PDA

View Full Version : When Did Bourbon Become Bourbon?



**DONOTDELETE**
01-10-2001, 17:33
I have a question for you all. When, in your opinion, did bourbon become bourbon? Was it with the creation of the aging process in charred barrels? Was with Jame Crow and the improved standards of quality? Was it with the Pure Food and Drug Act that led to the Taft Decision? was it with the government regulations after Prohibition that created the standards used today? I have my opinion but I would like to hear yours.
Mike Veach

Andy Traxel
01-10-2001, 23:13
Mike,

I don't think events would decide this for me. The question for me is when did bourbon start to taste like bourbon? When would we have recognized it or been able to differentiate it from moonshine or vodka?



Andy

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 08:00
Mike I think this is a fairly easy question to answer. Bourbon became bourbon when people asked for it by name. I would refer you to Chuck Cowdery's article in issue 1 of volume 3 of his "Bourbon Country Reader" - "How Bourbon Really Got It's Name". No matter what changes have occured since the fact is bourbon was bourbon when someone said "Hey gimmie some mo' o' that there bourbon".

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

cowdery
01-11-2001, 14:03
Linn makes a good point--it was bourbon when people started to call it that--but I'm more in line with Andy. What people called bourbon didn't begin to resemble what we call bourbon until a little later, sometime between the 1820s Corliss letter Mike mentioned recently, and the 1849 Robert Letcher letter, which mentions Old Crow's red color.

The last piece of the bourbon puzzle to fall into place, the dividing line between frontier "white dog" and what we now know as straight bourbon whiskey, is the practice of aging the spirit in new, charred oak barrels. This apparently was a known practice in the 1820s, which Pepper and Crow had made routine by the 1840s.

The fact that Dr. Crow's whiskey is widely praised for its quality suggests that it was something different, that it had reached a level previous products had not. Not surprisingly, other producers began to copy Crow, so that by the Civil War or immediately thereafter, bourbon generally was being made in a way that we would recognize today.

Mike, serious and responsible historian that he is, might not approve of the amount of conjecture and extrapolation I needed to reach that conclusion, but I'm pretty convinced. I know Mike also has his doubts about the "Old Bourbon" theory. Happily, the available facts aren't good enough for anyone to score a slam dunk.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 17:56
Andy,
That is one way of looking at the question, but is it the only way? Like I said I have my opinions but I want to here yours. So when do you think bourbon started tasting like the bourbon we know and love today? And why do you think that?
Mike Veach

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 17:59
Linn,
I am familiar with Chuck's article and if I remember right Chuck and I had some interesting discussion on the subject while he was writing it. So are you saying that it is the name alone that made bourbon, "Bourbon" in the modern sense of the word?
Mike Veach

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 18:02
Chuck.
So are you saying that all "Bourbon" aged by Crow was in new charred oak barrels? Are you saying that this aging process is what makes bourbon "Bourbon"?
Mike Veach

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 19:31
Mike,

In a big way, I have to agree with Linn; bourbon first became bourbon when folks started asking for "thet thar, whatchacall 'bourbon' whiskey". But it's only correct as far as the name goes. What they called "bourbon whiskey" was basically any American whiskey that wasn't rye. I think the bourbon we know today began with (please forgive me, Linn) the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms definitions after Prohibition. Before then, "Thet thar, whatchacall 'bourbon' whiskey" had degenerated to become just about anything you could drink that would make you dizzy. If was clear it was gin; if it wasn't, they dyed it brown with tobacco and prune juice, spiked it with fusel oil and pepper, and called it "Old Bourbon". Oh, there were indeed lots of distillers making excellent bourbon (maybe even better bourbon than today -- but I doubt it), and the fine whiskeymakers of today are nearly all their descendents. But they were in the minority. According to Edmund H. Taylor and John G. Carlisle, WAY in the minority. Congressional hearings in 1896 found that a little over 2 million gallons of bourbon that we'd call straight bourbon today was being sold annually... while 105 million gallons were used to mix up well over 900 million gallons of, well something. And that was sold as "bourbon", too! So now I have to disagree with Linn and say that it wasn't "bourbon" because the Plain Honest Distiller Folks made it. No, they just made good whiskey. Crooks made much more "bourbon" than honest distillers did. It was the nasty old Federal Gov'ment that brought about the bourbon we enjoy today.

=John=
http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 20:26
Oh Boy Mike here we go! I am applying a standard sociological concept known as labeling therory. Humans interact symbolically with sounds (speech and other sonic signals) and through the written word. This is called symbolic interactionism. Words are labels. When the corn whiskey was shipped out for sale no matter where it ended up apparently people liked it and wanted more of that whiskey from Bourbon, Virginia. Eventually they simply asked for bourbon. No it wasn't the finely crafted and aged sour mash whiskey we know as bourbon today. People had to start calling it bourbon before the distillers put the term on their labels. The term bourbon had to be in fairly common usage before distributers could advertize that they had bourbon for sale. This is an example of a "trickle up" therory. The common man defines the term or label through common usage.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 20:34
John you're reading much more into the question than what is there. When did bourbon become bourbon? Not "what happend to it after that?"! The answer to that question *IS* the book that Mike is trying to write.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

**DONOTDELETE**
01-11-2001, 23:03
Linn,

Nuh-uh, you're oversimplifying. Mike actually did ask all those questions. You only answered the first one, and I agree with you 100% on it. The rest just goes on from there.

=John=
http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

MashBill
01-11-2001, 23:48
Mike,
For me, bourbon became bourbon when my father let me take a sip of his bourbon. I was just a little tyke and he was shocked that I liked it. He was an Old Charter drinker (and Jim Beam hater...) and he made a point of explaining to me the differences between bourbon, and other whiskies. I've been a fan ever since.

Bill
http://home.kc.rr.com/mashbill/

**DONOTDELETE**
01-13-2001, 08:38
I am surprised so far in that nobody has mentioned the sour mash process or the pot still doubler (Is Labrot and Graham really the only pot still bourbon since all of the distilleries use pot still doublers or their cousins the thumper?). Do these things make bourbon, "Bourbon" as we know it?
Mike Veach

**DONOTDELETE**
01-13-2001, 10:10
Mike it seems to me that either you've changed the question, or you didn't word your original question properly. If the question is now "When did bourbon become the bourbon as we know it today?" then no doubt the Peppers - Elijah and his son Oscar teamed up with James Crow are the progenitors of what we know bourbon to be today. Sam Grant and Henry Clay didn't drink Old Crow because it was cheap now did they?

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

cowdery
01-16-2001, 11:25
I'm saying there are three things that make bourbon bourbon. The first is the use of corn as the primary grain. The second is the limestone-filtered water characteristic of Kentucky. The third is aging in new, charred oak barrels. Of these, the third one was the last to fall into place.

My theory is that aging was a catch-as-catch-can proposition until Crow and Pepper made it routine and other distillers, noting the success of Pepper and Crow, decided to follow their example. This coincided with a maturing of the industry and marketplace (e.g., the availability of reasonably priced barrels) that made such aging practical.

It appears that by the 1840s, people in-the-know (if not the general public) were able to obtain something we would recognize today as good bourbon whiskey.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

**DONOTDELETE**
01-16-2001, 17:43
Linn,
Actually I have not changed the question. I simply asked the question in what I hoped would be the most open to interpretation. I want get your ideas as to what the answer is so that I can know if I need to research from a different angle.
Mike Veach

Andy Traxel
01-16-2001, 18:40
Mike,

I really don't know how to decide when bourbon started tasting like bourbon. Too bad there isn't an archive somewhere with samples from the last 150 years or so we could taste test.

I would suspect that the quality varied considerably from brand to brand until the definition of bourbon was legislated. So we may have recognized some brands as bourbon over 100 years ago. But lots of stuff probably would have tasted more like lantern fuel in those days.



Andy

Andy Traxel
01-16-2001, 18:47
Chuck,

Why Kentucky water? What does that make Hirsch?

Andy

**DONOTDELETE**
01-16-2001, 21:31
Andy said, "Why Kentucky water? What does that make Hirsch?"

(1) Why indeed? I've asked that question before and not been satisfied with the answer. At the risk of disturbing a cherished notion, I've never bought that explanation. Sure, there's no iron in it and it's got lots of lime, but I can have Phoenix city water (or Louisville's) conditioned to that profile at very little expense. It's not as though that isn't done already.

(2) Central Pennsylvania is riddled with limestone caverns (Lost River, Kutztown, Indian Echo, Laural), including in the Shaefferstown area. Then again, for what it's worth, Hirsch bourbon is kind of a specialty; Michter's main product was NOT called bourbon but rather "Pennsylvania Pot-Still Whiskey". I'm not sure what disqualified it from being called "bourbon" but I'm pretty certain it wasn't the water.

=John=
http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

cowdery
01-17-2001, 00:20
Limestone water, while it is characteristic of a large part of Kentucky, is hardly unique to Kentucky. However, the limestone in Kentucky's main distilling regions is all blue limestone of the Lower Silurian of the Trenton period. There is a band of this particular limestone that runs through Kentucky and adjacent states in a "U" shape. It is possible that the same band runs through Shaefferstown, or it could be a different one.

There is nothing in any law so far as I am aware that says what kind of water must be used to make bourbon. It has nothing to do with laws. To the extent that Kentucky's water tasted different than the water did back east, the local water contributed to making the taste of Kentucky whiskey different.

Water filtered through limestone has more calcium and fewer iron salts, which creates a good environment for the propagation of yeast. So I've heard.

Presumably, one source of limestone water is as good as another, chemically, but it is possible that different deposits impart subtly different taste characteristics. Is this particular band somehow "better" than others? I can't tell you exactly where it runs, but I recall thinking as I looked at it on a map once, that all of the major distilling centers were on it. When you consider that distilling was originally a very local activity so that every community in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, etc. probably had one or more local distillers, it has to be more than a conincidence that as the industry "shook out," distilleries in the limestone belt seemed to be the ones that survived.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

**DONOTDELETE**
01-17-2001, 06:27
I agree about the differences in real taste between waters from different sources even when they're chemically identical. But I think they're VERY subtle differences indeed. If that were not so, then we'd all prefer the taste of 80 proof bourbon over the 100+ variety with less of that great water in it :-))
And of course, there were at least as many distilleries built solidly upon the blue limestone of central Kentucky that failed to make the grade as anywhere else.

I don't want to become an advocate for an unpopular idea that I feel doesn't matter much anyway. I know from previous discussions that whiskey folk take the water issue very seriously and people who I highly respect believe it thoroughly. I won't argue.

I'm more inclined to believe, though, that differences in the characteristics of the individual oak barrels has far more to do with the quality of the finished whiskey than the water or even the grain used. That would most certainly include the wood itself, and that might have been what was unique about central Kentucky and Tennessee. And pretty much still is, since there are only a couple of cooperages, local to the Lousiville area, that everyone (including Jack and George in Tennessee) uses.

There also may be more to the often-quoted relationship between limestone water and fine racehorses. The areas where the bourbon-barons survived wars, depressions, and even "The Big P" were also areas where families of social and political leaders were involved in its history. These, or their supporters, were the wealthy, old-line families who were (and are) also responsible for bluegrass and thorobreds. Personally, I believe it is that, more than any other factor (including water and wood), that is the explanation for Kentucky's success. Of course, you also have to have an outstanding product, which all the survivors do. But Kentucky is the only place where whiskeymakers (big, politically important whiskeymakers, that is; not the often referred-to farmer-distillers) were (and are) lionized and held up as models of social respectibility and civic pride. Not to say that they don't well deserve those honors, but only that their brethren in other locations were not so recognized. And that, to my thinking, had lots more to do with their failure to survive than did the water they used in their whiskey.

=John=
http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

**DONOTDELETE**
01-17-2001, 09:06
OK then here's the angle. Distillation is a process. Turning "white dog" whiskey into bourbon takes time. The same is true in the answer to your question. We cannot divorce the product from the process. The answer is time. Not just time in a new charred white oak barrel, but time in a new society. The time it takes this whiskey to be called bourbon in common usage. The time it takes for James Crow to perfect the sour mash process. The invention of the steam engine and it's effects on society. The time that George Garvin Brown put Old Forrester in sealed glass bottles. That's when bourbon became bourbon in the modern sense of the term. We buy it the same way today. Many of the same names are on thoes bottles. Proud names. Old names. American names. Many made with the same formula. Made by men that trained their sons, that trained their sons, that trained their sons, and so on to this very day. Born with the Republic the question should not be *when* did bourbon become bourbon, but rather just HOW did it happen. Tell this tale accurately and your book will be done. Tell it interestingly and your book will be a best seller.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

**DONOTDELETE**
01-17-2001, 17:41
Linn,
You are my favorite student. I have to say you came very close to my opinion. I don't think that there is set date but the whole concept is an evolutionary process that begun in the early 1800's and ended with the government definition after prohibition. The stages of this evolution start with the name "Bourbon", continue with the refining of the process with the industrial revolution, was formalized in the late 1800's with the bottled in Bond Act, legitamized with the Taft Decision and made official with government regulations after prohibition.
Mike Veach

cowdery
01-18-2001, 10:50
I guess I have focused on only one aspect of the question. Because I found the original wording too zenish, I reconfigured it as, "When did bourbon begin to taste like the product we today call bourbon whiskey?"

The reality is, bourbon is as much a creature of law as it is a product of the distiller's craft. Bourbon didn't really become bourbon until there was law codifying the definition. That law did not exist in its present form until after Prohibition.

I do recommend my Malt Advocate article, "Tempest in a Tumbler," (the Third Quarter 2000 issue, vol 9, no 4) for a detailed account of how that came to be.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

**DONOTDELETE**
01-19-2001, 07:26
Exactly so Chuck. You, John, and Andy all performed a subconscious "mental mutation" of the question to fit whatever convention or "box" your cognitive rational was in. Im not that unconventional a thinker, but it was clear that the answer was not any kind of "snapshot" historical time/space crossroads. The answer flows down a river of places, people and events.

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.