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American Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon is the most prominent style of whiskey produced in the USA. It dates back to the 18th century when whisky-loving Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their distillation knowledge to Kentucky and Tennessee especially. Though they weren’t all from Scotland or Ireland, Jacob Beam, better known as Jim Beam, was from Germany and began distilling in Kentucky in the 1790s, and Evan Williams (now a brand owned by Heaven Hill) as you might guess from his name was Welsh.

The early days of bourbon
There wasn’t much barley about but there was a native crop, corn (maize), and rye thrived here too so they used these to make their whiskey. Kentucky, in particular, had lots of fertile land, perfect for growing rye and corn, and distilling the cereals was a useful way of preserving them and also formed a kind of currency on the frontier where cash of any kind was in short supply. Yee haw! Whiskey money!
This basic spirit distilled mainly from corn and rye in time evolved into what we know as bourbon. No one is quite sure why America’s premier spirit is named after the French royal family. Some people say it’s from Bourbon County in Kentucky, which was named in honour of the French who had been so helpful in overthrowing British rule of the American colonies. While others say it was from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major port from which whiskey was shipped.
However it got its name, by the 19th century there was a thriving industry based largely in Kentucky and Tennessee making spirits from corn, rye and other grains like wheat. One of the pioneering producers was the Reverend Elijah Craig (1743-1808) whose name still appears on whiskey bottles to this day. These ‘whiskeys’ would have almost certainly been drunk young with no or very little wood ageing. What is known today as ‘white dog.’ On the long journey down to the Ohio river to New Orleans, it was noted how the spirit had mellowed in cask, and so an aged style began to be preferred. This began to supplant the popularity of imported spirits like Cognac in early cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Sazerac.

TThe sour mash process
In 1834 a Scottish chemist called James Crow invented the sour mash process. Or it might be better to say, he perfected and explained the process as it was probably something that some distillers were doing before. In the sour mash process a portion of the last ferment is added to the next to get things going rather like with sourdough bread, only better because you end up with whiskey. This raises the acidity of the fermentation which makes it hard for bacteria to survive so you’re less likely to get spoilage. The sour mash process meant getting a consistent ferment every time.
Pioneering names like E.H. Taylor (founder of the company that would become Buffalo Trace) and James E. Pepper were building names for themselves in the 1860s and 1870s. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) many distilleries thrived supplying the Union army. Following the end of the war, distillers began investing in new technology like the Coffey Still meaning they could produce whiskey more efficiently. Adulteration and counterfeiting were rife but the growth of bottling meant that producers could build brands by ensuring a consistent product. The whiskey industry was becoming regulated too (though there was no definition of exactly what ‘bourbon’ was). An act of 1897 specified a minimum age of four years for whisky labelled ‘bottled in bond’ (ie. aged without having to pay taxes until it was sold), and a minimum strength of 100 proof (50% ABV), and two years for ‘straight whisky.’

Prohibition strikes
This embryonic whiskey superpower was wiped out when Prohibition came in force in January 1920. Six distillers including Brown-Forman, one of today’s giants, however, managed to keep going by making what was termed ‘medicinal’ alcohol. Sometimes old bottles of Prohibition bourbon turn up at auction and go for a lot of money. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, there were still a few firms distilling but there was very little aged stock and furthermore Americans had got a taste for Scotch whisky in the meantime. Then it was the Second World War and distilleries were turned over to military use like making kerosene.

The authors of old cocktail books from the ‘40s and early ‘50s, like Bernard de Voto’s The Hour lament the lack of good aged American whiskey at the time. It wasn’t easy to get hold of. But as the industry built up stocks, bourbon boomed in ‘50 and ‘60s America as the country itself prospered after the war. This was the Mad Men era of Old Fashioneds and long lunches. What is and isn’t bourbon was still very loosely regulated until 4 May 1964 when the United States Congress passed a resolution stating that “Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” It also set out that bourbon had to be made from a minimum of 51% corn and, here’s the really important bit, aged in charred new oak barrels at 125 proof (62.5% ABV) or less. Before that, bourbon might be aged in used casks. What it didn’t specify is exactly how long the liquid had to spend in oak, something we’ll come on to shortly.
But by the ‘70s as younger drinkers turned to wine and vodka, bourbon and its cousin rye whiskey became deeply unfashionable. Distilleries closed and the industry consolidated, only to be revived in the late ‘90s and ‘00s as a new generation of drinkers discovered the joys of dark spirits. Today, there are dozens of young brands, some of which even have their own distillery, and the bourbon’s capital, Louisville, Kentucky is a popular tourist destination.
Bourbon’s rather chaotic history means that though many old brands have been revived, there’s usually very little link between the pre-Prohibition distillery and the modern product. Furthermore the proliferation of new names without their own aged whiskey means that it’s not always clear what is made from bought-in stock and what has been distilled by the brand. It’s not really a problem as long as you take most bourbon origin stories, new and old, with a healthy pinch of salt. Trust your taste buds.

What is bourbon today?
So what is bourbon today? As per the 1964 ruling, it must be made from 51% corn and aged in new charred American oak barrels. There are other rules, the main ones being that it can’t be distilled to more than 160 proof (80% ABV), it can’t go into barrels higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) and it must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof 40% ABV. As long as it has spent any amount of time in new charred oak barrels, which could be as little as months, then it can be classed as bourbon but to be classed as ‘straight bourbon’, it must spend two years ageing. As EU and UK laws state that whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years, much of what is classed as whiskey in the US can’t be sold as such here. Finally, here’s the big one: as long as you follow the rules, you can make bourbon anywhere in the US, it doesn’t just have to come from Kentucky.

Most bourbon will contain rye, wheat and barley as well as corn in varying amounts. Distillers tend to use enzymes to release fermentable sugars from starch, something that is not allowed in Scotland. Column stills are ubiquitous but there are some mavericks like Woodford Reserve that use pot stills.
Right, that was a bit of an epic, wasn’t it? Probably time for a drink. Mine’s a Manhattan. Nowadays, there’s an amazing amount of diversity in the category from simple whiskeys that are great with Coke or ginger ale, to complex and highly prized bottlings that disappear as soon as they arrive in our warehouse. Bourbon’s mixed mashbill means that you get sweet, smooth sippers or high rye examples that are as spicy as hell.
Finally, a word on spelling. Whiskey is almost always spelt with an ‘e’ in the US but there are maverick producers such as Maker’s Mark in Kentucky and Balcones who spell it ‘whisky’ so don’t be alarmed.

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