Bourbon Chemistry

Last weekend I paid a visit to the Maker’s Mark distillery outside of Loretto, Kentucky. The tour of the distillery was fascinating, as they not only showed off their entire manufacturing facility (which is surprisingly small), but they also described the process in detail, including its chemistry!

The Maker’s mash, which they actually allow you to taste by dipping your finger into a fermenting vat, is 70% corn, 16% wheat, and 14% barley. Like other distilleries, Maker’s mixes a little bit of used mash in with the new stuff, to create a “sour mash” and ensure equal pH across batches. Yeast is added that converts the sugars in the mash into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which you can actually see evolving off the top of the liquid. The liquid mash spends three days in a massive vat made of cypress wood, some of which are over one hundred years old! Also, FYI, from personal experience…the fermenting mash is delicious.

A massive vat of tasty mash!

After three days, the mash reaches 8-10% alcohol by volume, at which point it’s aptly called “distiller’s beer.” A double distillation process brings the alcoholic liquid up to 130 proof (65% ABV). Maker’s actually markets this stuff as unaged “Maker’s White”—the aging process introduces the familiar brown color and oaky flavor. Unaged bourbon is basically corn whiskey or moonshine.

The oak barrels used to age the whiskey are aged themselves for nine months in order to allow the tannic acid present in the wood to seep out. Maker’s uniquely rotates their barrels within the warehouse, so that alcohol spends about three years at the top and three years at the bottom. However, bourbon aging is not an exact science, as differences in the wood and alcohol can result in different “times to maturity.” Maker’s ages anywhere from five years, nine months to six years, three months.

Maker’s has a semi-automated bottling line; however, every bottle is hand-dipped in sealing wax before being shipped off. Workers dip roughly one bottle every three seconds, but rotate off the dipping line every thirty minutes. In the gift shop, visitors can dip their own bottles.

I honestly thought I was going to be bored out of my mind during this trip, but it turned out great. Highly recommended to any chemists interested in food chemistry out there!

J-Kline with a bottle of Maker's 46


Crazy Cool Stuff

OK, I promise I am back for real this time! I’m going to blog on a regular basis now. For real. I mean it.

The trade-off is that you never know what you’re going to get! For instance, Illinois’ Faculty Summer Institute is going on this week, and I have a lot of exciting things to say about that. I’m presenting tomorrow, so y’all get to hear all the fun things going on at the bleeding (sometimes subdural-hematoma-ing) edge of chemical education. But that’s more of my usual fare.

Tonight, I am downright excited to proclaim that I am running again. In a big way. And I owe it all to Adidas’s micoach. If you have a smartphone and love to run, download this app now! Adidas, like many fitness companies (and not-so-fitness companies, e.g. Garmin) are realizing that GPS is a pretty cool way to handle fitness tracking. The scary flip side to this awesomeness is the fact that an Adidas server in God-knows-where is collecting and storing my extremely personal and highly valuable location data. We’ll see how long my enthusiasm lasts, I suppose. I’m on a half-marathon training schedule, trying to beat my old PR of 1:45.

This is kind of sad. 😦

Why I Love Fantasy Baseball

Fantasy baseball is a graduate student’s dream. Why? Because it provides little moments of joy, packaged into like two-minute segments, that add up to an extremely high happiness-per-hour ratio. There’s nothing like the excitement of watching your stats climb as the day goes by while you’re between tasks. Beyond that, it’s a great pick-me-up for life in general. Lost your job? Check your fantasy team; BOOM, instant happiness. Wife going behind your back? Forget her: Albert Pujols will never let you down. In fact, I’ll bet that if you packed all of the happiness that fantasy baseball inspires into one continuous hour, the feeling would be something akin to OD’ing on heroin.

That’s hard to come by in graduate school, because large chunks of time just don’t exist. Little dust particles of time do exist, however; and these little particulates can add up to a huge dust bunny of fun.

Not to mention the awesome feeling of epic power. In contrast to every other kind of fantasy sport, while playing fantasy baseball you can do essentially everything that a baseball manager does from the comfort of your own home. And who are we kidding; they probably could too! A-Rod having a down week (read: is it October yet)? BENCH HIS ASS! Spot a rookie that’s on fire that no one has touched yet? Pick him up under the radar. Last season, when Jay Bruce came up for the Reds and starting tearing the skin off the ball, I remember hearing about him what I thought was fairly early. Being a Reds fan, I figured I could scoop him up fairly quickly before anyone noticed. So much for that plan! He had already been picked up by our self-anointed league snob (the guy who always beats yours truly).

Here’s to another season of “I’ll do that in two (or ten) minutes after checking my fantasy stats!”

Tuesdays are my Kryptonite

Well here we are at yet another Tuesday, and yet the world is slightly different. Fair warning: this is a post full of shameless plugs. First things first, I can personally vouch for the quality of Hartwig’s book, if you’re into organometallic chemistry. It was good as a bunch of PDF files with hand-drawn figures, and it’s even better in pretty hardback form. His writing style didn’t always resonate with my brain (sometimes I found I’d “read” a paragraph by doing little more than moving my eyes over it), but if you want to know something about organometallic chemistry, it’s in there. Stamp it.

Secondly, I wanted to point the blogosphere to a project that organic chemistry students at the University of Illinois have begun this semester (it’s going to be pretty sweet, trust me…just read on). We are having student teams create web pages illustrating the properties and mechanism of a compound of their choice…and when I say “illustrate,” what I actually mean is “awesome-ize.” This thing is going to be bigger than dinky images and hollow text. I’m hoping students take the Jmol and MarvinSketch instruction we’ve provided and run with them. In fact, I’d like the thing to turn into nothing less than the Wikipedia of interactive mechanisms. We’ll see. Truth be told I’m a little nervous about it—trusting students never seems like a good idea. Still, I’ve been surprised so far this semester with what students have produced. If you want to know more, check out the Molmodac project homepage or my cyclic AMP example page. This project is my baby this semester, so you’ll probably be hearing about it again.

From the Lab to the Court

Go Big Blue!As an avid Kentucky basketball fan, I guess it’s about time for me to weigh in on this year’s season. What better time than after a spectacular win against a solid Creighton club (that jumped on all of our idiotic mistakes)?

Ironically, we have more wins right now than we would have had if we’d made the NCAA tournament. And I’m OK with that–to me, the longer the season goes, the better. The NIT has given our young guys like Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins a chance to mature, and stars like Patterson and Meeks a chance to experience the glory of collegiate tournament basketball, which, if you ask me, beats the hell out of an early exit to the NBA any day.

A lot of people in Lexington have been blaming Billy Gillispie for our recent woes. I haven’t watched enough of UK’s games this year to comment on his coaching style, which has earned the disdain of many a basketball expert, but I can’t say I have a problem with the guy. The problem with UK basketball transcends Gillispie and even the players themselves. Rupp Arena, these days, is basically a stinkhole of old farts (and old money) and useless, pathetic fans. Coming to Illinois and watching a season in Assembly Hall has proven this to me.

Imagine coming from Lexington, Kentucky, and watching a talentless squad struggle against Lewis University (who?) in their second exhibition game of the season. Sounds like a long season, right? Basketball was supposed to be one of my few releases from chemistry, and at that point, it was looking like just another chore. And yet, four months later, that same talentless team finished second in the Big Ten and earned an NCAA tournament berth, which is more than Kentucky can say. And I give just as much credit to the fans in Assembly Hall as I do to Bruce Weber and the team for their impressive year. The team came together and they learned how to win in spite of their weaknesses. They played fierce defense and made shots when they mattered…and behind them every step of the way was another chorus of “Oskee Wow Wow” or a rousing “ILL-INI” cheer. Coincidence? Absolutely not!

Contrast this scenario with the situation at Kentucky, a squad jam-packed with basketball talent but lacking the passion, chemistry, and desire to win basketball games. That all starts with the fans. Although the astronomical expectations in Lexington have not changed, the average fan’s relationship with these expectations has: raucous cheers have been replaced by groans and whining. The players and coaching staff can sense that, and it rubs off on them. The whole “southern basketball tradition” bullshit is getting old, and it’s certainly not winning basketball games!

All that said, I’m pleased with how the season’s gone overall. It seems to me the entire team and coaching staff just got lazy towards the end of the season–the team peaked early. That happens. But as the talent level at Kentucky continues to rise (thanks to Gillispie’s superb recruiting, which is something BG haters should consider), seasons in the upcoming decade like ’08-’09 should be (and will be) considered intolerable. No reason to worry about the future til it gets here, though!



Incredibly, aside from a mildly violent explosion of kidney bean juice all over the kitchen, my first attempt at making chili went off without a hitch. Here you see the ingredients in all their glory:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 can kidney beans
  • 14 oz (half can) crushed tomatoes
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 1 large can tomato sauce
  • 1 onion
  • 1 green pepper
  • 2 tbsp cinnamon
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 oz water

Dice the onion and green pepper and combine. Pour a thin layer of olive oil into a warmed skillet and heat onions and green peppers until browned. Add ground beef, heat until browned, and drain grease. Add kidney beans to meat, onion, and pepper mixture. Combine tomato paste, tomato sauce, and crushed tomatoes in a large bowl, and add in meat and vegetables. Sprinkle cinnamon over mixture and stir. Add water and simmer with periodic stirring for two hours. Add salt for taste if desired.

The final product: