Meet the Whiskey Professor

By Patty Wetli | Monday, January 17, 2011

Bernie Lubbers, the Whiskey Professor.

The next time you’re printing business cards, imagine how “Whiskey Professor” would look as your job title. And now you know what it’s like to be Bernie Lubbers.

Lubbers, who crosses the country extolling the virtues of bourbon for Jim Beam, will make a stop in Chicago this  Tuesday, Jan. 18, at Schuba’s Harmony Grill for a bourbon tasting dinner. In advance of his appearance, he chatted with Roscoe View Journal, answering burning questions like, how do you get to be a whiskey professor and can we be one too?

A Ph.D. in Bourbon

There’s not exactly a curriculum of study to earn a doctorate in whiskey (though it’s plenty fun to imagine “Intro to Shots”). Lubbers, a former comedian, started at Jim Beam in the events and promotions area.

“I was being asked a lot of questions about bourbon, and I was embarrassed I didn’t know the answers,” he says. He pestered staff at the distillery, including Fred Noe III, Beam’s great grandson and seventh-generation family distiller, who will also be on hand at Schubas.

“I became nosy and studied more and, over time, I just came to know more stuff.” Eventually the company created a brand ambassador program and Lubbers fit the bill. Not only is he comfortable talking to people—“stand-up comedy was the best background for this”—but he’s completely immersed himself in all things bourbon. We tested his knowledge.

Is It Whiskey or Bourbon?

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. We clear now? Actually, whiskey is any spirit made from a grain, in the same way that wine is made from grapes. Think of bourbon like champagne.

“I tell people it’s a more restricted type of whiskey,” Lubbers says. By law, bourbon has to consist of at least 51% corn (the rest could be wheat, barley, rye, etc.), and it has to be aged in brand-new, charred oak barrels.

“Whiskey can be new or used, charred or uncharred,” he notes. It’s the charred barrels that give bourbon its distinctive taste and color.

“The whiskey expands in the barrel into the charred wood, where there’s a caramelized layer of sugar. It picks up color from the sugar and about 50 to 75 percent of its flavor from the wood.”

Where whiskey distillers are allowed to add caramel color, sugars and flavor by other means, bourbon makers have to rely solely on their oak barrels to get the job done.

You Don’t Know Jack

“People think all bourbon has to come from Kentucky; it just has to come from the U.S.,” he says. Oh really? We’ve always heard that Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon because it’s from Tennessee.”

Jack Daniel’s didn’t want to be a bourbon,” Lubbers explains. “Tennessee whiskey—they pass the spirit off the still through a column of maple char. That adds flavor. With bourbon, you can’t add any outside flavor.” So, to recap, the problem is the maple, not Tennessee.

U.S. vs. Them

So what the heck is Scotch? And what are the Canadians up to?

“Nobody set out to make whiskey,” Lubbers says. “Farmers looked around at how they could make use of excess grain.”

In the U.S., we have a lot of corn, hence we’re well-positioned to make bourbon. But American whiskey distillers also use rye and even wheat (ie, Maker’s Mark).

“In Ireland and Scotland, they have a lot of barley. In Canada, they have lots of rye.” So Scotch is just whiskey made from barley. Canadian whiskey—aged for three years in oak—tends to be blended, in that the whiskey comes from more than one distiller.

“Each has a certain taste profile. Scotch is much lighter because it’s made from one grain,” he says. “Wheat is soft and sweet. Bourbon is more complex. Corn is sweet and rye brings a spicy flavor. There’s a lot more going on there.”

Golden Age of Bourbon

No, we’re not talking about the reign of the House of Bourbon. According to Lubbers, bourbon the spirit, is now enjoying a second golden age, having fallen out of favor after the Civil War.

“Most of our customers were in the South,” he says. “Northerners drank rye whiskey.” Bourbon distilleries were either destroyed in the war or went bankrupt, while their northern counterparts didn’t skip a beat. Just as the industry was recovering, Prohibition hit, then World War II dealt another blow to bourbon production.

“The government asked distilleries to make industrial alcohol for things like parachutes,” Lubbers says. “In the meantime, our armed forces overseas were being introduced to brandy and Scotch. Bourbon went out of fashion in the 1950s and 1960s. Brands dried up and went out of business.” But in the past decade, bourbon has seen something of a renaissance, which Lubbers attributes partly to the overall foodie movement and partly to youthful rebellion.

“No one wants to drink what their parents drink,” he says. “Bourbon has this certain mystique. Young people are rediscovering something that’s been in front of their face the whole time.”

Shaken or Stirred?

“The movies made vodka so popular with James Bond,” Lubbers says. Yet Hollywood hasn’t always been as kind to whiskey or bourbon. It’s frequently the spirit of choice in bar scenes, when actors need to knock back a shot in despair.

“You can see it visually in a glass,” Lubbers theorizes, referring to the caramel color. Lately he’s noticed a shift (“Mad Men,” anyone?). “I see it served in a nice glass, on the rocks, with someone sipping like a gentleman, or lady, not guzzling.” Part of his job is to promote this more elegant image.

“A lot of people’s first experience with bourbon is stealing it from their parent’s liquor cabinet. They don’t know how to drink and they get sick.” The professor’s goal is to turn people on to cocktails like the Mint Julep or the Manhattan.

“That’s very classy,” he says. His favorite is the BBG—bourbon, bitters and ginger ale. “I can get anybody who drinks one to come back.”

The New Wave

Jim Beam sells 5 million cases a year of its signature, 4-year-old bourbon. In the late 1980s, the company began experimenting with smaller batch craft bourbons.

“The distillery runs 24 hours, 5 days a week. We’re making Jim Beam most any day,” Lubbers says. “In the spring and fall, we’ll have 30-day runs of our small batch bourbons.” These include Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Booker’s.

By comparison, Beam produces about 150,000 cases a year of Knob Creek and about 15,000 cases of Booker’s. Does this signal the potential for a revolution in craft bourbon, similar to what’s happened with beer? Not exactly.

“You are finding a lot more people getting into artisanal distilling,” Lubbers says. He points to bourbon makers in Colorado, Texas and Florida, “but you’re not going to find a bunch.” The price of entry, relative to beer, is much higher. For starters, there are the oak barrels—new and charred—required for bourbon. There’s also the aging process.

“You can make vodka today and sell it tonight. You can make bourbon today and sell it in 4 to 10 years. You need to be able to afford the time to not make money.” Beam manages the trick thanks to the popularity of its major label. “That 5 million cases allows us to play and have a good time.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Share this now!

Spread the word