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Bourbon not over a Barrel

Courier-Journal, Feb. 2, 2006

For some Kentuckians, the mild winter has left a question hanging in the temperate air like the odor of whiskey in a rickhouse:

What about the bourbon?

According to distillery lore, Kentucky’s changing seasons are nature’s way of transforming what essentially is moonshine into the mature, richly flavored bourbons that are the signature drink of the commonwealth.

Summer’s heat bears down on the warehouses, expanding the aging whiskey in the sealed barrels and driving it into the charred white oak, where it picks up color and flavor. Then winter’s icy grip squeezes it back out to mix and meld with the rest of the aging distillate.

Part of the distiller’s traditional art lies in moving the barrels up, down and around in the warehouse to make the best use of the building’s temperature variations.

It seems reasonable that a winter like this could alter that process. A number of environmentally oriented Web sites even have begun raising the alarm that global warming could threaten the future of Kentucky bourbon itself.

But some of Kentucky’s prominent master distillers aren’t bothered by this winter’s weather.

“I think it’s almost ideal,” said Heaven Hill’s Parker Beam. “If you could put together a number of years like this, you probably could … come out with some maturer product a little quicker.”

The aging process doesn’t require big temperature swings, Beam said. On these mild winter days, sunlight heats the whiskey well and the nights have been cool enough to draw it back out of the wood. That has turned each day and night into a kind of mini-season, speeding maturation.

“It’s made the barrel work ideally, the way it’s designed to do,” he said.