Bourbon is a subject that has interested me for over thirty years now. There are a few random thoughts on the subject that I thought I would share with you today.
Bourbon got its start as a corn whiskey made by Kentucky settlers in the early 19th century. Bourbon is a sub-category of corn whiskey. The settlers made corn whiskey from excess corn that they grew and needed to get to market. They could transport Bourbon whiskey easier than the bulk dried corn. Bushels of corn could be fermented and distilled into whiskey that would fit into jugs at first, and later as their production increased, into barrels, to ship to market. Whiskey was a valuable commodity that could be sold for cash in New Orleans.
My next thought is that Bourbon is a uniquely American product. While the Scots and Irish were making whisky out of malted barley and the Germans were making their schnapps out of rye, Americans were growing corn and that is why Bourbon is made from corn. Corn is a grain that is native to America. It is sweeter than barley and that sweetness carries over to the whiskey. Corn is what makes Bourbon a uniquely American whiskey.
Bourbon is an aged spirit. It could possibly be the first aged whiskey. Brandy was being aged in charred barrels long before Bourbon, but I believe that Bourbon was made in imitation of Brandy to sell to the Brandy-drinking French people in New Orleans. Once, when listening to Dr. Nicholas Morgan talk about early Scotch whisky, he was telling us that early 18th century scotch was not an aged spirit and often flavored with herbs. Scotch whisky was first aged in the early 19th century, about the same time as Bourbon appeared in the market.
Age soon became an important part of Bourbon whiskey. The older Bourbon was, the more money people would pay for it. However, old Bourbon in the 19th century was considered to be four years old or so. Bourbon at that time was sold by the distillers in the barrel. Bottled Bourbon would not be common until the 1880s when glass bottles became machine made and inexpensive. This meant that Bourbon was put into the barrel at a low proof so that people could drink it as they got it out of the barrel. The barrel entry proof was anywhere from 90 to 105 proof. Today’s barrel entry proof is as high as 125.
Early distillers had hydrometers and knew how to use them. The first whiskey tax was set at the 100 proof standard as measured by a hydrometer. If the tax man measured the proof by a hydrometer, you know that distillers owned and used hydrometers, as well.
My last thought on Bourbon is about its future. I think Bourbon has a bright future. I don’t think the Bourbon boom will continue much longer, but I think it will stabilize in sales and continue to be popular. There is a lot of difference between now and the 1970s when Bourbon was in decline. There is a whole different culture with Bourbon Tourism, the internet, and Bourbon marketing. Bourbon, rightly so, is a popular drink with a loyal following. Bourbon sales will level off but still be a popular drink. Whether you enjoy it neat or in a cocktail, Bourbon is a spirit of choice in today’s world.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller