A Mostly-True History of Whiskey in America, Part III: The Rise of Bourbon

As the History, Part 1 and 2, mention, whiskey was a frontier necessity, a commodity, a de facto currency, and a tasty drink. This was no less true in the frontiers of Virginia, now known as Kentucky, as it was in Western Pennsylvania.

As it turned out, Kentucky was about as good a whiskey-making region as one could create. The land was fertile for grains, including rye. Corn, in particular, grew well in Kentucky. Corn, with its high sugar content, produced a high alcohol content in distillation, yielding a lot of whiskey per acre of land. Like rye, corn also was an excellent crop since it also provided food and cover for livestock and food for people. Indeed, Southern cuisine is built on a foundation of corn – corn bread, spoon bread, grits, hominy, and corn on and off the cob. While rye whiskey was growing in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, corn whiskey had an increasingly strong hold in Kentucky.

Oak trees for barrels were found in abundance in Kentucky forests. Oak barrels were commonly used for shipping. They could store wet or dry goods, were not inclined to break during transportation, could be re-used, and the distinctive shape of the barrels – round, and wider in the middle than the ends – allowed large weight to be rolled, rocked and maneuvered into place by fewer men than a comparable volume stored in crates, bags, or other containers.

Water, used for milling grain, cooling stills, mixing with the mash and distillate, and for taking whiskey to market, was abundant.  Kentucky contains more navigable miles of water than any U.S. state, save Alaska. Much of that water is filtered through a foundation of limestone. Limestone filtration removes iron from the water, and adds calcium.  Iron ruins whiskey during distillation (it turns it black and nasty tasting), while calcium feeds the yeast necessary to fuel fermentation. Thus, no better water exists for making whiskey than is naturally found all over Kentucky. The importance of limestone to a distillery’s success resulted in slang for a failed or failing distillery as it being “off the slab.”

Many of the early Kentucky settlors were of Scottish and Irish heritages. Both had long whisky (they omit the “e”) distilling traditions. They brought with them a love of whisk(e)y and knowledge of distilling – and stills. Early records show that small stills were common frontier supplies. It was probably the case that most early Kentucky farmers ran their own small stills (or cooperative stills) during the down season to make whiskey and the extra income that came with it.

So how did “bourbon”, the name, come to be? That question is not easy to answer. Few writings exist that touch on this subject — how did the frontiersmen not see the importance of recording everything they did with respect to whiskey?  Many legends exist, but all appear to be “embellished.” For example, Minister, Elijah Craig, is often given credit for the name. However, he never distilled whiskey in old (or new) Bourbon County. There is little written record to support this industry claim. Another legend has it that because a primary destinations for this whiskey was New Orleans, where it was sold and consumed on Bourbon Street (imagine that), the name “bourbon” results from its popularity on this street.  While this may have contributed to the name, it probably was s secondary factor, at best.

The name “bourbon” no doubt relates to geography.  A large part of the Kentucky territory was named after the French royal family, the Bourbons, Bourbon County.  While Bourbon County still exists today (ironically, it does not contain a bourbon distillery), it is much smaller than the old Bourbon County, which comprised most of the Eastern part of the state, including all or part of 34 counties on the current Kentucky map.

A primary river port in old Bourbon County was on the Ohio River at what is now Maysville, Kentucky. It was then called Limestone. Whiskey could travel from Limestone, down the Ohio River, to the Mississippi River, down to New Orleans, and to ports all over the world.

As was mentioned in Part 2, whiskey is easier and more cost effective to ship than a like quantity of grain. Therefore, a primary product shipping out of Limestone down the Ohio and Mississippi was whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. A significant portion of it was made with corn as a primary, though not necessarily exclusive, ingredient.

It became popular. This led to the whiskey coming from Kentucky being primarily from a distinctive corn-based mash.

After Bourbon County was reduced in size (and much of what was shipped to New Orleans was not from the new Bourbon County), distillers reassured consumers that their whiskey was the same stuff from the same area as what you had grown to love, whiskey from “Old Bourbon County.” They stenciled “old Bourbon” on barrel heads of corn whiskey from all over Kentucky.

Eventually this came to mean a style of corn-based whiskey as much as a location of origin – although these went hand-in-hand.

Corn-based mashbill was not the only distinctive aspect of this whiskey. Over time, it also came to have a beautiful reddish-brown color. This is from aging in charred barrels.

While early European settlors to America primarily drank unaged spirits, aging was common in Europe. As distilling became more than a subsistence affair, aging was inevitable.  Indeed, some whiskey had to be stored as a matter of course. Farmers would often distill whiskey in the colder months, as they had additional time from active farming operations. They would then have to store it until weather allowed it to be taken to market, or to Limestone. At Limestone, it would have to await a convenient time for shipping, before making the long journey down river. During the travels, the barrels were sloshed around, contributing to premature aging. From distillation, through their travels, the barrels were exposed to the cold of winter, and the baking sun and heat of the river boats. Then, after arriving at market, the “old Bourbon” was often stored for sale, including at stores where customers would fill their own jugs straight from the barrel. As a result, some whiskey gained some age on it.

It turned out that people liked the older whiskey. It adds oils and flavors from the wood. As distillers increased their output and the thirst for old Bourbon increased (and the price with it), they had the ability to set aside product with the intent of aging it longer to meet this new and higher-priced market for aged spirits.

Charring the barrels also rose to prominence (now this is a legal requirement for it to be called Bourbon”). Many legends also exist about who first started charring the barrels. Elijah Craig is often given credit for this as well. The legend being that there was a fire that burned, but did not destroy, his barrels. Rather than replacing them, he decided to use them, and the resulting whiskey was well received, thus spurring the practice of intentionally charring the barrels. This legend also appears to be “embellished.”

Another legend has it that some distillers were too cheap to make their own new oak barrels, so they re-used barrels that had been used to ship different products. So that the remains of the old contents would not pollute the new whiskey (imagine how a barrel used to ship dill pickles might affect whiskey), they would char the barrels to remove contaminants.

In truth, charring wood containers for aging spirits also was practiced in Europe. Applying this to whiskey, like aging itself, was inevitable.

By the mid-1800s, Old Bourbon was receiving a premium price in the market. Market prices in 1848, for example, showed other whiskey prices ranging from 14.25 to 19.25 cents per gallon, while “old Bourbon” ranged from 30 cents to one dollar per gallon, depending on age. Henry G. Crowgey, Kentucky Bourbon, the Early Years of Whiskeymaking, page 122 (citing Western Citizen, January 7, 21, February 25, June 9, 1848).

Into this market snuck imitators and crooks, but that is a story for the next post.

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