Bourbon History 101.

History, Other, Spirits

Bourbon History 101: What I know before World Class.

So before I start researching into bourbons in preparation for the World Class exam I figured a quick catch up on what I already know on bourbon history was in order. It turns out I know very little about about its history, distillation or legislation.

So here’s what I do know.

Bourbon is a distilled and aged alcoholic spirit originating from America’s southern states. It’s thought that a mix of Irish, Scottish and English first settled there in the late 1700’s and started working the land as farm land. These guys brought their knowledge of whisky and gin production with them and started producing alcohol from what was ready available, corn.

They made a rough clear alcohol which was then shipped in barrels to New Orleans and sold much more cheaply then the imported French Brandies. Farmers producing the spirit would wait until the spring when the rains would swell the rivers, making the journey easier and so cheaper to transport the whisky. This time waiting in the barrels aged the product, making it softer, smoother and easier to drink as well as it now also resembled the brandies in colour.

The spirit was primarily sold out of Bourbon Street in New Orleans and so people would ask for “that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street” which eventually shortened to “the Bourbon Whiskey” which is where the name Bourbon is thought to have come from.

Charring the barrel supposedly comes in around 1820 after Elijah Craig, a man with a lot of firsts on his plate, has a fire in his barn where he stores the new barrels. After already losing so many barrels he has to be frugal and so uses ones which are charred but mostly undamaged. The resulting spirit is sweeter from the caramelised sugars in the charred wood. It’s also around this time when Catherine Carpenter starts putting the yeast solids of the first fermentation into the next batch, naming this the sour mash recipe. She also publishes a sweet mash recipe which falls out of fashion fairly quickly.

Production carries on and grows healthily until the prohibition in the 1920’s. All but 6 major distilleries shut, and the remaining few started distilling medicinal whiskey which was used to treat everything from teething babies, cancer, diabetes and old age. It was only available by the pint every 10 days, to be consumed at home and prescribed by a doctor, but it was generally distilled to around 50% ABV.

When the ban was lifted in 1933, 77 distilleries opened and started producing either Bourbon or Rye whiskey.

In 1964 the U.S. Government introduced laws which made bourbon a protected term, anything wanting to be called a bourbon now legally had to be made within the United States, from at least 51% corn, aged for a minimum of 4 years (unless stated) in brand new charred American oak barrels.

There’s a few gaps to fill and a few exact dates to find before I start looking into distillation but at least this is a start. Although my knowledge is not as terrible as I expected so watch this space because as I learn more (ok google search stuff) I’ll fill in the gaps.

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