Bourbon whiskey has had a long, rugged ride from the frontier to the top shelf
After two hundred years bourbon whiskey appears to be coming into its own. It is one of America’s unique cultural contributions to the world, our native equivalent to single-malt Scotch or Cuban cigars or Russian caviar, but it has never been the object of the esteem and connoisseurship those luxuries enjoy. Its history has to a large extent been one of struggle against moralism, corruption, and capricious popular taste, along with gradual improvement from frontier swill into genuine delicacy. Just in the last few years it has begun getting truly serious respect.
At the very dawn of bourbon, in the 1790s, a federal excise tax nearly killed the young industry (and threatened the young Republic as well). The nineteenth century saw the scandal of the Grantadministration Whiskey Ring, the rise of a monopolistic Whiskey Trust, and the proliferation of unscrupulous distillers who sold God-knew-what as straight whiskey. And in this century bourbon was beset by outright banning, followed by another suspension of business during World War II and then the rise of martini culture in the 1950s, vodka as the soirit of choice after that, single malts becoming America’s favored sipping whiskey, and through it all a broad decline in liquor consumption.
Yet bourbon endures, as uniquely and utterly American as jazz or baseball—and as curious in its history and as rich and subtle in its enjoyment. Congress was not being fatuous when in 1964 it proclaimed bourbon America’s “native spirit,” and the bourbon distiller Bill Samuels, Jr., does not exaggerate when he says, “Whiskey was the funnel through which the West leapt, the lubricant and the currency, and since then bourbon has gotten a lot better.” The authors of the 1995 definitive history and guide The Book of Bourbon and Other Pine American Whiskeys open their volume by stating, “Deep in the soul of American whiskey lies the rich pioneer spirit that founded this nation, the steadfast determination that conquered the Great Plains and the Wild West. . . . Though it may sound hyperbolic to say so, we think it’s all right there in a single shot of Tennessee sour mash, straight rye whiskey or bourbon.”
Whiskey is essentially brandy made from beer instead of wine; it developed in Northern European countries where grapes wouldn’t grow. The early English settlers in North America made and drank beer, but by the early eighteenth century the dominant distilled spirit in the colonies was rum. This was because of the triangular trade: Molasses was shipped from the West Indies to New England, there to be made into rum to be sent to Africa to trade for slaves for the West Indies. In Rhode Island in the 1750s there were at least thirty legitimate distilleries making rum. The American liquor industry, centered in New England, was based on slave power.
Non-Puritan immigrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe tended to head west and south of New England, and they took with them their homegrown traditions of whiskey making, adapting them to the grains that could grow in the regions where they settled. To the Germans in Pennsylvania and Maryland that meant rye; in Kentucky, to which a largely Scotch-Irish population began to move after Daniel Boone cut a path through the Cumberland Gap in 1767, it meant corn, which would become the main ingredient in bourbon.
When, in 1776, Virginia named its western frontier Kentucky County (much of which became Bourbon County after the Revolution, in honor of France’s help in the war, giving the whiskey its name), the state decreed that it would give four hundred acres to any settler who built a cabin and planted corn there. Before lone, men whose names survive to this day were setting up homemade stills around the bluegrass countryside. In 1788 Jacob Beam, great-grandfather of Jim Beam and great-great-great-grandfather of Booker Noe, master distiller emeritus at Jim Beam today, entered the region and soon was distilling. Daniel Weller, as in W. L. Weller bourbon, arrived in 1794. Robert Samuels, great-great-great-great-grandfather of Bill Samuels, Jr., head of Maker’s Mark, came in 1780; Basil Hayden, the actual Old Grand-Dad, in 1785. None of them has a clear claim to the title the father of bourbon; for most of the nineteenth century the honors were given to one Elijah Craig, who started up in 1789. His renown, however, rested not on priority but on the fact that he was a Baptist preacher, making him the ideal forefather for distillers fighting the forces of Prohibition a hundred years ago.
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.
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.
By 1811 there were an estimated two thousand distilleries working in Kentucky, all of them small, local affairs probably not making more than a barrel or two a week. The methods of manufacture were crude and empirical. That began to change in 1823, when a Scottish chemist named James Crow (as in Old Crow), working at the Old Pepper distillery, began applying science to the nroress. He introduced the use of the saccharimeter and the thermometer and perfected the employment of sour mash. Sour mash is today an element of every bourbon made; it is a portion of yeasty beer saved from one fermentation to help start the next, like a sourdough starter. After corn, rye, and barley are cooked—the first stage of bourbon making—sour mash, or “backset,” is added along with yeast to begin fermentation. It both kills unwanted bacteria in the mash and provides consistency and continuity from batch to batch.
That year, 1823, might be pegged as the birth time of modern whiskey, for it was also when changes in the tax laws in Scotland made operating a legal distillery there profitable for the first time, and Scotch as we know it was born. Two years later Tennessee whiskey came into being when Alfred Eaton established what became known as the Lincoln County Process, slowly filtering his whiskey, over the course of several days, through maple charcoal, to produce a sooty, sweet flavor even before the spirit went into the barrel. This technique survives today in the two remaining Tennessee whiskeys, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. It is what distinguishes them from bourbon.
Jack Daniel himself was born in Tennessee in 1846. By the time he was eight he was working for a storekeeper who owned a still and made and sold whiskey; six years later the storekeeper decided that whiskey and his calling as a lay Lutheran preacher didn’t mix, so he sold the still to his charge. Daniel did a brisk business during the Civil War peddling first to Confederate troops and then to Union. In 1866, the war over, he founded the present Jack Daniel’s distillery, in Lynchbure. Tennessee. He was nineteen or twenty.
The name most closely associated with whiskey during the Civil War (a war that the Kentucky puritan William Taylor Adams suggested was caused by whiskey’s turning sober Union men into cheering secessionists) is that of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s reputation for alcoholism was largely a libel spread by his enemies, but he did get drunk occasionally; he was a binge drinker. Unfortunately historians doubt President Lincoln really countered complaints about Grant’s insobriety at Shiloh by saying, “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.” Nor do we know what brand Grant drank, except that on at least one occasion he had Old Crow, as did Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, among others. (Grant’s counterpart, Robert E. Lee, once said of whiskey, “I like it; I always did, and that is the reason I never use it.”)
Grant’s worst whiskey problem was with his administration. One of the most serious of the scandals that undermined his Presidency was that of the Whiskey Ring, when high-up associates of his were caught taking pay-offs in return for seeing that distilleries were undertaxed. Grant’s friend John MacDonald, the St. Louis regional chief of the Internal Revenue Service, ended up in jail for most of two years and later wrote a book in which he claimed, probably falsely, that Grant himself had been part of the ring.
Bourbon making came of age as an industrialized operation after the Civil War. The widespread adoption of the continuous still, which had been invented in Scotland in the 1830s, meant that whiskey could be produced on something like an assembly line rather than in the separate small batches of the traditional pot still. In 1870 George G. Brown, of Louisville, introduced Old Forrester—probably named after the Confederate raider Nathan Bedford Forrest, though today spelled with only one r —as the first whiskey sold in sealed glass bottles. Until then bourbon was still poured from barrels into jugs that customers brought to the store, and often enough the product had been cut with grain alcohol or stretched with water. More bottlings quickly followed Old Forrester’s, but the adulteration problem was only fully addressed in 1897, when Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act, providing for the certification of whiskeys made at a single distillery, aged at least four years in governmentsupervised warehouses, and bottled at 100 proof.
Adulteration was hardly the biggest problem. Neither was the Whiskey Trust, which sprang up in the 1880s, when trusts monopolized business in everything from patent medicines to railroads. It exerted its stranglehold in Illinois, which at the time actually had more distilleries than Kentucky, and local and federal investigations forced the trust out of business in the mid-1890s.
The biggest threat to a bourbon industry just reaching maturity and stability was what at first was called the temperance movement and grew into the Prohibition movement. In the 183Os per capita alcohol consumption in the United States was about 2.5 ounces per day—roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol in a bottle of wine—and that average included women, children, and slaves, plus men who didn’t drink. Social drinking hardly existed at the time; people tended to drink either too much or not at all, and the only public drinking places were unsavory saloons. A guidebook published for travelers heading overland to goldrush California recommended taking half a barrel of whiskey—about twenty-five gallons—per party of four. Until late in the century bourbon had virtually no cachet to counter its bad reputation.
A crusader named Neal Dow in Maine got his state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in 1851, and twelve other states had followed by 1855. In the 1870s Frances Willard founded the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and it quickly gained some fifty thousand members. It and the AntiSaloon League of America were instrumental in lining up Protestant church leaders in support of Prohibition. By the first decades of this century, liquor drinking had acquired the kind of stigma that cigarette smoking has today—as a disease pure and simple, and one whose victims were the cause of their own sickness and dangerous to those around them.
The Eighteenth Amendment, outlawing the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” was ratified in 1919 and became law a year later, after Congress overrode President Wilson’s veto. It failed to stop Americans from drinking, but it succeeded in decimating the American whiskey business. A few distillers were permitted to stay in operation to distill small amounts of “medicinal” whiskey; the great majority simply had to shut down.
As the American public directed its enormous resourcefulness toward making or getting hold of substitute liquors, Canadian and Scotch whisky moved in. Canadian poured across a three-thousand-mile border; Scotch was smuggled in via the Caribbean. Even now more Canadian than bourbon is sold in the United States, and single-malt Scotch remains the definition of truly fine whisky for most Americans. (The Irish whiskey industry, however, was hard hit by the loss of legitimate exports to America and has never fully recovered.) Meanwhile, Americans also developed a taste for gin, which could easily be homemade, and the long-standing but already waning taste for straight rye whiskey died away almost completely; it holds out today mainly where it was born two and a half centuries ago, in western Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Prohibition was the golden age for the garish fruit-based cocktail masking crude and often dangerous counterfeit liquor, but the classic mixed drinks associated with bourbon are all much older. The julep—from the Persian word for rose water—was already being enjoyed in the eighteenth century; it was described by an English writer in 1803 as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” The Manhattan, combining bourbon and sweet vermouth, is supposed to have been invented in 1874 by the bartender in charge when Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother, gave a party to celebrate the election of Samuel Tilden as governor of New York. The old-fashioned was born in the 188Os at the Pendennis Club in Louisville; according to the tradition there, a retired general who didn’t care for straight whiskey was helped along by the introduction of sugar and bitters into his glass.
When Repeal took effect, on December 5, 1933, most of the distilleries of Kentucky had been out of business for fourteen years. As Bill Samuels, Jr., the president of Maker’s Mark, puts it, “Repeal hurt us more than Prohibition did. You needed a lot of capital, you needed to rebuild plants, and then you needed years to age whiskey before it could even be bourbon. So only the cheap end of the business was left, and you couldn’t make money.” Until they could build up a stock of aged whiskey, most distilleries sold younger, less flavorful blends. In so doing, they fed a taste for those blends, undercutting good bourbon. Meanwhile the Seagram Company flooded the country with Canadian.
James B. Beam, a fourth-generation bourbon maker who had started in the family business at the age of sixteen in 1880 and taken over fourteen years later, was near seventy when Prohibition ended, but “even at that age he had unbelievable energy and know-how,” says his grandson Booker Noe. “In just four months he supervised the building of a rackhouse, distillery, and powerhouse for steam. Money was scarce back then, just a few years into the Depression, but Jim Beam was a respectable, honest man, and the majority of the distillery was built on credit. It was his hard work and dedication that kept the Beam tradition alive.”
For Jack Daniel’s the restart was even tougher. The county where it is made went dry in 1909 and has stayed that way ever since. Daniel’s nephew Lern Motlow, who ran the company from 1911 until his death in 1947, moved the oneration to St. Louis in 1910, when Tennessee went dry, and when it stayed dry after Repeal, he had to fight until 1938 for permission to make Tennessee whiskey in Tennessee. Since then Jack Daniel’s has been made back in the small town of Lynchburg, where Daniel himself set UD the business in 1866.
The thirties and forties were a time of turmoil as the bourbon industry tried to re-establish itself. One outside outfit that came on the scene was Austin, Nichols & Company, a food distributor looking to expand into wines and liquors. Around 1940 its president, Thomas McCarthy, served an experimental eight-year-old bourbon from one of his new distilleries to three friends on an annual turkey hunt. They liked it so much they made him bring it again the next year. Then they gave it a name: Wild Turkey.
“Times stayed tough,” says Bill Samuels. “Roosevelt shut down the distilleries in 1943 for two years without any warning, to make industrial alcohol for the war effort. Then in 1953 the distillers all knew Truman would shut them down, so they made too much whiskey, and then he didn’t.” Samuels, one of the great men of bourbon today, is a seventh-generation distiller whose great-greatgreat-great-grandfather had a still in Pennsylvania in 1779. His wife’s family goes back in whiskey just as far: Her ancestor Wattie Boone, a cousin of Daniel Boone, hired Abraham Lincoln’s father to work at his distillery, and family records show that when Thomas Lincoln was forced to sell the family farm in 1816 for twenty dollars and four hundred gallons of whiskey and move to Indiana, his destitution was caused partly by alcoholism. “He had taken one whole month’s rent on the farm in advance in pints of whiskey,” Samuels says. “It’s there in the records.”
Samuels’s grandfather rebuilt the T. W. Samuels distillery after Prohibition and passed it along to his son. “My father was more a craftsman than a businessman,” Samuels says, “and he was distressed by the quality of the stuff. He shut the business down in 1943.” He wasn’t satisfied making no bourbon at all, though, and ten years later he was back with the idea of starting from scratch to make the best bourbon he possibly could. The result was Maker’s Mark, the first of the new highend bourbons of the last half-century.
“He couldn’t get any bank money in 1953,” Samuels says. “The banks said bourbon was finished, and they were right. From then until five years ago the market stayed completely flat.” Nonetheless the elder Samuels bought a small distillery in Loretto, near Bardstown, that had been in operation off and on since 1805. He consulted Julian Van Winkle, a revered distiller who had entered the business sixty years before, and, baking loaves of bread to test the flavors of various grain combinations, came up with a recipe that used winter wheat instead of rye along with the usual corn and barley for a smoother, gentler drink. T. William Samuels’s wife gave the whiskey its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look. It hit the market in 1959.
“The fifteen years after Prohibition ended were the worst for bourbon,” Bill Samuels says, “but the sixties and seventies were bad too. And the distillers reacted by trying to out-vodka vodka.” After all, the fifties had been the era of the three-martini lunch, not the three-bourbon lunch, and now most Americans were simply drinking less than ever before. Bill Samuels didn’t follow his father into the unpromising business at first; he became a rocket scientist. “I was the guy who designed the thrust injection nozzle for the second stage of the Atlas 2 missile,” he says. “Then my father asked me to come into the business. He said rocket fuel and whiskey are about the same anyway. In 1975 I became president, and I thought at best there was a fiftyfifty chance that Maker’s Mark would survive. Bourbon was on the way out. All I could think was, I didn’t want to be the one who turns out the lights at the end. I could see seven generations all looking through their tombstones at me. But my father said two things: Don’t quit, and don’t cheapen the product. He asked me to promise, and I did.
“In 1981 Senator Dole floated a balloon about doubling the excise tax on alcohol. That looked like the end of everything. By then we were the premium of choice within a hundred-mile radius, but only in the last three or four years has business really picked up. A big part of it is Japan.” For bourbon, as for that other American cultural pinnacle, jazz, the most intense connoisseurship in recent years has been in Japan, and the Orient has largely sustained an American product that Americans themselves tend to take for granted. In the last dozen years, as overall bourbon sales have declined slightly, a new crop of expensive bourbons has arisen and flourished, and their success has been fueled by demand in the Far East.
The first to appear, in 1984, was Blanton’s. Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus at the Ancient Age Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky, where it is made, tells how it came about: “The distillery changed ownership in 1983, and the new owners wanted to come up with some kind of super premium that would counter the success of the Scotches, with their single malts. I had worked at the plant since 1949 and had had the opportunity to work with the master distiller Albert B. Blanton for two or three years before he retired. He was one of the major characters in the business. I remembered that when he entertained, he would go into his favorite warehouse and sample the barrels and select an individual barrel that best suited his taste. He’d have that one barrel bottled just for his own private use.
“He taught me that whiskeys will age at different rates depending on their location in the warehouse, and there is some difference in the product from barrel to barrel. Colonel Blanton understood that if someone with good taste and ability could search the barrels, he could pick out the ones with super premium quality. This knowledge was never used commercially until we started bottling Blanton’s in 1984. They called on me to select the individual barrels, and I still do.
“It was slow going for two or three years, but then it started to catch on. As I understand, there’s more being sold in Japan than in the United States. The Japanese people are enamored of the history and quality of Kentucky bourbon products. In this country, bourbon sales are not growing. People don’t drink as much as they used to, but when they do have an alcoholic beverage, they want high quality.”
Ancient Age now has three other single-barrel bourbons, and every other distiller—there are today only ten in Kentucky, one in Virginia, and two in Tennessee making all the world’s bourbon and Tennessee-whiskey brands—now has its own specialty line. United Distillers, of Louisville, for instance, introduced a Bourbon Heritage Collection in 1994 of five whiskeys all aged over ten years: I. W. Harper Gold Medal, W. L. Weller Centennial, Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve, George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve, and Very Special Old Fitzgerald. All are specially aged versions of whiskeys that trace their roots to the nineteenth century.
The most energetic marketer of the new bourbons is Jim Beam Distillery’s (Jim Beam is the best-selling bourbon brand of all), whose “small-batch” bourbons are for consistency’s sake taken not from one barrel but from several. The first of these was Booker’s, introduced in 1987. It began as a special bottling that Booker Noe sent out at Christmastime as a gift. He still personally selects the whiskey, and it is unique among all bourbons in that it is bottled straight from the barrel without filtering or watering; other bourbons are filtered because unfiltered bourbon can turn cloudy when chilled, and they are cut with distilled water to get a desired proof level. Booker’s generally comes out at 125 or 126 proof and is dark and rich and full and complex. Beam followed Booker’s in 1992 with three other small batches: Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, and its bestseller, Knob Creek.
Almost every new specialty bourbon claims origins back a century or two, whether through the parent brand’s history, the manufacturer’s, or the master distiller’s lineage, and many say they follow extremely old recipes. But they also are all probably better than anything you would have been able to get a century ago. They’re certainly more consistent and stable. (And they’re not the only niche marketing of bourbon going on; makers and distributors have tried to play every angle. Not only can you buy Rebel Yell, which has been around since 1936; you can also get American Biker, whose label shows a man on a motorcycle—probably the only liquor brand to explicitly mix drinking and driving—and Old Williamsburg, which is kosher for Passover.) “I’ve tasted some of my great-great-grandfather’s whiskey from 1895, and it’s really very heavy,” says Bill Samuels. “You wouldn’t love it. I also have a little moonshine that Jim Beam and my grandfather made during Prohibition. It goes to show that you can’t make good whiskey from corn and sugar. If anyone could, they could.”
With the multiplication of new top-shelf brands, is bourbon, after two centuries, winning the kind of serious respect people give to single-malt Scotches? It looks that way from the evidence of bars like Reservoir, in New York, where a blackboard lists eleven premium bourbons above the eight single malts offered. And the people at the Brown-Forman Corporation, owner of Early Times, Old Forester, and Jack Daniel’s, certainly think so. In 1995 they refurbished and reopened the former Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Built in 1812, in Versailles, Kentucky, it is the place where Dr. James Crow first brought bourbon making out of the dark ages. As the Labrot &C Graham distillery (the name it had after 1878), the new operation is a sort of microdistillery, using pot stills from Scotland rather than a continuous still and producing a fully handcrafted bourbon that won’t begin to be ready for several more years (an early version called Woodford Reserve, distilled and partially aged elsewhere, is already available regionally). Whereas most distillers turn out hundreds of barrels a day and Maker’s Mark eighteen, Labrot & Graham will make only three. The company is betting on a connoisseur’s market for very expensive bourbon made in extremely small quantities. It seems just possible that bourbon is coming to be recognized as America’s cognac—even in America.