American History By The Glass
Posted August 9, 2013
A look at how Bourbon, straight rye and Tennessee whiskeys are intertwined with American history
Read Whiskey Cocktails: The Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Sazerac and Mint Julep for more on how to concoct the perfect whiskey drink.
How does the expression go: As American as Mom and straight whiskey?
Well, maybe not exactly, but in all deference to those other great national symbols, whiskey has been a part of the country's history about as long as apple pie and certainly longer than baseball. For better or worse, it's been intertwined with our heritage and now is getting global recognition as the rest of the world takes notice of our quality exports: Bourbon, straight rye and Tennessee whiskeys.
It's about time we took some pride in our particular kind of hearty whiskey. The art form has been in America almost since settlers invaded these shores and cast about for something high proof to drink. Every school child knows that George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion as one of his first acts as president. But do they also know he went on to put down a few whiskeys himself as a rye distiller during his retirement at Mount Vernon?
The whiskey tax that fomented the Whiskey Rebellion, the first real test of our nation's sovereignty, reflected how important whiskey was to frontier society. In back hill communities, it was often used as a form of money. Because farmers were so often isolated from their markets, it was easier to turn grains into distilled alcohol and ship them around as a commodity that was far more portable as well as potable.
And as the young republic expanded west, whiskey was always along for the ride. Such frontier legends as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Mike Fink and Buffalo Bill Cody were also legendary drinkers.
A pantheon of political notables, reaching across political aisles, has cozied up to our whiskey: Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, William Henry Harrison. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, whose family ran a still, was supposed to have answered complaints that Ulysses Grant was a whiskey drinker by asking for the name of his favorite brand so that he could supply some to all his generals. Martin Van Buren, son of a tavern keeper (a lot of political wheeling and dealing went on in the establishment), was nicknamed "Blue Whiskey Van." Grover Cleveland was the most notable figure in a faction called Bourbon Democrats. And whiskey has been served as an electioneering lubricant and taxed to pay for wars.
Argue all you want about football and the Dallas Cowboys, but Bourbon is America's whiskey. Not because it was the country's first (rye gets that distinction), but because it was invented here. Which was opportune, since its main grain—corn—is indigenous to America. Native Americans cultivated it, but immigrants, arriving with their stills in tow, were the first to turn the grain into whiskey.
Developed as it was on the frontier, much of Bourbon's history is fuzzy. What can be said is the spirit called by that name did not spring fully formed. It's unclear when corn, or maize, was first used to make alcohol, but what is now the state of Kentucky gets the credit for creating Bourbon: a whiskey made with at least 51 percent corn (typically much more) in its mashbill, or grain formula.
The origins of Bourbon's formula are the subject of constant controversy—particularly the bit about barrel charring. The char hastens maturation, drawing flavor and color from the caramelized layers of the staves, particularly when shipped great distances. This wrinkle has long been attributed to Elijah Craig, who as the story goes accidentally set fire to a barrel, but achieved serendipity when he used it anyway.
It makes an interesting tale, since Craig was also a Baptist minister, but is likely make-believe. Another frontier distiller, Evan Williams, has also been given credit. Conveniently their names are each used on Bourbons brands today.
Another bone of contention is the genesis of the term. It could be that barrels shipped downriver were stenciled "Bourbon" (for a county of origin, which once made up a much larger part of Kentucky). Hence, when it arrived in Louisiana, the spirit was referred to by that label. Then again, the whiskey may have been named for Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where much of it was enjoyed.
However, it was not until 1964 when an act of Congress named Bourbon a "distinctive product of the United States," meaning it could only legally be made here—and not in other parts of the world. (If you see a bottle from Australia labeled "Bourbon," it ain't.) A 2007 resolution was more vehement. It referred to it as "America's native spirit."
Contrary to popular belief, however, Bourbon can be made in any of the 50 states—not just Kentucky. Two factors that contribute to the fact that so much of it comes from the Blue Grass State. One is the preponderance of limestone, which purifies its water. The other is climate. The summers are sweltering, while the winters are moderately cold, helping the whiskey to move in and out of barrel staves where it gains much of its character.
But frontier whiskey was a pretty raw affair and it took some pioneers of a different type to tame it. Originally there was little quality control and no regulation, which meant a lack of consistency. Bourbon was typically sold by the barrel or by filling jars and jugs brought to the source.
In 1823, a Scottish physician named James Crow moved to Kentucky where he applied scientific method to whiskey making. Notably, he worked at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery, now the home of Woodford Reserve. Among many other things, he is credited with discovering that if a portion of the spent mash from one run of whiskey is introduced to the next, its acids retard bacterial growth and make for better consistency. Today, the process is called the sour-mash method and is used in virtually all Bourbon and other American whiskeys. The inventor's name is also remembered in the illustrious Old Crow brand, now made by Jim Beam.
By 1909, an addendum to the Pure Food and Drug Act had set down definitions for straight and blended whiskeys, which by and large remain today.
George Garvin Brown, another proponent of branding, took the unusual step of only selling his product—created in 1870—by the bottle. It was probably named for a local Louisville physician and is now called Old Forester. The company became Brown-Forman, which now owns Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve. His brother, J.T.S. Brown, created a Bourbon that is probably best known because it was favored by Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) in the movie The Hustler.
The great flood of Bourbon is made using a grain recipe that contains corn, rye and barley. However, the only part of that which is set in stone is the corn. William Larue Weller is supposedly the first to substitute wheat for rye, sometime in the mid-19th century. That grain gives Bourbon a smoother, rounder taste. Maker's Mark would later make it a staple of the market with its superpremium brand, first sold in 1959. Fittingly, W.L Weller is another example of wheated Bourbon, as are Old Fitzgerald, Old Rip Van Winkle, Rebel Yell and Garrison's Brothers, a craft distilled whiskey from Texas.
Government's next big involvement with Bourbon was to deliver a mighty blow: Prohibition. Of the hundreds of distillers who existed before the noble experiment only a few staggered through, many by making whiskey for medicinal purposes. The Beam family, which includes seven generations of Kentucky distillers, shuttered its operations for 13 years. When it was once again legal, James B. Beam rebuilt the distillery in 120 days at the age of 69. It was after that that the Jim Beam brand was first bottled. (Prior to that the family brand was Old Tub.) Heaven Hill was unusual in that it was created after Prohibition by the Shapiro family, which still runs it today. Parker Beam, a great-nephew of Jim Beam, is the master distiller, in a tradition that sees friendly relations between competing Bourbon distillers, both kin and kith.
Bourbon's fortunes would falter in the 1960s with the coming popularity of lighter drinks. The growing demand for the high-end Maker's Mark was the only anomaly. Single-malt Scotches were seen as taking a bite out of their market, so in 1984 Elmer T. Lee, of what is now Buffalo Trace, created the first single-barrel Bourbon. This led to the flood of superpremium Bourbons that we enjoy today. Now every other major distillery-Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Tom Moore, Old Forester, Woodford-has its special releases. (See the upcoming October 2013 Cigar Aficionado for full story.)
Along with the bonded whiskey regulations of more than a century ago came another standard that would define the preeminence of many of our brown spirits: straight whiskey. It is a legal definition that defines a level of purity demanded in no other country. To make a straight whiskey you start by distilling fermented grains to a maximum 160 proof, put the result into charred oak barrels—always new—at no more than 130 proof, and age for at least two years. (If the whiskey doesn't mature for at least four years, it must say so on its label.) After that the only foreign substance that may be added is water. (None of the food coloring, flavoring or neutral spirits that inform other whisk(e)y may join in.)
Straight whiskey is also the standard that is kept by many of the rye whiskeys that are now gaining popularity. But even while they seem like the latest thing, ryes have been around longer even than Bourbon.
It was natural for the first colonialist distillers to use rye for their whiskey. It was a grain they were experienced with in the Old World and it grew well in the eastern locales where they first settled. Maryland and Pennsylvania in particular became hotbeds for rye whiskey production and remained that way into the early twentieth century.
It was rye that was at the center of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, a short-lived resistance to a federal tax on alcohol meant to pay off the debt from the War of Independence. The occasional taxing of whiskey would become an easy source of revenue that became permanent during the Civil War. In fact, it allowed the federal government to forestall an income tax as a source of revenue for a century and a quarter. Sadly, we now have both taxes.
Prior to Prohibition rye was the most popular American whiskey. It developed a reputation as a refined spirit of the East, while Bourbon was the quaff of the frontier. When city slickers took to mixing, rye's urbanity also made it the prototype base for many seminal cocktails—the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac. With a flavor profile that reflects its grain content (at least 51 percent rye, typically joined by corn and barley), its spiciness marries well with the sweetness of many mixers.
Dozens of ryes were once made in the East and two general styles—Maryland and Monongahela—stood out. The former was less spicy, characterized by 60 percent rye formula that was recreated at Washington's distillery, which was recently refurbished. The latter was the style of western Pennsylvania and was more informed by rye (80 percent and more). By the 1990s, only a handful of rye examples remained and consolidation of the industry meant they were all made in Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. None were very old or very rye forward.
What had whipsawed American straight rye whiskey were Prohibition and a developing taste for Canadian whisky. That spirit was easily smuggled across our northern border and was even sometimes called rye. It seemed a natural substitute, but wasn't. The characteristically smooth Canadian whisky is a blend-and not a straight whiskey-and typically contains very little rye. And it doesn't have the same effect as straight rye in classic mixed drinks. The champions of the ongoing cocktail revival discovered this when they resurrected old recipes. Thereafter started an outcry for more straight rye whiskey.
While Kentucky and Pennsylvania contributed greatly to our national whiskeys, Tennessee should not be forgotten for it was there that the Lincoln County Process was developed.
The method calls for filtering new-make spirit through several feet of maple charcoal before it is aged. This step, which is performed both in making Jack Daniel's and George Dickel, provides a characteristic smoothness to products labeled Tennessee whiskey or Tennessee sour mash whiskey. They are otherwise made very similarly to Bourbon.
The founders of both whiskeys, Jack Daniel and George W. Dickel, plied their trade in the last half of the 19th century. And both met tragic ends. Dickel died after a horseback riding accident. Daniel, left far more ignominiously according to legend. He kicked his safe one morning when he realized he had forgotten the combination and no one was around to remind him. A toe became infected, and he died of blood poisoning soon after.