A mash bill is a mix of grains (usually comprised of types of corn, rye, wheat, or barley) that distilleries cook and ferment to make bourbon or other American whiskeys.
Understanding Mash Bills
To properly understand mash bills, you must familiarize yourself with the brewing process. The first is mashing. Mashing is how non-fermentable and fermentable sugars are created and extracted from grains. This is followed by steeping the said extractions in hot water to activate the enzymes that break down the sugars into starch. The substance created at the end of the process is known as wort.
Mash bills, sometimes referred to as grain bills or mash ingredients, are the grain materials (corn, rye, barley malt, etc.) that distilleries use in the fermentation process, which results in the creation of alcohol.
The most commonly used primary mash bill is malted grain. In fact, for modern-day malt recipes, the light malt is of a higher percentage and is referred to as base malt. To add a bit of flavor and color, other types of malt, though of a smaller percentage, are used, and they are known as specialist malts.
However, corn is the primary component of a bourbon mash bill in bourbon, with a popular combination being 78% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. The most common mash bill for rye whiskeys is 95% rye and 5% malted barley.
When it comes to bourbons, ryes, and other whiskeys, a plethora of ingredients and their portions are used. Below, we break down some of the main mash bills used to create some of the most popular types of liquor.
Corn is perhaps the most widely used mash bill because of its availability and low cost. In addition to being the base grain in Tennessee whiskey, it is also the base in Bourbon whiskey. By law, bourbon is at least 51 percent corn. Corn adds herbal and sweat flavors to whiskey. Most bourbon contains 70 to 78 percent corn in the mash bill.
Additionally, corn is used to create Belgian Beers such as Rodenbach. It was introduced initially to breweries since it had a high six-row barley content. The said breweries found that using maize made it possible to thin out the beer's body since corn has a high sugar but low protein content. Over time, the increased use of maize in creating beer led to the American pale lager being developed.
The use of rye is mainly seen in American rye whiskeys. However, it is one of the core mash bill components in Europe too because it is readily available there. However, rye is not used widely since it lacks a hull. Additionally, compared to other grains, it has large quantities of beta-glucans. These are long-chain sugars that, after some time, can leash out during mashing, and create a sticky gum. When brewing with rye, it is necessary to give it a thorough beta-glucanase rest.
Barley is used as the primary grain for Irish whiskey. In American whiskey, it is the 3rd most popular mash bill component. There are a couple of types of barley. Roast barley is toasted in an oven until it is almost black, and thus it has some strong undertones of coffee and chocolate once it is used. Black barley is akin to roast barley, the difference being a bit nuanced; it is darker and may have stouts. Flacked barley is dried barley that has been rolled up into flat flakes. When used to create beers, it imparts a grainy yet rich flavor, which is why it is used in many stouts, including Guinness. Flacked barley also improves head formation and retention. Torrefied barley is a type of barley whose kernels have been heated until, like popcorn, they pop.
Many alcoholic drinks use raw wheat, including Lambic and Belgian witbier. Raw wheat has a cloudy appearance and distinctive taste characteristic of a witbier. Additionally, it has the more complex carbohydrates that are needed in Lambic. Torrefied wheat is mainly used in British beer since it can increase the retention and size of the head of the beer; it is thus used more as an enhancer. Wheat malt is used mainly in German beers that rely heavily on malted wheat.
As mentioned earlier, many other grains can and are used as mash bills. Rice, sorghum, and millet are good examples. They are gluten-free and are very popular in the northern hemisphere. Oats are also very popular, and they are used as either steel-cut or rolled when they are to be used as the mash ingredients.