Words by: Simon Difford
Nothing sums up the evolution of America's distilling culture as the history of bourbon - a history that's intricately interwoven with the economic, political and social developments of the country itself. While America is a very modern country, the story of bourbon provides 300 years' worth of valuable historical narrative and heritage.
Distillation in America is thought to have begun to develop hand-in-hand with the earliest colonists from the early 17th-century: British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Scottish and German. With European distilling culture stretching back centuries, it was natural that stills would make their way over to America with settlers, and the different eco-systems, climates and ecologies of the alien continent provided new fruits, vegetables and grains for them to cook up and make into spirits.
Among those grains was corn, which was almost unheard of in Europe, but had been cultivated by native Americans for millenia. Corn was probably first used as the basis for beers during the mid-17th century - a time when a huge amount of beer was drunk by all, on a daily basis, as it tended to be cleaner than water. Rye grew too, more familiar to European palates. In fact, it was rye which probably formed the bulk of what early whiskey was distilled from, with corn added as a secondary ingredient. Apples were a-plenty too so applejack (distilled cider) was also among the most popular distillates.
During the second half of the 17th century, however, it was actually rum that came to be distilled in earnest in America. Molasses and sugar would be imported from the Caribbean to New England, a trend that continued until the early 19th-century until it was essentially put to an end by the abolition of slavery and the related 'triangular' trade patterns - slaves from Africa to America, cotton to Britain and manufactured goods to Africa in return for slaves - across the Atlantic.
What we recognise as American whiskey began to develop in the 1770s. It was around this time that the part of the country that would become Kentucky came into play. The area was suddenly 'discovered' as having fertile land, plentiful trees for wood, and pure water sources. Kentucky became a distinct entity by essentially being carved out from Virginia. Crucial to its subsequent development was that early settlers were encouraged to call the county, as it was then, home by a grant of 400 acres if they built accommodation for themselves and planted corn - a grain which grew faster than rye, wheat or any other imported grain.
The effect was compounded when a flood of Irish and German immigrants began arriving in the newly formed United States after 1776, bringing with them more of their established distilling culture and their legendary and unquenchable demand for liquor. By 1790 Kentucky's population had grown from virtually nothing to more than 70,000. It became a fully fledged state in 1792 and by the turn of the century more than 350,000 had settled there.
If settlers hadn't brought a functioning still with them from the Old Country, many would fashion crude stills from copper if they could lay their hands on it, or even make them from logs, barrels, whatever was available really. What must be understood here is that distilling was part of the established social order. It was quite simply a daily occurrence and practically everyone was doing it. Why? It was the obvious answer in order to preserve it for another day once they had had enough to eat. It was also far easier to transport around the country - at a time before roads - for trading purposes in liquid form than as grain. That said, whiskey distillation wasn't an industry in itself just yet - its makers continued their 'day jobs' in agriculture.
So embedded was distilling culture that in 1791 a tax on liquor - domestic and imported - was seen as the answer to rising government debts from the Revolutionary War. Plus ça change! George Washington approved the deal, which heralded the start of the Whiskey Rebellion. A wave of revolts began from angry farmers and distillers and, despite the fact that excise levels were reduced the following year, revenue collecting agents would routinely be attacked.
Why was the tax so unpopular? The levy was due when the spirit was produced, not when it was sold, leaving what we'd now recognise as a massive cash-flow problem - indeed it had to be paid in cash at a time when most transactions were conducted by bartering. In fact, people would often 'buy' and 'sell' things by exchanging their whiskey, not least because it was easy to transport, could be loaded on to boats and floated down to New Orleans and didn't spoil.
In a bid to quell the rebellion and enforce the law, Washington rallied the troops and managed to muster around 13,000 men to march on western Pennsylvania - the ability to muster such a large force was a clear sign that federal law could be enforced.
But rather than face the wrath of the army, many distillers had, in any case, simply fled to Kentucky, not that they were immune from the law there. Between 1794 and 1800 some 177 distillers were convicted and fined for violations of the law there. And those were just the ones that were caught, which just gives an indication as to the total number of distillers that were probably out there.
The first recorded distillery in the area dates from 1783, though as distilling was so widespread it is likely that settlers had been making their corn whiskey easily over the previous decade. Over the course of the years 1770-1790s, some of the distilling names and their creations that we still know today settled in Kentucky - Evan Williams, Elijah Wood, Robert Samuels, Jacob Beam and the Brown family to name but a few.
At first, whiskey that emanated from the area was known as 'Kentucky' or 'Western', and was only beginning to be called bourbon. Bourbon County was so named in 1785, in honour of the French royal family and in recognition of France's support of the colonies over the English during the American Revolution. (The same reason is behind counties such as Fayette and the towns of Louisville, Versailles and Paris.) Farmer-distillers who would load their whiskey onto flat boats and float it down the Ohio River to New Orleans. Although Bourbon County was initially massive, it was carved up into progressively smaller pieces, in 1789, and then in 1792, into some 32 distinct counties. However, it remained known as 'Old Bourbon' as an entire area and whiskey from the area was labelled accordingly on barrels, particularly those shipped from Limehouse, the first major port on the Ohio River.
As whiskey became the region's biggest export, so too did neighbouring states start referring to their corn whiskey as bourbon too. Once it arrived in New Orleans, calling it bourbon, with its French heritage, also gave the spirit kudos with cognac drinkers.
Late 18th-century whiskey bore little resemblance to how we define bourbon today. However, it was about to acquire one of the things that make it unique. Perhaps the most distinct part of bourbon production now is that it must be aged in charred oak new barrels. In some ways charring can be seen to have been a natural progression of the toasting process that was already common - the earliest references to the practice suggest it was in use by the early-1800s, though it is unclear to what extent this was widespread. The distribution of whiskey on long journeys down river by flatboats - which could only travel when the river was deep enough (and so meant potentially longer trips) - meant that charred oak would often be in contact with the spirit for some months before it was drunk.
Distinctions between American whiskeys began to emerge in the early 19th-century, and in 1825 the Lincoln County Process, the process which now differentiates Tennessee whiskeys from Kentucky bourbons and other straight whiskeys (by dripping whiskey though 10-feet of sugar maple charcoal), was invented, and spirit began to be taken for ageing only from a centre cut.
Sour mash, another process common to bourbon making, is thought to have emanated in the mid 19th-century from Dr James Crow, who insisted on using a portion of mash from the last batch to start the next.
Whiskey consumption increased as Thomas Jefferson repealed George Washington's unpopular liquor tax, and the Industrial Revolution meant mass distribution became easier - by 1820, 2,000 barrels of whisky were shipped out of Kentucky and the development of railroads contributed further to expanding the number of 'export' destinations. As settlers continued to head west, so they became ever more reliant on their home-grown grains as a source for liquor. At the same time, the flood of immigrants continued into America, increasing its customer base.
In the mid-1800s, bourbon began to be bottled (previously it was sold in barrels) and the practice of 'mingling' products from different barrels began. This was probably to cover up a harsh brew rather than anything approaching the finesse of the modern blending process.
The Civil War (1861-65) saw a number of distilleries destroyed and distillers killed in the intervening battles and melées. It also saw Abraham Lincoln, a Kentuckian himself and someone thought to have once worked at a distillery at one point (though later a staunch supporter of temperance), levy a tax once again on whiskey to finance his armies - a calculated move, really, as soldiers were voracious consumers of liquor through their daily rations.
After the war, whiskey adopted more of a modern, 'big business' style of industry. Aenaes Coffey's still design was becoming commonplace in the whiskey business in a move that saw smaller, 'artisanal' pot stills shut down. The period from the 1860s to the 1870s were the years when Jack Daniel opened his distillery in Tennessee, when George Dickel opened a rectifying and bottling operation, and when distilleries were opened by Benjamin Harris Blanton (Blanton's Bourbon), JB Dant (Yellowstone Bourbon), the Chapeze brothers (Old Charter), Thomas B. Ripy (it would become Wild Turkey) and the Browns (Old Forester), among a host of others.
Liquor duty was reduced in 1868 - but not removed - and the concept of bonding introduced to alleviate the cash-flow problems associated with paying the levy immediately following distillation. It meant spirits could be kept in a government-controlled warehouse for a year, at which point the tax must be paid). The bonding period was increased to three years in 1879 and to eight years in 1893, however, much whisky was being sold in bulk and was being extended by unscrupulous dealers.
This led to calls for a Bottled-in-Bond Act, which was passed in 1897. This stipulated that batches of bonded whiskey must be the product of one distiller, aged for at least four years in government-controlled warehouses, and bottled at 50% abv. - all moves which can be seen as a precursor to modern-day quality controls. Laws governing the sale and labelling of food and drink were passed in 1907, when all grain spirits other than straight whiskey had to be marked 'compound', 'imitation' or 'blended'.
Prohibition's effect on the bourbon industry deserves an article in itself. The Temperance movement had gained ground over the course of the 19th-century, with some states become dry for periods in the mid-century, gaining traction with the foundation of more vocal women's movements from the 1870s. In fact, by 1910 every state had some form of Prohibition, and by 1915 some 20 states were dry, including Kentucky.
The involvement of America in the First World War saw all alcohol for drinking declared illegal, and the Volstead Act was passed in January 1920. As we all know, what should have heralded the country's alleviation from all the vices and ills associated with liquor somehow just... didn't. In fact, hard liquor actually became more popular.
As far as bourbon distilling was concerned, just six whiskey distilleries were allowed to continue producing liquor under a cloak of respectability, as they were licensed to supply druggists who would dole it out to customers who had a doctor's prescription. Most of the others were dismantled, and by the mid-1930s only seven survived - ten had fallen victim to Volstead.
While Prohibition ended in December 1933, it was by no means certain that erstwhile whiskey drinkers would return to the fold, with bootlegged producers having successfully weaned the population on to easier-to-make white spirits such as gin, and for those that did want to drink again, whiskey stocks were in any case radically depleted so their ability to sell straight whiskey was in question. But even those that survived were faced another battle.
The effect was compounded by the stock market crash of 1929, and the declaration of an official national emergency in 1933, whereupon anti-trust laws were abolished and industries were encouraged to share available work and simply work to codes of practice - hardly the stuff of a competitive business environment.
Then Second World War required distilleries to focus their production on the war effort rather than the luxuries of providing spirits for drinking. They were enlisted to produce industrial alcohol (for use in the manufacture of kerosene, ammunition and rubber). Whiskey supplies dwindled further.
The upshot was that some very different whiskies were on the market in the immediate years after Prohibition compared to the years before alcohol was outlawed, and of those that survived, some would nevertheless go to the wall as whiskey was then rationed and some brands were simply discontinued. Over this period whiskies may have retained their names but often became very different animals as some producers were forced to mix stocks from different years, in turn marking the start of a new trend for blended whiskies.
Changing drinking trends brought further challenges for bourbon every decade from the 1960s onwards - wine was gaining in popularity, cocktails went disco, acquiring lurid colours and amusing names, and sobriety was suddenly fashionable as drinking became, well, socially unacceptable.
Fast forward to today and bourbon is riding the crest of a major renaissance. Production is becoming ever-polished and a new generation of top shelf special editions are articulating the quality of the region in the next chapter of bourbon's colourful history.
Riding alongside bourbon's renewed vigour is rye whiskey, also enjoying a renaissance - or rather a rediscovery of sorts and surely to be the next big thing.