Brown-Forman Boosts the Barrel (1949)—A Silver Tongued Tale of Bourbon Production

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A beautiful paper just crossed my desk that was sent in by a blog reader and details the production process employed by Brown Forman in 1949. It was written for The Wooden Barrel, a trade publication.

Brown-Forman Boosts the Barrel
For Eighty Years, This Famous Kentucky Distillery Has Placed Whiskey in Cooperage for an Ever-Growing Market.

This paper is well worth a look, if not required reading, and joins a few other unique descriptions of mid century spirits production that have been highlighted here over the years. These all become benchmark writing samples for contemporary authors to know what is possible.

It is worth comparing this document to: Anonymous. The Story of Rum—(Reprinted from Package Stores Journal) Revista de agricultura de Puerto Rico, Volume 32, (1940) page 453-455.

This mid century document covering rum is possibly aimed at a similar audience and even goes so far as to mention fission yeasts, a topic many writers have been afraid to cover.

Another very compelling document, State Board of Equalization Office Correspondence, June 7, 1954, was written very carefully relating to a tax case from 1954 concerning barrel aging. The heart of the issue is whether barrels are a primary ingredient in the whiskey and should not be taxed or if as a vessel for storage they are just a manufacturing aid that rubs off a little and should be taxed. It was written very carefully because so much money was a stake.

It is interesting to look at where these documents overlap and how they compare to what we write today and what technical details we refrain from. It really feels like we are in the shadow of a lost civilization in our discourse. I am constantly told today how everything needs to be “dumbed down” for consumers, but maybe that is a short sighted approach.

There is a lot of room to create the next generation of spirits that are a lot more beautiful than what we see today and I hope that they get written about at the level they deserve. The spirits industry will not attract investment capable of next generation ideas and will simply be treated like a cash cow if writers only maintain the dumbed down status quo.

This Brown-Forman paper is four pages and quite fun to look at. It begs the question of how many spirits companies employ people capable of writing something so thorough and articulate about their own production? Could anyone at Hampden, the most important distillery in the world, write anything comparative about their own production? Could anyone employed by Brown-Forman today write it? Could any new American micro-distiller? I hope so and would love to read it all.

If major rum producers today had to use this document as a close template, would they be stuck explaining that they gave up much of their in-house yeast work over the years and have to constantly make compromises for economy and production quotas?

“Unheralded and unnoticed”, what an intro! That kind of sounds like my own projects…

Is the Brown-Forman Experimental Farm still a part of the company? It almost sounds like they should have been conducting the research others like Firestone Robertson have been undertaking to introduce new corn varieties to whiskey production.

The writing style goes beyond the rhetorical and almost has a sickly sweet propaganda tone that is sort of off putting until it becomes very thorough.

450 people worked at the main distillery! What is that number today after so much automation and innovation?

What I did not know is that compressed air was used to clean grains. I quickly began to wonder, how much of what is described was standard industry practice and what was distinctive style points?

The author wants us to know how massive their operation is and the intimate numbers reinforce that point.

We see a claim that they sacrifice yield for aroma which is the hallmark of a fine versus commodity product.

Rye added in this manner gives less whisky yield but a much finer flavor to the finished product than if it were cooked at the same temperature as the corn.

Style points!

The addition of yeast is necessary to bring about fermentation, in other words, a series of changes due to the action of certain complex nitrogenous bodies upon organic compounds. These bodies, known as ferments or enzymes, are secreted in living organisms.

The commonest is the one in the yeast cell, which produces alcohol and carbon dioxide from sugar, but bacteria, molds and animal secretions also set up fermentation of various kinds. We have already noted that diastase in germinating seeds change starch to sugar. Enzymes are also the cause of the fermentation of lactic and acetic acids.

I highlight these two paragraphs because they match the expansive view of fermentation I was asked to write for the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. I was also requested to mention fission yeasts just like Package Store Journal in 1940!

To the experienced whisky taster, the flavors are as distinct as the odors and scents given off by the flowers of higher plants. This analogy is interesting, for yeast is botanically one of the simplest forms of plant life.

Whisky compared to the profoundness of flowers! There is an audacity of metaphor there but they confidently went for it! Who is this anonymous author?

Brown-Forman’s strain of yeast, which is used to make Old Forester, has been with the company so long that its true origin is lost in antiquity. Other strains are used to produce Early Times and Kentucky Dew, two other brands put out by Brown-Forman.

I have never seen this specific admission that strains were maintained across consolidated products. Does this mean that different strains were used in the different mashbills produced under one roof described in this famous document?

Robert L Schoeneman, Randolph H Dyer, Analytical Profile of Cistern Room Whiskies, Journal of Association of Official Analytical Chemists, Volume 51, Issue 5, 1 September 1968, Pages 973–987.

Brown-Forman describes 72-96 hour fermentation but we do know from Schoeneman and Dyer that others of the era went as long as 120 hours.

Two hundred million per ml is a damn good number for yeast growth! For fission yeasts, our starters are well over one hundred million, but definitely not two.

In time the entire mass seethes and bubbles on an expanding scale and the temperature rises. If you should get close enough by thrusting your head through an opening at the top of the tub, you could well nigh be overpowered by what arises from the churning mass.

Incredible writing.

The apparatus that separates the alcohol from the beer and residue from distillation, and accomplishes it in a away to avoid rectification or separation of the fusel oil and other congeneric substances which are valuable as flavors, is a tall copper cylinder having a series of perforated copper plates.

This is a very important statement because many are quick to shit on Bourbon’s continuous distillation. The author makes the point that they are aware that rectification at this point could damage the flavor so they keep all of it. If fusel oil was separated at this point, so too would high value congeners. Their fates are bound.

They segue to a very curious description of the doubler and rectification where excess fusel oil is separated. This is after they describe the try box.

Distillation at Brown-Forman is slow—110 to 120 degrees proof to keep in the flavoring compounds. The new whisky is cut to 103 proof when put into the barrels.

Exemplary use of the em dash. I know that many of those numbers have crept upwards, but I do not know where they stand at Brown-Forman today. It is a reminder of what they were particularly proud off but may have backed away from when times got tougher in the glut years.

I love the thorough description of their effluent processing and how they upcycle it to a valuable product. What I learned in rum production, is that before you even start fermenting, you must have a plan and capacity to deal with your effluent. Many of the industry elders become preoccupied with keeping the industry moving in this regard.

The author makes a point of noting that nutritional value of the grain increases as a result of fermentation. This concept is central to the premise that civilization was possible as a result of discovering fermentation. We could not progress without this nutritional boost.

“The taste is affected by the natural juices in the oak which are turned to wood caramel when the stave is charred and by the tannic acid in the wood during the process of aging. Today, the nature of the oak staves used in the barrels, the amount of charring, and the temperature changes during the aging of whisky, are carefully controlled,” states the corporation.

We see a paragraph in quotes implying that the author is not an employee of Brown-Forman. This makes the chosen level of technical detail all the more interesting. Does the author feel that if you are smart enough to work in cooperage production and read a trade publication, you are smart enough to understand the nuance of Bourbon production? Do they hang with people that talk sports statistics all day long and feel its only natural to bring it to Bourbon? When we dumb down writing about spirits, we forgot that a very significant amount of readers work in fields that employ as much science and technology as Bourbon production. Possibly their appreciation for the craft and willingness to pay for fine products is because they understand (or seek to) the science.

This was a lot of fun to look at.

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