottled, and then poured for you to enjoy: neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail. A long journey from grain to glass.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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