- Historic Sites
The American Spirit
Bourbon whiskey has had a long, rugged ride from the frontier to the top shelf
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The whiskey these pioneers made was hardly bourbon; it was a clear, unaged, almost flavorless corn vodka closer to moonshine. The defining qualities of bourbon emerged over the following decades and the early nineteenth century, and their beginnings are strangely impossible to document. They mainly involve the aging process. Bourbon right off the still remains clear and almost flavorless today; its two or more years in a barrel give it its color and almost all its taste.
Strictly speaking, bourbon was defined by federal law in 1935: It must contain at least 51 percent corn, must come off the still at no more than 160 proof (higher alcohol content means less flavor), must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (distilled water is generally added both before barreling and before bottling), be bottled at at least 80 proof, and be aged for at least two years in brand-new oak casks that have been charred on the inside. And there no flavoring or coloring can be added.
Aging in charred barrels is the most crucial part. As bourbon expands and seeps into the barrel walls in hot weather and contracts and seeps back out when cooler, it picks up color and flavor both from the burnt wood on the barrel’s surface and from the more mildly toasted wood underneath—toasted from the heating of staves to bend them to make the barrel. The dominant flavors in bourbon can be directly ascribed to qualities in the wood: the flavor of oak, the vanilla taste that cooked wood produces, and the caramel tones that derive from the heating or burning of sugars in the wood. These give bourbon almost all its character and subtlety.
This aging process is unique. Scotch, for instance, is aged only in used barrels—mostly, in fact, in used bourbon barrels imported from Kentucky. Yet the emergence of the process two centuries back is as obscure as if it had happened a millennium ago. Certainly it is tied to the fact that bourbon grew up as a form of currency. Whiskey was not only a source of rare pleasure on the difficult frontier; it was also the main crop made concentrated and unspoilable, and as such a kind of liquid money.
Kentucky’s first settlers did not take long to learn that they could ship whiskey down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans and use it there to buy all sorts of hard-toget goods. Some of those hard-to-get goods were fish, and legend has it that when the fish arrived back in Louisville, the barrels they came in were scorched to get rid of the odors and then sold to distillers. Thus, it is said, the whiskey’s long trip downstream revealed the virtues of aging, and the barrels’ return upriver led to the discovery of the benefits of charring.
By the 1780s men whose names survive to this day were setting up stills around Kentucky’s bluegrass countryside.
Well, that story’s too good to be true. The vovaee to New Orleans couldn’t have taken more than a couple of months, which wouldn’t have permitted enough aging to make a difference, and anyway, the effectiveness of burning for purification and of charcoal for filtering and flavoring had been known for ages. Moreover, in barrels that weren’t charred the sap might spoil the whiskey. There was almost no choice but to char. What needed to be learned was how to create a flavorful whiskey using that char.
Before that could happen, the whiskey business almost died an infant death when in 1791 Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton pushed through Congress the first federal excise tax—a heavy tax on distillers to help pay off the huge Revolutionary War debt. This brought on the Whiskey Rebellion, the first violent crisis for the new Republic. In Kentucky, which became a state in 1792 and still had only crude, local distilleries, the tax led to a few small skirmishes; in western Pennsylvania, the already established home of rye whiskey, President Washington had to send out a force of thirteen thousand militiamen under Gen. “Light Horse” Harry Lee to put down the rabbles that attacked tax collectors. The show of force established the authority of the new federal government—and sent some of Pennsylvania’s best distillers to Kentucky to set up business farther from trouble.
Congress did whiskey more of a favor in 1808 when it outlawed the international slave trade. With the end of the trianeular business came the demise of rum in North America. Thenceforth whiskey would prevail among hard liquors. But for another century the most popular whiskey would be rye, already well established and conveniently made in the Northeast. And for at least half a century, most whiskey in most places in America would still be an unaged, clear rough spirit akin to moonshine. References to “bourbon,” as opposed to simply whiskey, or at best Kentucky whiskey, are hard to find before the end of the Civil War, though the spirit was clearly defining itself at the time.