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Bourbon

A Brief History

 

The Early Days

Bourbon is a whisky made in the USA, primarily in the southern part of the country. The state synonymous with bourbon production is Kentucky. The vast majority of bourbon produced today is made at distilleries in Kentucky.

Today bourbon is also a recognised product category with a clear legal definition but that was not always the case. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time when bourbon was first produced and sold. Its development was evolutionary rather than a single moment of creation.

There are many stories about the origin of bourbon, but most are just that - stories. What we do know is that people were distilling whisky in the USA as long ago as the 18th century. They were settlers who had arrived in the then new USA from places like Scotland, Ireland and Germany. They brought with them the knowledge of how to distil whisky.

Was this whisky bourbon? Not in the way we know it today - the distillers did not call the whisky they were making bourbon back then. They were, however, making whisky.

One of them was a Baptist minister called Elijah Craig. It is unclear when exactly he was born but it was in the middle of the 18th century. He died in 1808. Some writers over the past 150 years have attributed the invention of bourbon to Elijah Craig. He is said to have been the first person to age his whisky in charred oak barrels. However, there is no evidence of this so Craig was probably making whisky very similar to other distillers at the time. This is an example of one of the stories about bourbon often told and believed. Craig is still part of the story, and contributed, like the other whisky makers of the time, to the evolution of bourbon as a unique type of whisky.

Take, for example, the ingredients used to make bourbon today. The grain recipe for bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn. Corn was one of the most common grains grown by poor farmers in the 18th century in places like Maryland and Pennsylvania. Many of those farmers distilled their excess crops to make whisky so, by default, corn became a common ingredient.

Also, the fact that American oak trees were used to make the barrels 18th century whisky was put in is probably down to convenience rather than a special decision to come up with a new whisky. Now, of course, American oak must be used to make all barrels for bourbon aging, but in the 18th century American oak was used because it was accessible.

Trials and tribulations

So, to summarise the story so far, people of European descent were using traditional Scottish and Irish production methods to make whisky using ingredients and tools that were easy to get in the USA of the time. Production centered on the states mentioned above - Maryland and Pennsylvania. That was until the government tried to impose a whisky tax, a historical event now known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

In the late 1700s the president of the USA was George Washington. Washington and his government wanted to pay down the national debt and one of the ways they tried to do that was to introduce a tax on farmers who sold their grain in the form of whisky. This tax became law in 1791. The farmers resisted in what is now known as the Whiskey Rebellion (or Whiskey Insurrection), although they were put down when Washington himself led 15,000 militia men against them. The tax remained in force until 1800 when it was repealed.

Even when it was law, the tax was never practically applied in Kentucky as no one in the state was willing to enforce it. Many whisky-making farmers from other states moved to Kentucky. This is the reason why Kentucky is now the epicentre of modern bourbon production.

Now we come to the origin of the name, bourbon. In the late 1700s, much of the area around the modern state of Kentucky - and some of the surrounding states - was known as Bourbon County. This was a huge area that, over time, has been broken up into many different counties. Back in the 1700s, it was just called Bourbon. It was named after the French royal family, The House of Bourbon, whose influence was significant all over the glove. Bourbon kings had ruled France since the 16th century and by the 18th century they also ruled Spain, Naples, Sicily and Parma.

Even as the once large Bourbon County was being carved up into smaller counties, whisky makers still stamped "Old Bourbon" on the barrels they produced, to indicate the origin of their whisky. The respected bourbon historian, Charles K Cowdery, said: "Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey."

Bourbon as we know it

One of the distinguishing factors that makes bourbon what it is today is the sour mash fermentation process. Many historians believe this was invented by James C Crow, a Scottish doctor who was born in 1789. After graduating in medicine at Edinburgh University he moved to the USA and ended up in Kentucky in 1823. He began working for a distiller and spent much of his life working in the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (now known as Woodford Reserve). It is there it is thought he used his scientific background to invent the sour mash process (the sour mash process creates a proper pH balance for the yeast and controls the growth of bacteria by adding spent - or used - mash from a previous fermentation to the new distillation).

Most of the whisky produced during the late 1700s and the early 1800s was distilled and put in barrels, however, the barrels were not for aging. Instead, they were for transportation. The whisky was produced by the distillers ready for immediate drinking without any aging process. The practice of aging whisky was something discovered almost accidentally. The whisky produced and then transported by default spent time in the barrels it was transported in. People slowly began to realise that whisky got better if it spent time aging in a barrel.

So by the mid to late 1800s, a lot of the pieces that make up the bourbon jigsaw had fallen in place. The name was now becoming commonplace and the method of production was becoming standard.

Prohibition before success

At the end of the 19th century, legislation was enacted that solidified these standards. The Bottled in Bond act was passed in 1897 and set quality standards for bourbon and other spirits. To be described as Bottled in Bond, a bourbon had to be the product of one distillation. It then had to be aged for four years in a federally bonded warehouse under US government supervision. Finally, the bourbon had to be bottled at 100 proof (ABV 50%). All reputable distillers tried to achieve Bottled in Bond status.

In the late 1800s sales of bourbon were healthy in the USA. Many of the brands available to buy today were first produced and sold in the later decades of the 19th century. However, the industry was approaching it most difficult period - Prohibition.

Prohibition was in place in the USA from 1920 to 1933, but the march towards it started many years earlier. The Temperance Movement was a collective name for a group of people who argued the consumption of alcoholic drinks be reduced or banned. The Movement's origins are in the 18th century. By the later parts of the 19th century, The Temperance Movement was really gathering steam. in 1881 it got its first really big success when the state of Kansas became the first to ban alcohol. At around this time the Anti-Saloon League started to become very popular. Their success was even greater than that of the Temperance Movement as they managed to get alcohol prohibited across the whole United States. It took them over 20 years, but in 1920, Prohibition came into force.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the intervening 13 years changed dramatically the landscape of the bourbon industry. The experience of America's distillers during the prohibition years was varied. Some resorted to bootlegging - making and selling illegal bourbon while trying to keep one step ahead of the 1,500 prohibition agents given the task of enforcing the anti-drink law. Others simply closed, while other distilleries were given a special dispensation by the government to continue whisky production. The whisky was made primarily for medicinal purposes.

Once prohibition ended old distillers continued making bourbon, while new distilleries were opened. Over the rest of the 20th century the industry went through a lot of consolidation, to the extent that, today, many of the historical bourbon brands and distilleries are all owned by just a handful of huge, global drinks' companies.

One thing that has changed over the last 10 to 15 years is the increase in the number of new bourbons that are being produced. The big distilleries are making new bourbon brands in an attempt to remain cutting edge, while the US has seen an upsurge new, craft distilleries being opened. Like the common brands that everyone knows about, these new bourbons are being sold all over the world.

 

What is bourbon?

Bourbon must be:

  1. Made from a recipe that contains at least 51% corn (some people think there is an upper limit of 80% corn, but that is not true).
  2. Aged in new, charred-oak barrels (some think bourbon must be aged for a minimum amount of time, but that is not true - it simply must be aged briefly).
  3. Distilled to no more than ABV 80%
  4. Entered into the barrel at no more than ABV 62.%%
  5. Bottle at a minimum of ABV 40%

 

Bourbon Facts

  1. Jim Beam White Label is the best selling bourbon in the world
  2. 95 percent of the bourbon consumed all over the world is produced in Kentucky
  3. Bourbon production increased by 50 percent between 1999 and 2010 resulting in an industry that supports around 10,000 jobs
  4. Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon. Technically it could be called a bourbon, but Jack Daniel's prefers to call its whisky Tennessee whisky.
  5. Bourbon is the USA's only native spirit - it was given this title by the US congress in 1964
 

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