Whiskey Nips: Barley’s Role in Bourbon

Malted barley is an ingredient that you will find in many bourbons. It is typically a low percentage of the mash bill, or grain recipe, of a bourbon. The flavor profile of malted barley is different from the sweet notes from corn, or the spiciness from rye, and I always associate it with Scotch. Since it doesn’t contribute your standard bourbon flavor profiles, why is it there? Well, I’ve got one word for you, enzymes.

Before we get into enzymes and their importance, let’s look at how malted barley is made. First, you let the barley grain sprout in water, and before it grows into a plant, you dry it in a kiln.  This process helps to lock in enzymes, specifically diastase,which convert the starches from the other grains in a bourbon mash bill into sugars. Once this process has happened, the yeast can now convert those sugars into alcohol.

Some distillers choose not to use malted barley in their mash bill, possibly because of the flavor profile that they are trying to create. Instead, they use commercial enzymes. These enzymes replicate the process of diastase by converting starches into sugar during the distillation process. They can even provide a better rate of conversion to get a better yield. These enzymes are somewhat controversial because there is the question of how this impacts the flavor of the final product. In the end, everything in the process of making bourbon can impact the flavor, and it is up to you to decide what you like.


Tony Freund


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