Brent Elliot on Bourbon
Bolstered by the craft movement in the US, there has been a bewildering influx of bourbon brands from across the pond popping up in the UK. Scotch Malt Whisky Society brand ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor caught up recently with Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliott to explore how traditional whisky drinkers can understand different bourbon complexions
Brent Elliott is Kentucky through and through. Born in the west of the state and educated in the east, he’s always had a keen awareness of its most famous export.
Interestingly, it was only once Brent had moved to Nashville after graduating with a degree in chemistry that he discovered his love for making bourbon whiskey. During a trip home to visit family he decided to pop into Woodford Reserve, where his passion for the spirit was ignited.
He successfully applied for an analyst’s role at Four Roses distillery in 2005, at which point the four million litre capacity distillery was barely running for one season per year. Since then, he has built an intricate understanding in all the areas of production, from mash bill to labelling. He’s now taken the reigns as master distiller from his mentor Jim Rutledge and has overseen the distillery double in capacity. So, who better to enlighten us on the world of bourbon?
Brent says: “I love bourbon, but I really enjoy Scotch. For me, it’s the different use of grains and the fact that we use new oak barrels, along with warmer temperatures giving an accelerated maturation here in Kentucky. There’s certainly more sweetness in bourbon and generally more body to the whiskey.”
He continues: “I always try to press that one of the big things that attracts me to Scotch is the variety. You have the different regions and styles and so forth.
“The flavour spectrum is huge! I think that people who aren’t very familiar with bourbon see it as a very narrow scope of flavours, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
“The longer I’m here, the more the science is in the back view mirror. Day to day, it feels more like an art, and I love both sides of it.”
“I think it’s great to be able to demonstrate the differences in separate bourbons. Whether it’s trying different brands or even within our line to show the differences and really explain how those differences are achieved. Mash bills – noticing variances from the minimum 51 per cent corn requirement, getting used to how a heavier rye or wheat presence in the mash can affect the final flavour of the whiskey.”
Brent adds: “Delve deeper into how the distiller has used warehouse conditions and location, specific batches, barrel selection and blending between these processes to achieve their desired result. These are all nuances that we emphasise here in Kentucky that maybe aren’t as focused upon in Scotch production as points of differentiation.”
Brent is clearly someone who has as much passion for bourbon as he does an understanding for the industry. Tellingly he leaves us with a point that can be echoed across all whisky categories: “I’m a scientist, and I very much support how all the analysis helps the whiskey-making process. But it can only get you to a certain point. We use it for consistency and for monitoring the processes, and when you’re dealing with natural products and huge variables it’s helpful.
“But it would never occur to me to lean on a gas chromatography machine or the like to tell me how good the whiskey is, it just doesn’t work like that. The longer I’m here, the more the science is in the back view mirror. Day to day, it feels more like an art, and I love both sides of it.”
ABOVE: a Four Roses Bourbon cask is disgorged