Bourbon is an American Whiskey produced mainly in the southern state of Kentucky, although there are notable bourbons from other states within the USA.
To comply with US trade legislation a whiskey can only be called Bourbon if it fulfils the following conditions:
• The ‘mashbill’ (recipe of grains) used in production must consist of no less than 51% and no more than 80% corn. The typical corn content is around 70%. The remainder of the mashbill is made up with other grains, generally rye, wheat and malted barley.
• The whiskey must leave the still at no higher than 80% alcohol by volume
• It must be aged in new charred white oak casks at no higher than 62.5% abv when it enters the cask.
• It must be bottled at no less than 40% abv.
• Nothing other than water may be added to the spirit to alter its flavour. This is the reason Jack Daniel’s is not a Bourbon (see below).
• If the maturation time is less than four years, the whiskey must state its age on the label.
Some Common American Whiskey Terms
Some other common terms found on American whiskey labels require further explanation:
‘Sour Mash’ refers to a stage in the production of Bourbon where part of the spent mash from the previous batch (usually about 25%) is added to the next batch prior to fermentation and distillation. This helps to maintain consistency of flavour and style from batch to batch.
‘Straight Whiskey’ (be it Bourbon, Tennessee, Rye or any other variant) must be aged for at least two years. Straight whiskey may not contain any added flavouring or colour.
For explanations of Small Batch, Single Barrel, Rye, Corn, Canadian and Tennessee Whiskeys, please see the relevant section.
Bourbon has been a part of American culture since the late 18th century, when poor farmers in Maryland and Pennsylvania began distilling their excess grain crops.
There were many advantages to this – principally, the whiskey was easier to trade and transport than the grain on which it was based. It was also less perishable and easier to keep, as well as improving with age (although this was not immediately discovered since most spirit was immediately consumed) and being more valuable in the bartering-based economy that existed at the time.
With all these advantages, production of whiskey became extremely widespread and following a dispute over taxes levied by the government (culminating in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794), many of the migrant producers moved south into Kentucky and Tennessee, where they found excellent conditions for production and easy access to transportation by river for their wares. In a short time places like Bardstown and Louisville had flourished into thriving communities of whiskey producers.
The influential Bourbon authority Charles K. Cowdery recounts how Bourbon whiskey got its name in his excellent article ‘How Bourbon Whiskey Really Got Its Famous Name’. Below is his abridged version of the explanation:
"When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region 'Old Bourbon.'
Located within 'Old Bourbon' was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped to market. 'Old Bourbon' was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. 'Old Bourbon' whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted, and they liked it. In time, 'bourbon' became the name for any corn-based whiskey."
It should be noted that the name Old Bourbon was therefore not originally intended to refer to the age of the spirit within the barrels, but rather to the fact that the whiskey had originated or been shipped from territories within the region covered by the ‘Old’ Bourbon county. The corn whiskey that was being produced and stored in these barrels was intended for immediate consumption, and any barrel-ageing that it underwent was, in the beginning at least, by accident rather than design. Deliberate barrel-ageing of the whiskey was some way in the future when Bourbon got its name.
In time, refinements to the process of producing whiskey were introduced. The charring of barrels to produce a richer, sweeter-flavoured spirit is often attributed to the Reverend Elijah Craig, a colourful minister also credited with opening Kentucky’s first paper mill. The Sour Mash production came later and was invented by Dr James C. Crow.
In each case, the improvement in flavour of the whiskies produced led to the widespread adoption of these new methods and they quickly became standard throughout the industry. Eventually the name became associated with the process rather than the old region, which had long since been divided into smaller counties, and this was enshrined by law in the legislation defining Bourbon whiskey around the end of the 19th century.
The Temperance Movement
In the last three decades of the 19th century, a radical movement sprang up that condemned alcohol as the root cause of most, if not all, of the social problems of the time. Led by figures such as Carry Nation, a battleaxe who became famous for smashing up bars with a hatchet and once described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like”, supporters of the movement included such unlikely bedfellows as serial do-gooders the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and committed evil-doers the Ku Klux Klan.
For a supposedly religious-driven group, whose very name ‘temperance’ invoked the practice of moderation, some of the views propagated by members of the movement were slightly to the right of extreme. Punishments advocated by prohibitionists for inveterate drinkers included torture; branding; being suspended by the tongue from the bottom of an airplane and flown around the county; and the execution of the drinker and his family to the fourth generation.
The anti-drinking hysteria whipped up by the temperance movement cut a swathe through the rural, Christian South and gathered pace in the first part of the 20th Century.
Opposition to the temperance movement in the US was led by the beer-loving German ex-pat community, who unfortunately lost a lot of credibility with the onset of the First World War. Despite such marketing own goals as the Anti-Saloon League’s “Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours” campaign , the anti-alcohol movement soon became unstoppable.
Prohibition of the production, transportation, possession and sale of intoxicating liquor (defined as any beverage with an alcohol content higher than 0.5% abv) was enshrined into the US Constitution by the Eighteenth Amendment, which was passed by the US Senate in December 1917. The Amendment was ratified (approved by more than 36 states) in January 1919 and enacted into law by Congress in the form of the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act), which was passed in October 1919 despite the veto of President Woodrow Wilson.
The Volstead Act came into force on January 16th 1920 and lasted until the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment by the Twenty-First Amendment in December 1933. In this short time, Prohibition was to prove disastrous for the American economy, its government and people.
By passing the Act, the government was depriving itself of approximately half a billion dollars per annum in the form of alcohol tax, which made up a significant proportion of its total revenue; at the same time it allowed gangsters to amass incredible fortunes and civic power by supplying the thirsty public with smuggled or homemade spirits.
These bootleg spirits and moonshine were of such bad quality that they frequently blinded or poisoned the people that drank them. Nonetheless, despite the known dangers of consuming illicit spirits, it has been estimated that at the height of Prohibition Al Capone was making around 60 million dollars each year from his business, which was founded on illegal alcohol.
At the same time, the law had almost fatal consequences for the confidence of the general public in the legal system, civic authorities and the police. Prohibition was universally flouted by rich and poor alike, and the general public quickly lost faith in lawmen and city officials across the country who were known to be preaching Prohibition in public, yet visiting speakeasies to drink illegal liquor themselves. To add insult to injury, in many cases they were drinking with and taking bribes from gangsters to turn a blind eye to the flourishing illegal trade in homemade spirits, smuggled whiskey and rum.
The law was also catastrophic for the economy of the South, where almost all of the previously legal distilleries were located. Distilleries throughout the country were forced to close, putting thousands out of work, and devastating the local economies of previously flourishing whiskey-producing communities. After repeal less than half of these distilleries were able to re-open, and the lack of domestic whiskey had opened the door for Scotch and Irish whiskies, which had become extremely popular as their quality was perceived to be higher than the illegally-produced domestic spirits.
It became clear early on that Prohibition was creating far worse problems than the ones it had set out to solve and, like the Temperance movement before it, anti-prohibition groups sprang up around the country and quickly gathered momentum. Many of the campaigners were former Prohibitionists who were horrified by the consequences of their previous campaigning.
After the Wall St. Crash of 1929 precipitated the Great Depression, Franklin. D. Roosevelt was swept to power on a campaign that included the repeal of Prohibition, and in March 1933 the Volstead Act was nullified by the Cullen-Harrison amendment, which permitted the brewing and sale of 3.2% beer. After signing the amendment, Roosevelt remarked ‘I think this would be a good time for a beer’. The Eighteenth Amendment was consigned to history later that year with the signing of the Twenty-First Amendment. It remains the only US Constitutional Amendment to have been completely repealed.
Modern styles of Bourbon
Since the law only stipulates that the mashbill for Bourbon must be 51-80% corn, distillers are free to choose which other grains to use. The type of grain used will have a significant impact on the style and flavours of the final product - the task of the producer is to find a balance between the differing attributes of the other grains in order to achieve the desired style.
Rye is the most important secondary grain used in the production of Bourbon, counteracting the sweetness of the corn element by contributing drier, spicy, peppery flavours to the character of the whiskey. Rye whiskey actually predates Bourbon in the history of American whiskey, and perhaps for this reason Bourbons with a high rye content frequently portray themselves as ‘down home’ traditional whiskeys. Examples of Bourbons with a high rye content include Bulleit (with a rye content of around 30%), Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Old Grand-Dad, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Four Roses Single Barrel.
In contrast to the structure and strong flavours of rye, wheat contributes elegance, and a soft, smooth character, often with hints of nuts and cinnamon. Whiskeys with a high wheat content include Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle, Old Fitzgerald, WL Weller and, of course, Bernheim, which is made with a 51% wheat mashbill and is therefore not a Bourbon.
Tim F 16/06/08