This is the first in a series by Zachary Pearson, Kindred Cocktails Editor. Read them all: Bourbon, Bourbon After the Act, Bourbon: What it is ... and isn't, Making Bourbon, Who Makes My Bourbon, Producer Capsules., Finding the Good Stuff, Tasting the Good Stuff, Neat, Mashbills, Geeky Information and Resources.
Bourbon whiskey has a storied, often apocryphal history, with interesting main characters, complex governmental regulations and a variety of subtypes, each with their own flavor profile. I'll tell a bit of this story, along with some tips for finding and recognizing older or important bottles of Bourbon on liquor store shelves. ;
A lot of foundational stories are only to be taken at face value. And yet there’s a deep history of pioneer families who started out making whiskey as part of the homesteading experience and with enough generations, some of their descendants are still manning stills throughout Kentucky.
While the main focus here will be on Kentucky Bourbon whiskey, much of this information applies to other grain whiskies made in other states as well. Delicious rye whiskey abounds, and a few intrepid people make spirits from wheat or other exotic grains.
So pour a glass of the stuff and sip it as you read.
Part 1: A Little History
The distillation of excess crops in this country began almost as soon as there were excess crops to distill. At first, this meant apples, which were turned into hard cider and then applejack by the freeze-distillation method. Corn may also have been distilled in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in the 1640’s.
Up until the latter part of the 18th century, most of the cereal grains distilled in the United States was rye. George Washington had a still at Mount Vernon after he left office and produced quite a bit of rye whiskey. This recipe has recently been rediscovered and a Master Distiller brought in to produce a modern version of Washington’s whiskey.
During this time, Pennsylvania and Maryland developed rye whiskey as an American spirit. These recipes used some corn and barley during fermentation, but it wasn’t until the opening of Appalachia in the mid-1770’s that corn became a primary source of fermentable sugars.
In 1774, Fort Harrod (now Harrodsburg) was founded, and a large chunk of western Virginia – the Kentucky District - was broken off starting in 1780 and became Kentucky. Statehood came in 1792. Originally, three counties composed the Kentucky District: Fayette, Jefferson and Lincoln. Fayette was further subdivided in 1785 to create Bourbon County. This was still a very large area, now encompassing 34 of the 120 modern Kentucky counties. During this time, a wave of settlers carried their stills into what is now eastern Kentucky, including people like Basil Hayden, Elijah Craig, Daniel Weller and Jacob Beam. Even after the carving up of Bourbon county, people in the area stuck to their name for the region – Old Bourbon.
One of the largest problems during this period was the transport of goods to market. Roads were practically non-existent in eastern Kentucky, but there was a good port on the Ohio River called Limestone (present day Maysville, KY) that the Virginia legislature authorized as early as 1784 to have a toll agent and supervise river traffic that ended in New Orleans. The river voyage was much easier than finding a road that led to market, and Limestone served all of Bourbon County. With the rise of professional distillers and the accompanying marketing apparatus, barrels of Bourbon County corn whiskey began appearing in New Orleans from Limestone, stamped “Old Bourbon Whiskey”.
As the 19th century progressed and more of America was opened to farming, whiskey producers began to produce more whiskey than they could sell in a season. With advances in mechanization and consolidation of distilling, being a professional distiller became a viable occupation. During this time, most whiskey was only aged for as long as it took to reach its destination, and it was sold out of the barrel it was shipped in. Glass bottles during this time were incredibly expensive – probably more costly than the liquor to be put inside them, so only bars would have a fancy decanter in which to present the whiskey drawn from a barrel. If you wanted to buy whiskey from an establishment for drinking at home, you brought your own jug. Not until the 1870s was Bourbon sold in bottles.
Still, merchants and distillers recognized the quality of aged Bourbon. Advertisements in the 1790s were touting “old whiskey”, and by the first decades of the 1800s were hawking age statements. But at this time, everything from nails to oysters was shipped in a barrel, and little thought was given to where they came from or how many times they’d been used. If a particular barrel had been used to store, say, fish, they could char the inside of the barrel to remove those flavors, but it couldn’t be done too many times or the barrel would fall apart. Aging whiskey in barrels charred before their first use was still a few decades away.
In 1780, Elijah Pepper moved to Kentucky and settled what is now the outskirts of Frankfort. He was the old style of farmer-distiller, founded a stand alone distillery in 1812. His son Oscar took the reins in 1838 upon the death of his father, and built the Old Pepper Distillery on the same spot. He then hired a professional distiller named Dr. James C. Crow to make whiskey. Yes, Crow was a medical doctor, though he evidently rarely charged for his services. But he was a chemist and distiller first, and has three major credits in the development of Bourbon to his name. First, he and Oscar Pepper developed the sour mash process, which holds back a percentage of the spent grain as a starter for the next batch. Second, he was the first Bourbon distiller to only sell whiskey aged for a significant period of time. Third, he was the first distiller to age his whiskies in new, charred American oak barrels.
Crow’s whiskey was so immediately popular that merely 15 years afterwards, Herman Melville compared the color of whale’s blood to American whiskey – his readers make the connection. Spirits aged in reused barrels tend to be more yellow, but those aged in newly charred wood take on a vibrant reddish-amber tone that was the mark of Crow’s whiskey and the standard soon adopted by Bourbon producers throughout Kentucky.
Still, there wasn’t a whole lot of well aged, deeply colored whiskey running around 19th century America. Another battle in 19th century Bourbon production brewed in the hands of “rectifiers”. These people – generally chemists – used everything from spirits of ammonia to tobacco, iodine, prune juice, lanolin, water, and young whiskey. Or they simply redistilled barrelled spirits and ran the results through charcoal to smooth it out. For the most part these people were the marketers of their day, and consumers had little way of knowing what was actually in their Bourbon. Thankfully, at the end of the 19th century the federal government intervened with the Bottled in Bond Act (1897).
Continued next time.
Thanks for this, Zac. I'm a relative newcomer to the world of American whiskeys and it's great to have a beginners' guide like this. You've even answered the question I'd begun to wonder about but hadn't got round to doing anything about: why bourbon is called bourbon.
Thank you - there's more to come, including some pretty interesting detail about some legal aspects and brand information.
Looking forward to it!