Feature: Good Grains
blog | 10/09/2019
The grains are where the greatness begins at Four Roses. The only way we know how to make high-quality Bourbon is with high-quality, non-GMO grains. All three of our grains are incredibly important to the output of our distillate and the final aged product. Since our youngest product is approximately six years old, it is critical that we adhere to a very strict quality standard that begins with our grains. We spoke with Ryan Ashley, COO & director of distillery operations at Four Roses, about our grains and their suppliers, for the details on this crucial part of handcrafting our award-winning Bourbons.
Four Roses uses midwestern grown and malted barley. The barley comes from an established Midwestern Maltster that produces a high-quality product. We use malted barley because of the naturally occurring enzymes that will convert the starch from corn and rye into sugar which will feed the yeast.
We also use only non-GMO corn and we’ve been purchasing this same corn from the same region of midwestern farmers for decades. It is referred to as #2 dent corn and adheres to strict USDA specifications and also must be certified non-GMO, which starts with the seed.
The farmers who grow non-GMO corn actually have lower yields overall than those who grow GMO corn for a number of reasons. The corn is not sprayed or modified to be resistant to disease or infestation. Therefore, the conditions must be just right. Also, typically a percentage of the non-GMO corn is “sacrificed” because of the surrounding farms that grow GMO corn. This means our corn could be susceptible to cross pollination of the GMO corn, which cannot and will not be used for Four Roses production. This simply means that the yield is reduced, which is one of the reasons non-GMO is more expensive to grow.
Aside from being constantly tested to confirm the corn is non-GMO (from seed to arrival at our facility) the organoleptic tests are most critical. We test the weight and moisture content, as well as inspect for foreign material or broken kernels – all of these must be within specification.
However, the most important test is the smell test. We heat both whole kernel and ground kernel of all the grains to smell them. We are looking for fresh, clean, pleasant aromas. In corn, it is very easy to detect off aromas such as the rubber belts used on the conveyers (if they get too hot or burn up). It is also possible to detect the smell of animals that are raised on the farm. For example, if the corn is stored too close to where pigs are raised, the corn will reflect that in its aroma.
We reject any grain that has an “off” aroma of any kind. By virtue of distillation we are concentrating aromas and flavors therefore the grains must be perfect. So perfect that not only are our employees trained to detect the good and bad, but also the farmers, suppliers, truck drivers, etc. Everyone who handles the grain has been trained to understand exactly what we expect. We would rather halt production than risk using substandard grains. Corn provides the vast majority of starch and sugar for the yeast, so quality is paramount.
Rye is incredibly important to the production of our Bourbons because rye provides significant flavor and aroma to the finished product. It seems to also be the grain that is the most susceptible to “off” flavors or flaws. Because of this, we are incredibly focused on the source of rye, the handling by the supplier, the truck and the environment in which it is stored. We go as far as requiring our bulk rye to be stored in separate silos, exclusive to Four Roses. We also require our supplier to circulate and clean our rye of foreign material or broken pieces. Everyone who handles our rye knows exactly what to look for in sight and aroma.
Our rye comes from Europe, primarily Denmark or Germany, and currently we’re using German rye. It arrives to the United States in excellent condition, clean and free of any other materials. The smell is always sweet, spicy and fresh. The ground, slightly-heated rye that we utilize should smell like a fresh baked cookie. Four Roses uses a high percentage of rye in all its recipes, so the flavor really comes through in the finished product. Any defect will only be magnified in the finished product, so we are extremely diligent in the selection and monitoring of this grain.