Better whiskey through chemistry
A scientist is exploring the chemistry of whiskey, scotch and bourbon, to learn what makes them so different from each other.
When it comes to the magic of whiskey, their complex profiles might be explained the chemical fingerprints that separate them from one another — and change the way that they taste.
It’s an idea that the aptly-named Tom Collins, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, is actively pursuing. “I worked on my Ph.D., and it was a project looking at aroma and flavor chemistry in wine [fermented] in oak barrels,” Collins explains, crediting the barrels with sparking his initial interest in the chemistry of spirits. “It sort of seemed a natural extension to look from the chemistry of wine to the chemistry of whiskeys, because the chemistry of oak barrels play a huge role in what you see in whiskeys of all sorts.”
Collins and researchers at Davis set out to see if they could determine the chemical differences among 60 different whiskeys: 38 straight bourbon whiskeys, 10 rye whiskeys, five Tennessee whiskeys and seven other American whiskeys, varying in age from two-to-15 years old. What they found was a spectacular testament to the spirit’s complex chemistry–over 4,000 different non-volatile compounds across the different samples, results which he presented today at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. “It’s very complex,” Collins says of the chemistry. “There are components that are barrel derived, as we would expect, but there are also things that are related to the grains that are used to make the distillates in the first place—so the corn and wheat and rye and things that are fermented to form the distillate. We see some components that appear to be grain related, and there are also likely to be components that are derived from the yeast that are used do the fermentation.”
Collins confirmed that Jack Daniels, despite their marketing efforts to the contrary, is actually a bourbon. I know, the horror, the horror. But since all bourbons are whiskey, we’ll give them a pass and enjoy another round.
The next step in the research will be to see which chemicals affect taste and smell differently, which may allow distillers to better refine their products. Somehow that’s taking some of the fun out of drinking the different products, but where do I sign up to be a test lab rat for the experiments?
Now if they could only tell me why drinking scotch has a much different effect on my mood than vodka or brandy.