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American History By The Glass

A look at how Bourbon, straight rye and Tennessee whiskeys are intertwined with American history
Jack Bettridge
Posted: August 9, 2013

(continued from page 1)

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.

The stills at the Woodford Reserve Distillery.
The stills at the Woodford Reserve Distillery.
Still whiskey was sold by the barrel and much of what was bottled was processed by middlemen called rectifiers, who often colored and flavored grain spirits to resemble Bourbon. Distillers who saw the damage this would do to legitimate whiskey fought back. E.H. Taylor Jr. was one of the first to create a Bourbon brand and he also zealously promoted the Bottled-in-Bond Act passed in 1897. It created a standard of whiskey guaranteed by government regulators that designated that it be at least 100 proof, aged at least four years and made in one distillery in one distilling season. In a sense, it foreshadowed both vintage whiskey and single malts. Taylor's name is now used on a line of bonded whiskeys made by Buffalo Trace distillery.

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Comments   2 comment(s)

Zander Goss — Chicago, IL,  —  August 10, 2013 7:55pm ET

George Washington's retirement at Mount *Rushmore*?!?!?!

A new low in CigarAficionado reporting. Right up (down?) there with the Cognac feature written by a guy who apparently had never been to Cognac, but wanted to make it look like he had been.

JACK BETTRIDGE — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES,  —  August 10, 2013 11:39pm ET

Ouch, you got me. But at least Washington's head has been on Mount Rushmore longer than his retirement at Mount Vernon. Thanks to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, you can visit his refurbished stillhouse at Mount Vernon in Virginia and even buy a replica of the rye he made. A service you won't get at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

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