The history of bourbon, as it should be, is deeply rooted in the American south. And while, like a lot of things in American history, the people, places, and dates are heavily cloaked in myth and hearsay, those who love bourbon wouldn’t have it any other way. More than anything, the ambiguity behind the generally accepted tales of bourbon’s creation add to the charm of “America’s Native Spirit.” Just like the hot dog and the grilled cheese sandwich, we love anything that’s purely ours, even if it finds its influences outside of the States. The history of bourbon is also one of long-standing American families, many of whom have been in the bourbon game from the beginning and are still going strong.
Bourbon begins, as it should, in Kentucky, with T.W. Samuels and a secret recipe, concocted by his grandfather. Who originally decided to try to make whiskey out of corn, no one knows, but long before the secret, and now widely known, family recipe came to T.W. Samuels, someone discovered that you could make a whiskey-type drink out of corn mash instead of wheat mash. In the late summer, when the wheat was already sold or in storage, farmers started experimenting with the sweetness of all-American corn and found, when mixed with the acidic water from local limestone wells, it fermented into something quite pleasing. Whether or not the Samuels truly were the first doesn’t really matter. They are the first recorded name on the scene, and therefore, they have claimed the right as bourbon’s progenitors.
In 1783, the Samuels built a distillery and started pumping out bourbon, however, they didn’t start selling their bourbon until 1840. While they may lay claim to the earliest producers of bourbon, they can’t say they are the earliest commercial producers of authentic Kentucky bourbon. The same year the Samuels were setting up their distillery, Evan Williams was opening his in Louisville, and it is Williams who holds the “first commercial distillery” prize.
Lovers of bourbon thank Williams for setting up in Kentucky instead of farther south. If he hadn’t chosen Kentucky, it might have been another hundred years before anyone discovered the good aging could to do a barrel of bourbon as it floated down river for sale. According to the stories, alcohol produced in mid-autumn, after the harvest, had to wait until spring to be shipped southward. All that time, it aged in its barrels, arriving in New Orleans with a darker color and smoother flavor than anyone anticipated.
Even this, however, is disputed by some bourbon historians. Some say that it was actually the Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, who discovered the effect aging could have on the drink. All we know for sure, however, is that Craig did have a distillery in his hometown, Georgetown Kentucky, which even today makes a bourbon that carries his name.
How exactly bourbon got its name is one of the stories lost in time. Most speculate that Kentucky’s Bourbon County is responsible for the moniker, which is likely, as the county used to span the area that is now broken into fourteen counties, many of which, are major producers of authentic Kentucky bourbon. Today, however, the actual Bourbon County plays little to no role in the production of the drink that bears its name.
In 1795, the Beam family enters the picture, which, at the time, was not significant; however today, their family is one of the largest and most well-known producers of bourbon. In 1869, the last of the major bourbon families joined the industry, as the Ripy family opened their distillery in Wild Turkey Hill, Kentucky. Before they came on the scene, in 1832, the concept of “sour mash,” pioneered by Dr. James C. Crow, revolutionized both bourbon and whiskey production throughout the American south, and still affects the way all these families make their alcohol today.
We come now to 1872, when the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery was opened in Kentucky, partly owned by Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. At the time, the distillery was known for its excellent bourbon. Today, it is still known for that heritage, and for the elusiveness of the Pappy Van Winkle bottle.
Prohibition threw a wrench into the bourbon business, and by the time it was repealed, most distilleries would never reopen. Those major families, however, would take up the still once again and return to their work. By the 1960’s bourbon was once again the drink of the country, even named “America’s Native Spirit,” by Congress in 1964.
For a while, bourbon laid low, remaining the favorite of many Americans, while losing traction in the younger generation, as they latched on to foreign imports like vodka. However, those who know bourbon know that every drink is a drink of American history. The drink has been present for almost every significant cultural event, and in many ways represents American perseverance and fortitude.
Why Is Popular Bourbon So Popular?
Aside from the rich tradition that makes it not only significant in the history of alcohol, but also the history of the country, bourbon has a more appealing flavor and smoothness than many other kinds of alcohol, even more than whiskey, from which it draws its origins. It is sweeter, drawing its sugar content not from wheat, but from corn, which, as anyone who has tasted corn and wheat knows, has a much sweet flavor.
The process of aging in oak casks, as is tradition, also gives the bourbon an oaky, vanilla taste, providing character to the alcohol. Every bourbon is a little different, depending on how the barrels used for aging are treated, what the exact recipe for the mash contains, and how long it is aged.
Besides the taste, which some call “acquired” and others refer to as “strictly American,” the heritage of bourbon cannot be ignored. It has long been considered a blue-collar drink, one for the masses, but hasn’t found popularity only in the working class. Like any industry with a long history, half of the draw is in the tradition itself. The regulations ensure purity of the bourbon name and are designed to preserve the rich history of the drink. Most of the families still make bourbon that same way their great-great-grandfathers made it centuries ago.
Characteristics of the Best Bourbon
Most agree that the best bourbon has a smooth, sweet, oaky taste, without too much of a charcoal flavor. Outside of these qualifications, bourbon has several varieties, which depend on the composition of the mash and the aging process. Because all bourbon is produced under strict regulations, all bourbon must contain at least fifty-one percent corn mash. Most, like the Beams and the Wild Turkeys, contain about seventy percent corn mash, the rest being about equal parts rye and barley.
Some of the lesser-known but still well-loved brands produce a high-rye variety, that drinkers note has a spicier finish than other brands. Still others will use wheat instead of rye, which highlights the sweeter flavors and helps to mellow the spiciness, which can be off-putting, especially to those who are new to the drink.
The Elusive Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon
Those who are only vaguely familiar with bourbon know the Samuels, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Williams brands. These are available year round on the shelves of their favorite bars and liquor stores. Even with a protracted aging process, most of these producers put out millions of cases a year, providing their fans with plenty of bourbon to go around. Even their more expensive bottles are still readily available on the market. They might cost a little more, but at least you can find them.
And then, there is Pappy Van Winkle. Named after the part owner and still master of A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., only about 7,000 cases of Pappy hit the market every year. What does that mean? That it’s impossible to find. Some suppliers have waiting lists for their bottles, with literally hundreds of names on it.
And while this scarcity has partly to do with the quality of bourbon Pappy produces, it also has a lot to do with business projections. Because Pappy ages between ten and twenty-three years before it is ready for the market, the number cases just coming out today is based on the supply the company believed they would need today when they were making their plans, twenty years ago. The bourbon is good, yes. But it’s also scarce. And as any first-semester economy study knows, scarcity plays a huge rule in pricing.
The bottles are expensive, due to the fact that they are so hard to find. Even if someone had the means to purchase a bottle, they would have a hard time finding a bottle to purchase. Plus, the company has a special regard for their bourbon. They don’t want to see it end up just anywhere. Every year, the company carefully decides where to send each case, ensuring that their bottles will end up in good homes—credible distributors who have shown an appreciation for the heritage of bourbon.
Some bottles can even bring in $5,000 if the buyer is desperate enough, though right off the shelf, bourbon aged for twenty-three years sells for about $600, and ten-year-old bourbon, for a little over $100. Chance are, however, that the local liquor store and bar either didn’t rate a bottle, or are already sold out.
Bourbon Tasting Party
Though, even now, some consider bourbon the drink of the working class, those familiar with the drink know that it is, in reality, an all-American drink perfect for every occasion. Lovers of bourbon want to share that love with their friends and introduce them to the unique qualities of the many varieties of bourbon, and a tasting party is a great way to do that.
The first step is to pick your bottles. Consider carefully who is coming to your party, how familiar they are with the drink, and what particular tastes might serve them best. If you have an assembly of experts en route, you could pick a particular Kentucky county and sample the variety just one county can produce. If your guests are new to the scene, a variety of brands, mashes, and batch-sizes, to give them a wide angle view of bourbon culture, would be best. Buying the cheapest bottle you can find and lining it up with the most expensive would make for an interesting experiment.
Of course, you could always go for the historical and most famous bottles, produced by the long-standing bourbon families. Jim Beam, Pappy Van Winkle (if you can find it), Wild Turkey, Samuels, and Elijah Craig, could all give your guests a pleasant tour through the heritage of bourbon.
What is the proper way to taste bourbon? If you’re going to be technical about it, there is the standard sniff and swirl that you see at wine tasting parties. Experts say this is the best way to really savor the taste of the bourbon. Unlike at wine tasting parties, however, you don’t have to spit the win out after you’re done swishing it.
Experts also suggest staying away from cocktails and add-ins, i.e. don’t let your guests drown their bourbon in coke. For some reason, people think this makes the alcohol more palatable, but in reality, it just wipes out the bourbon’s natural flavors. If your party is full of bourbon experts, this goes without saying, but for those new to America’s native spirit, encourage them to keep it purely bourbon.
Offering some interesting notes about the history of bourbon and the ingredients that provide its unique and varying flavors, can help your guests appreciate this drink as they move from bottle to bottle, and may even encourage them to take their time and really find the different sweet, spicy, and smooth notes in each sip.
As for food, Southern comfort food pairs well with the bourbon’s naturally sweet and oaky flavor. Salty meats will cut against, and therefore highlight the sweetness, while other rich, sugary foods will work with the bourbon.
The great part about a bourbon party is that it can be as casual or as fancy as you like. Bourbon works well in both arenas, unlike wine, which might feel out of place alongside barbecue and cornpone. Whether you prefer a black tie affair or a laid-back get together, bourbon is the perfect them. It highlights both the romantic, Victorian area of the Deep South, and the hardworking, rough and tumble towns of the Appalachians.X