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Mash Bill Breakdown – Lifeblood of Bourbon

Let’s clear the air: the difference between bourbon, scotch, and rye isn’t just about where they’re made. Though Kentucky is famous for bourbon and Scotland is king of scotch, the biggest difference lies in the mash bill and what the distiller does once it’s out of the vat.

We talked in Episode 1 and Episode 2 about the mash bill and how the various distilleries vary on their product. Legally, bourbon requires 51% or higher corn content; typically this is cut with added rye, malted barley, or other wheat. The rest of the recipe lies in the experience of the master distiller and starts with the mash bill.

What most people don’t realize is that great bourbon starts in the kitchen. Master distillers will build their recipe by baking bread, their experiment manifest in minutes instead of years. Part of their skill is tasting the finished bourbon from the bread long before a finished cask is ready.

Where Did ‘Mash Bill’ Come From?

Distilleries make whiskey from the mash, which is a mixture of grains and hot water to produce wort. This is much like making beer, the wort is much the same before distillation. So, a mash bill is simply the list of ingredients used in the whiskey-making process.

Mash bills vary by the distillery, which is why bourbon can taste different from one maker to another. Each of the mash ingredients (grains like corn, barley, and wheat) produce the wort, which is the liquid extracted from the mash that will eventually ferment into whiskey. The master distiller works at each step of this process to bring their vision to life.

The mash process steeps a variety of grains in hot water. The grains then rest at varying temperatures to activate the natural enzymes in the grain that turns the starches into sugar. The sugar is then extracted from the mash ingredients and fermented into alcohol.

Famous Mash Bill Breakdowns

Let’s put mash bill into perspective using some of the most notable bourbons: Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and the Jim Beam blends. Take a look at some of the examples:

Even slight differences in the mash bill can affect the taste of the bourbon, though many will say the aging has more impact. Heaven Hill famously has only four mash bills, and produces 12 different whiskeys. Each is made by applying different aging methods to the very same mash bills.

What to Do Next

Now that you know a little more about mash bill, what can you do with this information?

The next time you sip a glass of bourbon, use this knowledge to experiment with flavors. Consider doing a taste test of two bourbons with different mash bills to experience their differences. The more you know about the process, the better you can appreciate every glass of bourbon.

Stay tuned for more bourbon insights from Stogies and Mash!

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