Bourbon and its Connection to Kentucky's Environment

Bourbon and its Connection to Kentucky’s Environment

By: Sydney Wininger

As a state that has fostered the growth of the alcohol industry and better yet, a state dependent upon the growth of the bourbon industry, alcohol production is a big deal in the state of Kentucky.  In fact, the bourbon industry is a $8.5 billion industry in Kentucky.[1] With the bourbon industry becoming increasingly popular, a question that might arise is what, if anything, does the production of bourbon have to do with Kentucky’s environment?

The very beginning of the bourbon production process begins with resources taken directly from the environment. The first step of the process is the grain selection process.[2] It is up to each distillery to determine the best mixture of grains, but in order to be considered a Kentucky bourbon whiskey, the corn content must be at least 51%.[3]

The next Kentucky resource that is sourced for bourbon production is fresh spring water. The spring water is used “so the starch in the grain can be cooked and the developing sugar extracted” (Bourbon-Water). The need for fresh spring water, led to many distilleries being built “near springs that yielded enough water” (Bourbon-Water). Next, the yeast management portion begins. The yeast used in bourbon production are strains of yeast that are native to both Tennessee and Kentucky.[4] The yeast is selected and then the fermentation process begins.[5]

After the fermentation process comes distillation, which takes place in column stills. A still is “an apparatus used to distill liquid mixtures by heating to selectively boil and then cooling to condense the vapor.”[6] At the bottom of the stills, a product called setback accumulates.[7] The setback includes all of the product that was extracted during the distilling process.[8] The remaining liquid is dried off, and then the dried product is sent back into the environment for farmers to use as animal feed.[9]

After the setback is carted off, it is time to fill the bourbon barrels. Bourbon barrels are produced from Oak trees and can only be used once to age bourbon.[10] After the barrels are filled, the barrels are sent for storage. Most brands store the barrels in warehouses with temperature controlled climates. [11] In 1996, the infamous Heaven Hill Warehouse fire occurred in which seven warehouses and the Heaven Hill distillery were lost to fire.[12] The fire pushed its way down to the river, and burned on the river for the rest of the night.[13] Luckily, during the fire, there were no injuries or loss of life. But to prevent the possibility of future warehouse fires, many companies have installed sprinkler systems into their warehouses[14], potentially saving both lives and preventing future damage to the environment surrounding the warehouses.

According to the 2012 issue of Land Air & Water, some of the top environmental challenges faced by the bourbon industry are: “waste-to-energy options, reuse of waste products, staying current on federal requirements, energy, water and land conservation surrounding their historic properties, and improving internal and external communications.”[15] In 2011, the inaugural Sustainable Spirits Summit was held and representatives from Kentucky’s distilleries were able to meet and discuss their environmental successes and challenges.[16]

With the cooperation of companies from across the state, these companies can continue to work together to help the spirits industry protect and preserve Kentucky’s natural resources.

[1] America’s Official Native Spirit, Bourbon Culture, Bourbon Facts, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[2], Information, Bourbon-Grain Selection and Mixture (Mash Bill), (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[3] Id.

[4], Information, Bourbon- Yeast Management, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[5], How Bourbon Whiskey is Made, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[6] Vinepair, How Distilling Works, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[7], Information, Bourbon-Animal Feed, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10], Information, Bourbon-Filling of the Barrels, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[11] Id.

[12] Distillery Trail, Vintage Aerial Coverage of 1996 Heaven Hill Distillery Fire, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[13], Information, Bourbon-Storage, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[14], How Bourbon Whiskey is Made, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[15] Mary Jo Harrod, Bourbon and the environment: A recipe for a great combination(2012), Land, Air & Water, (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[16] Id.