Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Spirits >
Oct 22, 2007 06:02 PM

bourbon making

anyone make their own bourbon or know someone that does?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. there's a guy in the West edge of Tennessee who makes what is, in effect, bourbon., but calls it 'shine. It is "aged" in a charred oak barrel, for about a year, and has a pretty mellow flavor, despite its 140 proof. He's real particular about who he shares it with though.

    1. I think home distillation is still not legal in the U.S. I think some do, but they are rsikign prosecution, and that may be why they are unwilling to share.

      I think if you want to do this, you need to do a few things, the first is make your mash or beer, then you would need to distill it, then you would need to age it. Perhaps you could legally do something by buying a distilled product and then aging it.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Captain

        Thats something a long the lines I was thinking. Like what was the old school process when they didnt have the fancy machinery? Is it possible to buy mash or something that is already distilled that just needs to be aged?

        1. re: rdmg

          the "old school" process was just the same before fancy machinery( which in fact has changed less than just about any other manufacturing process). They used a pot still and tossed the beginning(poisonous) and the end of each run(not good tasting) then aged in crocks, bottles, or if they were fortunate, in barrels. the feds allow home distilling so long as you don't sell it. ther are also quantity limits. most states have some sort of regulation about quantity as well, but it is legal in most.

          1. re: chazzerking

            Sorry but while it is legal to own a still it is not legal to use it.

            That said, there are TONS of home distillers in the US. I know one still maker who has a 50 order backlog for small to mid-size pot stills, and few of those orders are from small distilleries, although mine is.

            1. re: JMF

              I realize that it is necessary to obtain a license, but from what i've seen on the ATF website, it's not that difficult to obtain one. I would certainly defer to your experience on this, though since you've done it not just looked at the app.

              1. re: chazzerking

                Just filling out the paperwork is a several month process! Until just recently TTB actively discouraged anyone from trying to open a distillery. I first looked into it 3 years ago and they told me point blank that is was almost impossible. But since around 100 micro-distilleries have now opened in the past 3-5 years that has changed. (Almost 50 since last September!)

      2. tuthilltown spirits in gardiner, ny recently became the first legal distiller of bourbon in this state since prohibition. it's a very small operation run by just a couple of people. they sell an unaged corn liquor too. the license to distill in new york is now very affordable (a few thousand dollars, it used to be tens of thousands), so even home enthusiasts can do it legally now.

        17 Replies
        1. re: warrenr

          Purchasing some corn liquor and aging it a barrell would be a way to start.

          1. re: Captain

            I'm suprised more people don't really do it.

            1. re: rdmg

              I'm not.

              First off, JMF is absolutely right -- it's fine to own a still; it's illegal to use it. Indeed, not only is it illegal, but if you don't know exactly what you're doing, home distillation can be downright dangerous!

              Secondly, as far as buying a barrel's volume of distillate and aging it in your own barrel, why would you? And how much money do you think you'd save???

              An American white oak barrel costs -- let's say $500, just for the sake of discussion. I presume you're only going to buy one, so you're not getting any volume discounts they way a distillery or winery would.

              Then, you have to purchase approximately 60 gallons of unaged corn whiskey to fill your barrel. Unless you have a Federal rectifier's license, you will have to pay RETAIL for this -- it's illegal to sell in bulk and under bond to a private individuals without the requisite permits. This means that, at the very least, the Federal excise taxes must be paid. And since Federal law only permits sales in certain sized containers . . . .

              Are you going to cut it to 80-proof, or bottle it at cask strength? Most Bourbon is blended among many different barrels. Granted the distiller is working with numerous barrels from one run, and is attempting to provide the public with a consistent taste bottle-to-bottle (like a non-vintage Champagne), but even though it's a distillate, each and every barrel is different. Some are better than others. What if your barrel isn't one of the "good" ones?

              Then, how long are you planning on aging it? You have somewhere you can keep it for four, eight, twelve years? Clearly long-term aging brings out more character than short-term aging, but when the time comes and it's ready to come out of the barrel, how are you going to bottle 25 cases of 750ml bottles of whiskey? Where will you keep it? And since it's illegal for you to sell it, just when are you planning to drink all of it?

              It's not like brewing beer or making wine at home. And even if you are "simply" aging spirits, rather than distilling them yourself, it's far more dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming than being a home brewer or home winemaker. (At the very least, beer and wine aren't flammable.)

              The question for me isn't why more people don't do this; it's why anyone thinks of doing it at all.

              But -- clearly -- that's just my POV. YMMV . . . .


              1. re: zin1953

                I've talked to a few home-distillers for an article I wrote on moonshine, and the dangerousness of the practice is pretty overstated.

                1. re: Josh


                  First of all . . .

                  >>> the dangerousness of the practice is pretty overstated. <<<

                  Overstating the dangers is a very different thing than saying there is NO danger. No one has ever said there is no danger from distillation, and -- I think you would agree -- an inexperienced novice is much more likely to make a mistake than a Master Distiller.

                  Secondly, your reply only refers to the first, and most minor, of the points I was making. What about the next six paragraphs? ;^)


                  1. re: zin1953

                    Jason you have a lot of good points there but I have to disagree with you and agree with Josh, the dangers are blown way out of proportion.

                    The amounts of methanol and acetone and other substances in the heads are very low. Plus even if they are left in the batch, which is never done, the cure for methanol poisoning is drinking ethanol. The biggest danger is the chance of a fire if using a direct flame distiller.

                    Also the numbers you are using are for large commercial distilleries not applicable for home distillers.

                    There are literally thousands of home distillers in the US. One internet discussion forum I know of has over 1500 registered users. I spoke with several still makers in the US and small stills in the 30 liter range (that's a little on the large size for a home distiller), cost less than $350 delivered and they sell a LOT of them. Larger custom made stills in the 50-225 liter size, $1,000-3,000 range are selling well too. One custom to order still maker I know of makes around 150 a year and has a 50 still waiting list.

                    Small aging barrels can be expensive, a new 5 gallon barrel is around $250, but ones used once for whiskey are around $40 and perfect for aging a rum in. Small barrels cost more in proportion than larger barrels but the smaller the barrel the larger the wood surface area, the faster and better the spirits age. A two gallon barrel will age spirits ten times faster than a 60 gallon commercial one and a whiskey can be ready in less than a year as opposed to 4-12 years in the larger barrel.

                    Small distilleries take advantage of this and so while the startup expense is higher with using small barrels it means drastically less time to get a great product to market. The excellent Tuthiltown distillery is expert at this using 2, 5, 10, and 14 gallon barrels. I plan to do the same.

                    Distilling is pretty darn easy and for a home distiller not much more expensive as an add on to home brewing or wine making.

                    If one adds up all the costs, you can make exceptional spirits at home, better than 95% of all commercial spirits, for much, much less.

                    Of course I would never countenance doing anything illegal, but with legislature being considered to license distilling in residential property this may be legal within the next year.


                    1. re: JMF

                      An alternative to barrel aging is using wood chips. I had a taste of some homemade stuff aged on oak chips and vanilla beans. It was damned good.

                      1. re: Josh

                        I have much more experience with winemaking on a commercial scale, than I do with distillation -- on a commercial OR a home scale.

                        That said, it's important to remember that wood chips do NOT age wine. Barrels do. Wood chips FLAVOR wine. That's it. Wines (and spirits) age in barrel. During that aging, they may -- especially in the case of new oak (which, by law, must be used for Bourbon) -- gain additional flavor from the wood, but that isn't the same as aging.


                        1. re: zin1953

                          There are many things different in aging and flavoring spirits than in aging and flavoring wine. You have different reactions going on because of the high alcohol of the spirits compared to wine. You can't really age low alcohol level spirits, otherwise the chemical reactions will not occur. Most of the chemical reactions called aging occur when the spirits are between 50-70% abv. usually around the 55-60% area for a Bourbon and most whiskeys for best flavor extraction. (For Bourbon the legal limit it can be barreled at is a maximum 62.5% and a minimum of 40%.)

                          Interestingly enough during the aging process the abv. rises several percent. What went in the barrel at 55% may come out at 57%. this is then usually cut to bottle proof (usually but not always 40% and sometimes it isn't cut at all and bottled at barrel strength) with purified or distilled water, filtered, then bottled.

                          So what would only be flavoring with a wine is much more with spirits.

                          While wood chips/chunks/strips flavor the spirits, they also age them, especially if they are toasted or charred, as the spirits react with the charred part, the charcoal, the spirits undergo reactions that remove and/or change certain chemicals and so age/improve the spirits. Part of the aging process is also part of the flavoring process. Resins or lack of them in the wood cause chemical changes, vanillins are pulled out of the wood which both flavor and smooth it, etc.

                          There are several ways to 'speed age' spirits. the aforesaid small barrels. Leaving a large portion of 'headspace' ie., air in the barrel and shake the barrel every few days. raise and lower the temperature of the barrel/spirits every few days/weeks to mimic the seasons. Bubble air or O2 through the spirits. And more. All these force a micro-climate and physical reactions to occur at many times higher rates than natural.

                          I have seen some wonderful micro-distillery products that are speed aged using small barrels, air bubblers, toasted and charred wood strips and plain chunks, and forced temperature changes. As a matter of fact using some or all of these is the wave of the future for the new, small, artisanal, micro-distilleries if they are to produce good aged products within a few years of opening. this takes a very high level of skill and hands on effort. I will even say that it is becoming a new art in the distillers lexicon.

                          1. re: JMF

                            >>> While wood chips/chunks/strips flavor the spirits, they also age them <<<

                            All of the techniques you mention are used, or at least been tried in the wine world, too -- be it the use of chips, the use of micro-oxygenation, varying the temperature of the storage conditions, etc.

                            There is a tremendous difference between aging in an aerobic environment and in an anaerobic environment. Wine -- which changes as it is left in the bottle -- ages in both areobic and anaerobic environments; spirits, which do not change in the bottle, do not age in an anaerobic setting.

                            Wood chips are most commonly used within a stainless steel or glass vessel. These are anaerobic. One rarely, if ever, adds chips to barrels. (Wineries, for example, can and do use Innerstaves® to increase the surface area of wood to volume of liquid, but that's a different matter.) If one did, however, add chips to the inside of a barrel, then I would say the wine or spirit is aging in the barrel AND being flavored by the chips.

                            I've never seen one report of how wood chips do anything other than FLAVOR. I've never seen any vendor of chips attempt to maintain they actually AGE the wine or spirit.

                            So we can disagree about that.



                            1. re: zin1953

                              I think part of this is the question: What is the difference between flavoring and aging? Both are chemical processes. Where does one leave off and the other start? Or are they part and parcel of the same thing? Basically aging is flavoring. Whether adding or subtracting flavors, or changing them.

                              I like this discussion and I don't know if we are actually disagreeing, or just coming at things from different directions and backgrounds.

                              1. re: JMF

                                For the sake of discussion, let's look at "flavoring" and "aging" and the role of oak as being somewhat akin to cooking. After all, we're on Chowhound. ;^)

                                Bear with me . . .

                                OK, so you're in the kitchen, and you slice and dice carrots, celerey onions, potatoes -- whatever -- toss them into a large stock pot, fill it with water and place it on the stove. Go away for a few hours and come back . . . what happened?

                                NOTHING! (You forgot to turn on the stove.) What do you have? A buch of chopped up vegetables soaking in cold water. They are still crisp, cruchy, and RAW! And your water has barely changed flavor.

                                -- This is akin to HOLDING your wine (or distillate) in an inert, anaerobic container such as stainless steel or glass. To say that nothing happens is an exaggeration, so let's say "extremely little" has happened.

                                OK, so now you turn on the stove and go away for a few hours. You come back, the veggies are cooked, the water is now stock/soup, and things have definitely changed!

                                -- This is akin to putting your wine (or spirit) into wood for aging. This is an aerobic environment. In the case of wine, which is a living, breathing liquid (i.e.: micro-organisms exist in the liquid; not the case with distillates), various organic changes take place; molecules polymerize and may percipitate out; others molucules break apart; enzymes are at work; etc., etc. Wine (and distillates) age in wood; they do not in stainless steel or glass. Furthermore, it doesn't matter how old the wood is, or how many times the wood has been used previously. Many wineries around the world continue to use 20-, 50-, or 100-year old casks for aging.

                                But this isn't all you do when making soup. The chef also adds salt, pepper, other herbs and seasoning agents.

                                -- This is akin to using NEW oak barrels, which will not only age the wine (or spirit) but will also contribute oak (or chestnut or redwood or . . . ) flavors to the wine (or spirit). Every barrel is different, and these flavors will change based upon not only the type of wood and its geographic origins, but how the barrel was made and by whom. The size of the barrel will also affect the flavor, based upon the ration of surface area to volume, as will the time spent within the barrel.

                                OK, let me mix metaphors for a moment. Think tea bags. You can always brew a second cup of tea from a tea bag. But, you will either have to steep it longer, or -- if steeped for the same time as it was for its first use -- settle for a "weaker" cup of tea. And a third, and a fourth . . . think of all those POW movies about World War II. Eventually, however, the tea in that little bag will lose all ability to "flavor" the hot water in which it is sitting.

                                OK, so it is with oak. Eventually, the oak loses its ability to add flavors to the wine (or spirit). Just like a 30-year old stock pot still works perfectly fine in the kitchen, the 30-year old oak barrel remains a perfectly good vessel for aging the wine . . . but it won't add any flavor!

                                If the first think you taste in that soup is the salt, there is a problem. The chef wasn't making Salt Soup, but rather Vegetable Soup. But it's the salt that dominates the taste of the soup. Whoooops!

                                -- This is akin to winemakers (almost) always keeping some older, "neutral" barrels around -- barrels which will work perfectly well for aging, but will not add additional flavors. The wine aged in these barrels will (often -- I'm thinking Napa Cabernet here) be blended with the wine that was aging in new oak, and thereby balancing out the oak flavor. After all, you want your Cabernet Sauvignon to taste like Cabernet Sauvignon, not solely/dominantly of oak. Yes, if there were no oak, you'd be missing something, just as if there were no salt at all in the soup. But it's a matter of balance.

                                OK, so now let's talk wood chips. Typically chips -- in large mesh bags (I'm talking commercial production once again) -- are tossed into stainless steel vats and soak in the the wine . . . like a giant bouquet garnis! This FLAVORS the wine (or the spirit), but it does not age it.

                                Now, in your example above, with oak chips and vanilla beans, I can see how the sweetness of the vanilla bean might mask the harshness of the alcohol. But -- presuming just for one moment that it was kepts in a one-gallon glass jar -- it would still be a young spirit with oak and vanilla flavoring added.

                                * * *

                                The major Cognac producers do this, by the way. They often add caramel color and boisé (often described as "oak essence") to the brandy. This will darken the color of the spirit and add more oak flavor to the brandy, making it "seem" older than it really is.

                                It is worth remembering that Cognacs designated as "V.S." ("Very Special) are only required to be a minimum of two years old, and those designated "V.S.O.P." ("Very Superior Old Pale") need only be four years of age. It wasn't long ago that some Cognac houses were touting that their VS and VSOP spirits were 10+, and 20+ years of age, respectively, or more! Today, none do that, and the role that caramel coloring and boisé plaw in production within some houses has increased considerably.


                                1. re: zin1953

                                  Spirits react different than wine. Yes there is aging in an inert container. Stainless steel, glass, etc. This is extremely noticeable the first few months, especially the first month. A spirit that is sharp and rough right out of the still smoothes out and at the one month point you would not think it is the same spirit. After around 2-3 months there don't seem to be any additional or noticeable changes or improvents.

                                  Putting spirits in plain wood both flavors it from vanillins, tannins, etc. that are extracted but also ages the spirits as chemical reactions occur. Ones that do not happen with wine because the level of alcohol is too low to be a solvent. The spirit soaks into the wood and water and alcohol evaporates through it slowly.

                                  When a toasted barrel is used with spirits there is much more flavoring occuring, and aging because in heat treating the wood different substances are formed that then react even more with the spirits. With charred barrels you now have a charcoal layer of any of four different depth grades on the inside of the barrel. charcoal cleans up the spirit and allows the spirits to penetrate deeply into the wood so that more substances can be extracted, alcohol and water to make its way through the wood and evaporate, etc.

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    >>> Yes there is aging in an inert container. Stainless steel, glass, etc. <<<

                                    Not being arguementative, but no one I've ever spoken with says "aging" occurs in glass or steel with spirits. I'll call a few local micro-distillers I know and get back to you on Monday. (FWIW, I've only discussed this with brandy distillers, but I cannot imagine it would be different with another type of spirit.)

                                    >>> The spirit soaks into the wood and water and alcohol evaporates through it slowly. <<<

                                    No, this too happens with wine. That is how the aromatics and flavors move from the wood into the wine . . . or spirit. Same process (TTBOOK).

                                    Keep in mind that, although alcohol has a lower evaporation point that water, the alcohol content does indeed increase during the time a spirit ages in cask. As you quite rightly said in a previous post, "What went in the barrel at 55% may come out at 57%."

                                    I agree that a charred barrel permits the spirit to penetrate farther than a toasted barrel. Mainly -- as it's been described to me -- toasting the oak caramelizes the sugars. A toasted barrel can be "refreshed" to a certain extent by shaving the inside and exposing new surface. This is extremely difficult to do with a charred barrel; indeed, I've never heard of it being done.


                                    1. re: zin1953

                                      Yes let me know what the distillers you know have to say. Everyone I have spoken to says that a month or two in glass or SS smoothes the spirit out noticeably. Of course in toasted or charred wood you get the other effects as well.

                                      1. re: JMF

                                        But the question I have is would that happen anyway? In other words, would a raw, newly distilled (on, say, February 9, 2008) spirit "smooth out" regardless of the container -- in other words, "by itself" -- after a few months? If so, I would never call that "aging."

                                        Again, aging takes place in wood, not in glass or stainless. I certainly understand wine is different than distillates, but taste a wine immediately after fermentation, and taste it again after three months in stainless -- it's different, and it's smoother, but it hasn't aged (in any meaningful way, as it would have in wood). It's "recovered," perhaps from fermentation -- most wineries, if they have the space available -- let a wine "rest" after fermentation, after blending, after filtering, etc., in over to recover from the "processing" it just underwent.

                                        Or take Vodka as an example. It doesn't go from still to bottle immediately. It rests. It gets cut with water back to 40% abv. It rests. It gets filtered. It rests. It gets filtered again, etc., etc. It rests. And it's bottled. But Vodka is always described as an "unaged" spirit -- whether three days or three months pass between distillation and bottling. But, in contrast, if a wine sat in oak for three months prior to bottling, it would be described as having aged in oak for three months. The same is not true had the wine been merely "held" or "stored" in stainless for three months.

                                        You seem to have a much more "liberal" definition of the term "aging" than is commonly used in the trade, which may explain some of these distinctions.


                      2. re: JMF


                        As I said, "Overstating the dangers is a very different thing than saying there is NO danger." I agree that the dangers are minimal AS LONG AS the distiller knows what they're doing. But I would caution the "newbie" from plunging ahead without knowing exactly what they're doing.

                        As far as the smaller sizes of barrels are concerned, you're absolutely correct that spirits (and wines, for that matter) will mature more rapidly in smaller barrels than in standard (225L) barriques or larger casks. I plead guilty to thinking more on a commercial scale -- albeit that of small-batch, pot still for brandy production, rather than, say, a continuous column still.


          2. Unless you live in New Zealand, Italy, or a few other places it is illegal to distill your own alcohol. Fermentation for wine and beer is legal in the US and Canada. There is a high power yeast that can take sugar water up to about 45 proof, but fermentation doesn't go much higher that that. Here is a site for that yeast and flavorings to approximate different styles of booze. They also sell water distillers and tell you how to make booze with them if you move to New Zealand.