I have an admission to make right off the bat. Reading up on four grain Bourbons sent me down a bit of grain rabbit hole. As I start to learn more about whiskey, the scientist in me is starting to delve more into why whiskey, or really any spirit, tastes the way it does.
For Bourbon specifically, there is this common notion that it gets most of its sweetness from the high amount of corn (at least 51% by law) in the mashbill. This is not wholly true. It’s the new charred oak barrel that provides those sweet notes of vanilla, caramel and toffee that so many Bourbon lovers crave. Corn does have some inherent sweetness, of course. It’s just not the main factor. How sweet a Bourbon is depends on the other grains in the mashbill, the char level of the new oak barrel, how fast it matures in the barrel over time and so on.
It’s to that first factor that we turn to now. One way to make a bourbon slightly less sweet (or drier) is to reduce the corn. Boulder Spirits does this with their high barley mashbill, but other distilleries have taken a different approach…why not add another grain to the mix?
Enter four grain Bourbons. Al Laws, founder of Laws Whiskey House, was one of the first distillers to popularize the addition of wheat to the mashbill (along with the traditional corn, rye and malted barley). Others, such as Cooperstown Distillery, add oats instead. Including Boulder Spirits’ approach, the goal here is to introduce new flavours into a spirit whose overall profile has remained fairly consistent over many generations. For those consumers willing to open their minds to these new possibilities, they will likely rediscover their favourite whiskey all over again.
The four grain Bourbon I have in my glass today belongs to Laws Whiskey House, which is aged for at least three years in #3 char new American oak before being bottled at 47.5% ABV. The mashbill is 60% corn, 20% heirloom wheat, 10% heirloom rye and 5% heirloom malted barley.
Nose: The wheat in the mashbill is apparent right from the beginning. Wheated bourbons sometimes give me a paint thinner note that can be really off-putting, but I’m not getting that here. Instead, I’m getting the sponge toffee insides of a Crunchie bar. Definitely getting some Frosted Flakes too. There’s a youthful grain note in here for sure. Not overpowering though. Over time, a little bit of dried strawberry wafts up. Besides a little bit of cinnamon, I’m not getting much in the way of spices, either from the barrel or the rye (not surprising as there’s only 10% rye in here).
This is a whiskey that is just on that cusp between youth and maturity. There’s that youthful grain, but also toffee and faint spicing from the cask, which is only starting to take hold.
Palate: That strawberry note carries forward onto the entry. Strawberry cream, more specifically. I’ve never had that in a bourbon before. This fades a bit after sipping this over time, but the creaminess remains. There’s just a little bit of a citrus tang as this tips into the development. At this point, there is Crunchie bar toffee, grain and dark coffee fighting for my attention in equal measure. It’s a bit difficult to pay attention to them all at once. From the entry through to the development, the experience dries out slightly. Cinnamon and nutmeg round this out.
Finish: Interesting, the sweetness comes back a little bit here. Still getting that Crunchie bar toffee served with an equal dose of cocoa powder, which I love on a Bourbon finish. After earlier sips, I was getting wet oak, but that has faded significantly. There’s also a pronounced menthol note as I breathe in and out.
With water added
That grain note is even stronger now on the nose, but the Crunchie bar toffee remains. A nice dark coffee note lingers underneath. Water has really opened up the development. Much less of that youthful grain note now. Instead, I get lots of dark hot chocolate and cocoa powder, mixed with a bit of toffee sweetness. Those darker notes carry over into the finish.
Sometimes a whiskey needs a little water to show its true character and this one is no exception. I love cocoa and coffee notes in my Bourbons and a few drops really brought those out on the development. Their older stock has received some pretty insane reviews and I can see the beginnings of what they really like in this whiskey, that’s for sure.