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Meteorologist Tawana Andrew explains how weather impacts bourbon production

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Every week WAVE 3 meteorologist Tawana Andrew breaks down what we know and what we don't about the climate and weather here in Louisville. Check out this recent conversation about how weather plays a major role in making bourbon.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Tawana Andrew: It's a little bit early in the morning to be you know, having the conversation around our particular topic for today. But I don't think anybody in Kentucky and Indiana will mind this one.

BB: No, I don't think so. We're working on a theme here. Last week we talked about how weather is affecting beer production. This week, we're turning our attention to Bourbon and bourbon production. How does the weather play a role here?

TA: It is absolutely huge in everything involving bourbon production, especially bourbons' flavor. So the batch of bourbon that actually goes into the barrel is called the white dog. And if you decided to drink this, you would just feel an incredible burn, not in a good way, and then you'll taste a hit of grain. Now in warm weather, that white dog is really just sitting in these bourbon barrels and as the warm weather allows the Bourbon Barrel wood to expand, all of that bourbon slowly seeps into the barrels pores collecting a lot of these wood particulates. Now when temperatures start to drop, let's say at night, the alcohol is pulled back out of the wood taking those particulates with it. And it's that process that helps to give bourbon its aroma and the flavor that so many people love. Now we have to watch the temperatures because extreme cold can prevent that process of the bourbon actually seeping into the barrels pores, while extreme heat can evaporate too much of the alcohol, also called the angel share. And we don't want that! Everybody would at least want enough bourbon in their barrel and in their glasses.

BB: Yeah, make sure the angels share is as small as possible as small as possible.

TA: Tiny angels, that's what we want. Now, many rickhouses are not temperature controlled. And that allows for that temperature variation within the buildings. Now the barrels that are closest to the walls and in higher racks get the most significant temperature variation. And with that variation, barrels will be allowed to absorb more flavor in in the outer portion of the rickhouse compared to the inner portion. So even with that in one building, you can have a variety of flavors in terms of the bourbon that is being made there. Many distilleries are also switching up their focus in terms of local grain sources. As the climate changes, updated precipitation normals for Kentucky and Indiana all point to increasing regional precipitation and temperatures. Now, with rising temperatures and a rising precipitation as well you would think hey, that's great, usually for crops but it can negatively impact corn yields. Which corn is Kentucky's Top Crop, but it also makes up 51 to 81% of bourbons mash bill. We definitely want to make sure we have a lot of corn so we can make a lot more bourbon in our area. Now something else they're focusing in on, most bourbon barrels are made of American white oak which typically grows in the Eastern US and southern Canada. As the bourbon industry booms, there's a big question mark about whether or not there's enough of that white oak to support overall production of these bourbon barrels. So as we raise a glass with our favorite Kentucky bourbon, just think about how, you know, the weather our climate influenced what you have in your glass at the end of the day.

BB: We certainly have a much better understanding of the role weather plays in helping us create bourbon.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.

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