Farm To Glass: Our Whiskeys

Some Information About How Products Are Made & Why They Differ

Since we opened in Santa Barbara County, California, in March 2013, I have had a lot of visitor questions about how our products are made and why they’re so good. It was easy to explain to visitors to the distillery who took tours with us in person.  In recent months, we have expanded from California to selling Ascendant products in several other states and now have many great customers across the country, who can’t conveniently take tours with us. So, in order to keep all of our customers informed, I will be providing notes from time to time about how our products are made and what makes them distinctive.

All whiskies are spirits made from grain. The U.S. government defines classes of whiskey principally by the type and amount of grains used, by the state where the distillate is made, by the types of barrels used, and by the length of barrel aging. These and many other factors are involved in producing whiskies with very different characteristics. For example, corn whiskey, by law, must be made with at least 80% of the grains being corn, and bourbon with at least 51% corn. Yet even at this first product design step, there are differences. Our corn whiskeys, which we distill in Buellton, California, are made with 100% American corn. Our Silver Lightning and Pink Lightning Corn Whiskies are made from sweet yellow corn. Our Semper Fi Corn Whiskey is made from non-GMO or organic native red corn, white corn and blue corn varieties grown in the Southwest.

To understand differences in bourbon products, it is important to know that various bourbons are made from different mixtures of corn with other grains. Different proportions of these grains lead to very different tasting products.  Some products use rye, some use wheat, and many use barley as complements to corn. A distillery can use millet or quinoa in addition to the corn base. The specific grains and their proportions are called the “mash bill”.  Ascendant Spirits currently uses a bourbon distillate with a corn, rye and barley mash bill distilled by the Lawrenceburg Distillery in Indiana (LDI) more than five years ago. We think this makes an excellent ingredient for our product. (The LDI factory makes many different mash bills for many different producers.) As we begin to distill our own Breaker bourbon in California, we will continue to use the same mash bill.

The second key set of factors in producing different finished whiskey end products is the barreling and aging process. Bourbon, by law, must be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. (These rules are set by the Federal TTB agency.) Scotch single malt whiskies, with no new barrel legal requirement, are often aged in used bourbon barrels. The wood for barrel staves in commercial whiskey barrels are from different locations with different growing conditions, making each barrel different and imparting different flavors. How long the bourbon has been aged and under what climate conditions are additional important variables. The complexity and flavors change over time, as the temperature, humidity and other conditions affect the barrel. In a future note, I will discuss why Ascendant’s location in Santa Barbara makes such an important difference in the whiskey aging process. 

The third and most important set of factors in producing a bourbon is the blending process. As noted above, after aging for five or more years, each barrel of our bourbon distillate is essentially unique. Some have more fruit notes, others have more smoky notes, others more predominant oak characteristics, etc. The mega-distilleries dump (i.e., blend) a huge number of barrels at a single production run, thus limiting much of the differences among barrels. In such cases, the mash bill and years of barrel aging are the pre-dominant factors in the end product. At Ascendant, we sample and record the characteristics of each barrel, seeking a set of eight barrels which, when blended together, produce the exceptionally smooth flavor and complexity that we seek to give our Breaker consumers. We take these eight selected barrels and then produce the final product batch and hand-bottle it. Every bottle is then individually numbered with a unique bottle and batch number. This very small amount of finished whiskey which is blended and bottled per batch is what makes our product “artisan” or “hand-crafted”.  Buy or sample our award-winning Breaker Bourbon and taste the difference for yourself.

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