Mash Bill for Bourbon

July 15, 2022
Mash Bill for Bourbon

If you've spent any time reading the Bourboneur Blog, you're probably well on your way to knowing the legal nuances with what it takes to be a bourbon by law, which among other things includes being distilled from 51% or greater corn.  The other 49% accounts for a veritable landscape of nuance that separates one brand from another.  It's not to say that the barrel, char and yeast don't do their part as well, but for this blog post we're focused on Mash Bills.  Below we break down what Mash Bill is and work to explore how Mash Bills are used in various brands.  Most importantly, arming you with an understanding of Mash Bills will help you find whiskeys that you love.

Mash Bill Bourbon

The composition of grains that are used to distill your magic brown water are referred to as a whiskey's Mash Bill or essentially the recipe.  Mash Bill is a unique piece of terminology only used in the U.S. and is the foundation for developing the flavor profile of each brand.  Mash Bills used by various distilleries typically fall into three tranches, Low Rye (8-19% rye), High Rye (20-35% rye) and Wheated (18-20% wheat).  Similar to bourbon, to be a rye, a Rye Mashbills would be those that have at a minimum, 51% rye.

Grains in a Bourbon

grains in a mash bill, buffalo trace mash bill, what is a mash bill, bourbon mash bill
     CORN                                       RYE                                     WHEAT                                BARLEY

As it relates to bourbon Mash Bills for products produced here in the U.S. they are mostly (not always, but generally) comprised of four main grains, corn, rye, wheat and barley.

  • Corn.  Corn adds sweet and herbal flavors and really takes center stage in all that is bourbon.  As corn ages the distinct corn flavor tends to mellow.  As the juice hits the barrel though, you better believe that the corn flavor is all up in your business.  The floor for typical corn use by distilleries in mash bills starts at 51% and can be as high as 89% but generally 80% is the ceiling for many.
  • Rye.  Rye is spicy and bold resonating with baking spices and floral notes.  It may not have a leading role like corn, but its flavoring quality really adds depth and character.  Rye tends to be in the 8-35% range in use by distilleries.  Some brands you may recognize that have rye heavy mash bills include bourbons like Blanton's, Michters, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve to name a few.
  • Wheat.  Wheat adds a sweet, nutty, creamy flavor and is often malted when used in bourbon.  You probably recognize it from the coveted Pappy Van Winkle lineup and tends to impart a bit of a sweeter note.  It's an "alternate" grain meaning it's not always used, but when it is distilleries don't venture far outside of an 18-20% range.  Wheated bourbons include brands the likes of Makers Mark, Larceny and Old Fitzgerald.
  • Barley.  Malted Barley adds a sweet, grainy or malty element.  Barley is foundational to the bourbon distillation process and when malted helps convert starches to sugar.  Distilleries use between a 5-12% mix of barley in their mash bills.

Buffalo Trace Mash Bills

In a previous post I explored the depth of the Buffalo Trace brand, interestingly however, much of the granular detail on Buffalo Traces mashbills is kept under lock and key.  We do know a few things however about their use of grain.  Below are the four predominant mash bills used by Buffalo Trace, there are a few outliers (mainly in the EH Taylor lineup), but these are the meat and potatoes of the legendary brand.

Buffalo Trace Mash Bill One

This is Buffalo Trace's "low rye" mash bill which is the most used within the brand and being a low rye mash bill, the general consensus is that the rye composition is around 10 percent or so.

Buffalo Trace Mash Bill Two

This mash bill is a "high rye" mash bill and contains around 15% not technically a real high rye as we discussed earlier, this classification starts at around 20%.  The use of this mash bill is across the spectrum of cheap to sexy bottles produced by Buffalo Trace.

Buffalo Trace Wheated Mash Bill

Pappy, need we really say more?  The rye is out and wheat is in for this mash bill producing some of the most coveted bottles in the Buffalo Trace lineup.

Buffalo Trace Rye Mash Bill

Found in Sazerac the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, this mash bill contains at least 51% rye and thought to be split relatively evenly with a high corn ratio.

Below is a quick reference showing the family tree of various Buffalo Trace mashbills.

Buffalo Trace Mash Bills, Mash Bill #1, Mash Bill #2, Wheated Mash Bill, Rye Mash Bill

Guide to Buffalo Trace Mash Bills

Brown-Forman Mash Bills

As a means of further exploration, lets break down some of the Brown-Forman brand lineup to understand how mashbills compare and contrast between brands.

Mash Bill, Brown-Forman, Brown-Forman Mash Bill

Brown-Forman Mash Bills

One of my absolute favorite pours is Woodford Double Oaked, above, which has a mash bill of 72/18/10 corn, rye, barley respectively.  If I'd never poured Old Forester 1870 (which I of course have, and really enjoy) I could look at the composition of it's mash bill and surmise that knowing I enjoy Woodford Double Oaked, it's similar mash bill composition may lend itself quite well to my palate.  Knowing what you like and understanding (when possible, as mash bill information is not always available) the "recipe" for other whiskeys can help you save some money at the liquor store and stick with bottles in the range of things you like.  I of course, enjoy having a variety as I host folks in my garage bar that have a varied palate, and I myself enjoy trying all sorts of brownwater and comparing and contrasting between pours.  

The Bourboneur Mash-Up

With a better appreciation for your bourbon underfoot, make sure to get as much enjoyment from your pour as possible by getting one of our Bourboneur Glencairn's that includes a one of a kind 2 ounce pour line etched into the glass!!  Find other great items I use in my own garage bar in The Shop.

Bourboneur Glencairn Glass

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Bourboneur Glencairn Glass


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