Maker’s Mark dives deep into the grain that makes their Kentucky bourbon special, wheat.
Bourbon makers have long experimented with almost everything that goes into making Kentucky’s signature drink, from barrels to oaks, from corn to weather.
Despite this, the process at Maker’s Mark has changed little.
“We’ve been here for seventy years to make the same whiskey,” said Jane Bowie, director of innovation for the distillery.
But great experiments are under way underneath which could one day give rise to new kinds of wheat, if they manage to unravel the secrets of the flavor of the grain.
For the past five years, the Kentucky Distillery, which is the world’s largest seller of “wheat” bourbon, has been working with University of Kentucky agriculture professor David Van Sanford to test different strains of wheat.
Maker’s Mark asked for his help in determining the different flavors that wheat can bring to their bourbon, which is one of the few that is made with wheat rather than rye as a secondary grain (the primary grain being corn).
Buffalo Trace, which makes Weller and Pappy Van Winkle, and Heaven Hill also make wheat bourbons. But Maker’s Mark Distillery president Rob Samuels still estimates that over 95 percent of bourbon is made from rye instead of wheat.
They started planting different varieties on the 1,000 acre Star Hill farm in Loretto or on neighboring farms.
“What we do is provide samples from those plots and Maker’s Mark does a sensory evaluation, choosing which varieties to grow to ultimately affect the flavor,” said Van Sanford, a wheat breeding and genetics expert.
Wheat was generally viewed as a bland kernel, something to sweeten the dominant corn. But now that is being questioned.
“We all have this preconception that it’s smoother and rounder than it might not add much to the table, but it really looks like it is,” said Van Sanford.
“You would be shocked,” Bowie said. She has a nose for wheat varieties that have fall spice characteristics “like pumpkin chai latte” as well as versions that have that classic play-doh scent.
“You have to wonder how this translates. All I do all day is study where the flavor comes from, ”Bowie said. “There is an agricultural side and a manufacturing side. For so long the focus (in distillation) has been on manufacturing… we’re obsessed with the process. The movement over the past 15 years has been on the side of agriculture. These are the ingredients. We want to understand our ingredients.
Together with Bowie and Samuels, Van Sanford tested around 30 varieties. The Criteria: Unique flavor, quality yield and must grow well in Kentucky.
“We’ve found a few that we really like,” Van Sanford said.
Bowie, who is also a master of ripening, said they had started to wonder where the flavor of the wheat came from. Is it variety? ground? agricultural practices?
“The answer is yes, all of them,” she said. “It’s a Pandora’s box.”
The distillery had watched the movement in the baking industry to reverse decades of agricultural practices, credited with saving millions from starvation, which had made wheat the commodity it is today.
Samuels said that until Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, wheat “was always grown locally. What he was able to accomplish through the crossing was a long-life variety of wheat that could be shipped all over the world. But in the process, a lot of flavor has been lost.
Today, even though Maker’s Mark is made from locally grown wheat, it’s pretty much a single kind, the Pembroke variety of soft red winter wheat developed by the University of Kentucky. And not much like what would have been grown 70 years ago.
“It’s Wonder Bread,” Samuels said. “And we’re flipping it over on his head.”
Looking out of his office window at the distillery, Samuels said he could see fields where different varieties of modern wheat have been planted. The results of past harvests were used to bake loaves of bread to assess the resulting flavors.
They also assess what happens to the aromas of wheat after the process of distillation and aging. And it can take years. Even decades.
But Samuels has high hopes.
“We believe that we will end up with unique varieties of wheat that will push the boundaries of flavor. It’s a big dream to have a Maker’s Mark grape variety of red winter wheat, ”he said. “We’re going to start taking this research beyond the farm in the not too distant future. “
They also hope to prove that farming practices have an impact on flavor, he said.
“Flavor and sustainable farming go hand in hand and we want to prove it,” Samuels said. “It’s a really important part of that vision, to use the Maker’s Mark brand profile to do good in the community, far beyond even Kentucky. “