FMN – June 2023 – Patriarchal Personalities of Bourbon

For the most part, the summer has been a bit standoffish as the mercury has yet to maintain a plateau above 90F. Now entering the month of June, we have the promise of warmer weather, summer vacations and of course the celebration of Father’s Day. Although Mother’s Day is quite a bit more marketing driven, celebrated and gift-inspired, paying homage to the father figure in your life should not be neglected.

I’m quite certain that dad loved that tie, cheeky-humored socks and “potty-time” book of dad jokes you got him previous holidays. This year, however, perhaps you should up your game with something that will inspire, relax and make him think of you each time he opens it.  The one gift that remains as American as Father’s Day itself is Bourbon.

As I believe in an educated consumer, there are just a few bits of information that will assist you in your hunt for the proper bottle of hootch. Bourbon is a more specific type or sub-class of whiskey with some rules and standards that ensure the integrity of that brand. With whiskey production the term mash bill refers to the list of ingredients (grains) that comprise the final product. Each different grain brings their own special character, aromatics and flavors to the whiskey.


Bourbon, by law, must have a minimum of 51% corn in its mash bill but the remaining balance can be the differentiating factor. This other 49% allows distillers a vast amount of lateral creativity to experiment with varying percentages of grains in their mash. Some have even ventured out of the norm and included hybrid and heirloom grains in an attempt to add complexity to their whiskeys. These varying mash bills, I believe, give Bourbons their own unique personality; something you can use to aid your selection.

As I mentioned, there are a myriad of grains that distillers add to their mash bills these days. The main components, however, are still corn, wheat, rye, and barley. These can exist in varying degrees and some producers are putting out whiskeys that are 100% wheat, rye or even malted barley. These whiskeys can be quite interesting but, by definition, they are not permitted to be labeled as Bourbon.


Corn was the mother grain of American whiskey (and Bourbon) in that it was readily available, relatively inexpensive and fairly easy to convert the starch to sugar, usually by boiling. The high starch content in corn resulted in high sugar musts and thus a final beverage with more than enough alcohol to satisfy the willfully inebriated consumer. Corn also adds a creamy texture and an earthy sweetness that is still perceptible in the final whiskey. Although there are some 100% corn Bourbons, they tend to be somewhat one-dimensional and need extended barrel exposure to lose that grainy greasiness.


While it may be the least popular of our major grains in Bourbon mash bills, wheat makes an obvious impact. The distillers that do use this grain, prefer winter wheat due to the higher starch and lower protein ratios. Bourbons with a high wheat content (usually 40 -45%) are referred to as “wheated” and are quite easy to determine during tasting. There is a roundness on the palate and a mellowing of the spirit that occurs with the inclusion of wheat. The resultant whiskeys are some of the smoothest Bourbons on the market and often include a seductively honied sweetness.


Rye was originally introduced in distillations by German settlers and popular in areas of impoverished soils where other grains would not grow. First thought of as a weed, this grain now has become a popular addition to Bourbons, usually in lower quantities. When the mash bill gets above 20%, they are referred to as “high-rye” Bourbons and the character changes to a racy, spicy (lemon-pepper) spirit with a dried fruit note. They often show a dusty dryness on the palate and can help enhance the baking spice notes that come from oak barrel aging. Although there are rye whiskies (over 51% rye) and they are quite spicy, the balance of the sweetness of the corn and the spice of the rye in these high-rye bourbons offer an interesting equilibrium of these components.


Barley brings a few different assets to the production of whiskey, but is almost always less than 15% of the mash. The first element is being one of the only grains that contains a natural conversion enzyme transforming carbohydrate to a fermentable sugar. Many instances a small amount of malted barley is used in the mash bill for this enzyme. Even a small amount can provide enough to convert the carbohydrates for all the grains in a mash bill. Malted barley can also add compounds that display as cooked cereal, nutty, cocoa with a malted creamy texture.

As necessity truly is the mother of invention, unmalted barley first became popular in Ireland in the mid-19th Century.  When the Untied Kingdom levied a tax on malted barley in Ireland, the Irish distillers converted their mash bill recipes to include a large amount of unmalted barley to evade the tax. We do see this in some Bourbons but in usually very small amounts. The unmalted barley adds a sharp and slightly sour fruit note reminiscent of green apple and citrus. These are not your normal tasting notes associated with Bourbon, but in smaller amounts can add yet another layer of complexity to the final whiskey.

From these different grain elements making up a variety of mash bills and thus Bourbon personalities, I’m certain you can find one that matches that well-deserving father figure. Take into account that you may want to select a Bourbon personality that opposes the one of your imbiber, as opposites sometimes do attract. At times, we all need a little sweetness to balance the bitterness in our life. Likewise, some spiciness for the more introverted personality can offer a bit of levity.

So, as you stand in the liquor store on the precipice of purchasing that Bourbon, think of your father outside doing chores, sweating in front of the grill, and falling asleep exhausted from his laborious day. Trading up for your father this one time of year remains almost a morale imperative. After all, you and mother are just two of the reasons why he drinks. I wish you and your family a happy and devoted Father’s Day.

Suggested Bourbons

Old Elk Wheated Bourbon 92 Proof, 46% abv – (Fort Collins, Colorado) – $79

Mash Bill: 51% corn, 45% wheat and 4% malted barley

Nose: Toffee, caramel, floral notes, baking spice (cinnamon), cedar, integrated alcohol

Palate: Creamy mouth-feel, toffee, brown sugar, vanilla, clove, oak, alcohol well subdued

Finish: clean, sweet spice and lingering dusty oak feel

Redemption High Rye Single Barrel Select 105 Proof, 52.5% abv – (Lawrenceburg, Indiana) – $69

Mash Bill: 60% corn, 36% rye, 4 % malted barley

Nose: Orchard fruit (apple, pear), tropical (papaya), vanilla cookie, lemon pepper spice, slight mint

Palate: white raisin, peach, toasted sugar, spicy, warming alcohol, slight tannin textured note

Finish: warm, oak dust, sweet spice, dry and clean

Rabbit Hole Cavehill Kentucky Straight Bourbon 95 Proof, 47.5% abv – (Louisville, Kentucky) – $67

Mash Bill: 70% Corn, 10% Malted Wheat, 10% Malted Barley, 10% Honey Malted Barley

Nose: red fruit cream (strawberry, cherry), apple, hot cereal with honey, allspice light alcohol perception

Palate: candied citrus (orange), mint, cooked cereal with spices, and slight grainy / oaky nuance

Finish: alcohol crescendos with oak, orange peel and grain