On a recent visit to the Woodford Reserve Distillery, I baked bread. Now, this may seem like an odd thing to do at a distillery, but once you understand that whiskey is made from many of the same grains that are used to make bread, it begins to make sense. Working with each major grain that goes into a whiskey like Woodford Reserve really helps illustrates what the grain has to offer and what its role is when you use it to make whiskey.
To showcase the three major grains in Woodford Reserve Bourbon, we made three different kinds of bread: 100% rye bread, hot water corn bread (with 100% corn), and a Woodford Reserve beer bread with corn, rye, and barley (the same mix of grains used to make Woodford Reserve).
Rye has become one of the most sought after grains for whiskey, and it was rye bread that we worked with first. If anyone ever had any doubts about how hard rye grain is to work with, those doubts would immediately be erased by making rye bread. Rye is an expensive grain, harder to grow than corn, and its yield is less than corn. It’s also a pain in the ass to work with. After getting our yeast ready and stirring in our other dry ingredients, the rye dough turns brutally sticky. It gets so sticky that as we knead the dough it becomes almost impossible to get off our hands.
As we bake bread, Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris explains his challenge with using 100% rye grain to make Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rye. Most rye whiskeys mix other grains in with the rye (mainly corn), which helps make the mash much more manageable. Using only rye and malted rye makes the process much more complicated. To give you an idea of the dedication that Chris Morris has with Woodford Reserve, he did some early testing with malting rye on the floor of his home basement. Rye is fairly difficult and expensive to malt, as it has less available protein than barley, which comparatively is a snap to malt. In pursuit of great malted rye, Chris Morris attempted to see if he, and thereby Woodford Reserve, could do their own malting. After a great deal of experimenting, a concrete floor was poured at the distillery to malt rye, but without a way to reliably stop the malting process, they decided to use an outside supplier.
Making a 100% rye whiskey, which had only rye and malted rye, turned out to be a fairly big nightmare. Not only was the 100% rye mash incredibly sticky and nearly impossible to clean from the fermenters, once it began to ferment it foamed so much that it flowed over onto the distillery floor.
Although working with rye is difficult, both in making whiskey and baking bread, the final result is beautiful. Rye is a grain that has terrific fresh floral and spice notes. It’s a delightful grain that, if tamed, will produce something really special.
After struggling with rye, we moved on to corn, which seemed like an absolute walk in the park. Hot water corn bread only takes a handful of ingredients. You don’t need to add yeast, knead the dough, or contend with a sticky mess like you do with rye. Corn doesn’t need much to be delicious, so adding just a few ingredients and some hot water makes a wonderful thick dough ready to make bread. The hot water corn bread was ready in a fraction of the time, and it was sweet and delicious. As easy to work with and with a relatively small number of ingredients needed to make it sing, it’s easy to understand why corn is often the grain that whiskey makers turn to the most in the US to make their spirits.
Perhaps the most fun bread to bake at Woodford Reserve was the Woodford Reserve Beer Bread. This bread brings together rye, corn, and barely with some fermented grain (aka beer) into a delicious bread that was manageable to make, didn’t need additional yeast, and turned out exceptionally well.
Woodford Reserve Beer Bread
2 cups + 2 Tbsp. white cornmeal
1/2 cup + 2 tsp rye flour
1/4 cup + 1 Tbsp barley flour
4 1/2 baking powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 350*. Mix together all dry ingredients. Add beer and mix thoroughly. Pour into loaf pan and pour melted butter over. Bake.
While I enjoyed the fresh rye flavor in the rye bread and the sweet corn of the hot water corn bread, all those notes came together wonderfully with the Woodford Reserve Beer Bread.
It’s easy to forget that the whiskey we drink comes from many of the same things that we use to bake bread, and that the flavors we enjoy in rye, corn, and mixed grain bread are often the flavors which are in the mix in a great whiskey.