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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

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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.

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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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