A century after Prohibition, America’s native spirit is enjoying a resurgence.
By Larry Olmsted
Bourbon is equal parts romantic and mysterious, its origins clouded in myth, folklore and competing claims. The very name is the source of debate, and while clearly originating from the Bourbon dynasty of France, its spirited use is variously said to have come from the family name’s application to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Bourbon County in Kentucky or Bourbon County in Virginia, among others.
Two things we do know for sure is that bourbon is America’s homegrown spirit of choice, and that after nearly a century of languish, it has come back with a vengeance—better, more popular and more widely available than ever. While most of our nation’s culinary roots are imported, this whiskey is indigenous, and most recently has been hotly embraced by the burgeoning mixology movement. Though firmly rooted in America’s unique agriculture, it was first created by immigrants knowledgeable in the distillation process, most likely Irish, Scots and Germans. It was born in the South, with Kentucky as the early epicenter, and remains very closely associated with the region today. Around the era of the American Revolution, Scotch and Irish whiskeys were hard to get, and our Colonial ancestors favored rum. The rum was often imported from the closer Caribbean, or made in the Colonies using molasses that was sourced from the islands. Then, around this same time in the late 18th century, distillation-savvy Americans began producing a distinctive style of whiskey using our native grain, corn—a New World food not known in Europe—after discovering that it had the perfect combination of sugar and starch to make a soon-to-be iconic American libation, and bourbon was born.
“While bourbon was historically consumed nationwide, it has always been considered a Southern spirit,” says Colin Blake, Director of Spirits Education at Moonshine University in Louisville, a trade school for distillers that also offers public courses such as the Bourbon Steward appreciation certification. He points out that 19 of 20 bottles “have historically been produced below the Mason-Dixon line,” and they still are.
Rum-makers in the Caribbean learned long ago that the quality gains caused by aging can occur much faster in tropics than in cooler, northerly climates, and the same holds true for bourbon. “Bourbon lends itself to the South due to a few different reasons,” says Nic Wallace, resort lead bartender at Sea Island. “The southern climate … plays a pivotal role in production due to the seasonal changes of temperature. During the spring and summer months, the higher temperatures cause the barrels to swell and expand, which instigates evaporation in the bourbon barrels of the rack houses; this process is called the ‘Angel’s Share.’ In the winter, as the barrels condense and retract, the whiskey that was drawn into the wood during the Angel’s Share process becomes trapped and further aids in the aging process; this is called ‘The Devil’s Cut.’ ” He also notes that locally sourced natural limestone-filtered water offers a pure and clean alternative to outsourcing one of the most important parts of spirit production.
Besides bourbon itself, all the most famous bourbon cocktails have Southern origins. The most traditional is the Old-Fashioned, born at the Pendennis Club in Louisville. The mint julep also is believed to hail from Kentucky. Milk punch is one of the oldest known bourbon recipes, and a famous New Orleans concoction. In contrast, the New York-born Manhattan is traditionally made with colder climate rye whiskey.
Rise and Retreat
Reliable quality drove the early national popularity of bourbon. In the 19th century, liquor was sold in bulk, and merchants filled their own jugs from producers to resell, often giving in to greed and cutting their products with cheaper and sometimes dangerous additives. It was the bourbon industry that first gave the public peace of mind: In 1870, when seeking to allay consumer fears, Old Forester bourbon was the first whiskey to be sold in sealed bottles and distributed directly by the distillery to ensure its purity. Then, in 1897, Congress passed the Bottled in Bond Act, certifying the authenticity, quality and tamper-proof nature of “bonded” bottles. To be labelled Bottled-in-Bond, whiskey has to be the product of a single distillation season by a single distiller at a single distillery, then aged at least four years in a Federally bonded warehouse before being bottled at 100 proof. After nearly disappearing in safer and more regulated modern times, Bottled-in-Bond bourbons are suddenly trendy again, a fast-growing subcategory with new product launches from Kentucky to Oregon to Brooklyn, New York.
“Bourbon’s popularity grew as producers started to make a more consistent and better-tasting product,” Blake says. “… I think one of the reasons it’s still a significant aspect of Southern culture is because it was a product that was made in the South that the rest of the nation loved. How could you not find a bit of home-region pride when you hear of people all across the nation talking about the pure enjoyment of what was made in your backyard? The ease of access to bourbon historically made it a drink of choice in the post-Colonial era, and later bourbon’s popularity among great Southern writers didn’t hurt its growth at all.”
But then came Prohibition in 1920. For the next 13 years, black market alternatives flourished, including low-quality moonshine, gin, Irish and Scotch whiskeys brought in by sea, and especially Canadian whisky smuggled across the border. By the time of repeal, Americans had broadened their tastes and it would take nearly a century for bourbon to stage its current comeback.
“Bourbon has had a history of unfortunate timing,” notes Jeffery Lindenmuth, executive editor of Whisky Advocate magazine. “Prohibition in the U.S. dealt whiskey-makers a devastating blow. And in 1964, just as Congress declared the spirit a ‘distinctive product of the United States,’ Americans were embarking on a long love affair with vodka. But in the past decade, the stars have finally aligned for bourbon whiskey.”
Time for Resurgence
It has been a long time coming, but most aficionados feel it has been worth the wait, as the quality and diversity of bourbon is at an all-time zenith today. “What’s especially notable is that consumers are enjoying not just more but also better bourbon,” Lindenmuth explains. “The layers of rich flavors in bourbon whiskey speak to American culinary trends—our desire for flavor, high quality and new experiences. Bourbon also benefited from the renewed popularity of Southern cuisine and the return of classic cocktails, many of which rely on American whiskey. Finally, the traditional bourbon producers offer brands with real heritage and authenticity— qualities that resonate with Millennials. It’s really a perfect storm for bourbon.”
Wallace agrees that bourbon is having a boom. “In the past five to six years, bourbon consumption in the U.S. has seen a huge increase,” he says. “A lot of it is due to the craft cocktail movement. We’re on the front line with the customer, and it has so many layers, you get so much flavor from barrel aging; it is so versatile for craft cocktails and then the customer embraces it.”
The numbers bear him out: According to M. Shanken Communications, which publishes Whiskey Advocate, volumes of super-premium bourbons ($25 per bottle or more) have grown by nearly 3.3 million cases since 2010. Also, in 2017, super-premium bourbons increased by 10.5 percent within a single year to reach 5 million cases.
Blake notes that in late 2018 the quantity of bourbon aging in Kentucky reached it highest levels in nearly half a century, at 7.5 million barrels, with a record high $3 billion value. Visits to Kentucky distilleries jumped more than 300 percent in the past decade, and new distilleries continue to open across the state and around the country. The American Craft Spirits Association reports that the number of active craft distilleries in the U.S., which make all varieties of spirits, increased by 15.5 percent last year to 1,835.
The fast-growing popularity of domestic whiskeys has a dark side: consumer confusion over exactly what is, and is not, bourbon. For instance, Kentucky is so historically synonymous with the spirit that many think it can only be made in the Bluegrass State. This is not true, and today bourbon is being made from coast to coast—yet about 95 percent of production remains in Kentucky, home to all the well-known heritage names such as Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and many more. These are all produced in a relatively concise area in Kentucky, which is essentially the Napa Valley of bourbon. Likewise, Tennessee whiskey, namely giants Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, follow all of the rules for bourbon (plus the extra step of charcoal filtering required to be Tennessee whiskey) and could legally label their products as such, but do not.
The two biggest practices differentiating bourbon from other whiskeys are the barrels and the ingredients. By law, bourbon can only be aged in brand-new casks made from American oak, while most whiskeys repeatedly repurpose used barrels. Because barrels last decades and can only be used once for bourbon, this American industry supplies many of the casks used to age Scotch and Irish whiskeys (and, increasingly, tequila, beer and even wine). But new barrels impart flavor faster, another reason why bourbon effectively ages more quickly. Still, age is the biggest indicator of quality and price aside from actually tasting. As Blake explains, “The longer you age a bourbon, the less is left in that barrel. Every year, a barrel aging in Kentucky will lose 3 to 4 percent of its total volume, so after 12 years that barrel is half empty; 20 years, a quarter full. So age does demand a high price, just because the longer a producer waits to bottle it, the less they will have.”
Bourbon must be made with a majority of corn, 51 percent or more. Other domestic whiskeys can be made from essentially any grain, and rye whiskey (also minimum 51 percent) is the most popular alternative. Most bourbon fans know about the minimum corn requirement, but fewer realize there is also a maximum—above 80 percent, the product becomes corn whiskey or moonshine. This is where the massive range of quality and flavor variance comes from, as all bourbon requires 20 to 49 percent ingredients other than corn, most typically rye, wheat and malted barley, and these ratios greatly affect the resulting taste.
“You never hear people talk about the 80 percent limit,” Wallace says. “Rye is bright and spicy, added to give it some spice and character. Wheat provides viscosity and additional sugars due to the high starch content, while malted barley adds body and depth.” Most use a small amount of barley and substantially more rye or wheat, dividing bourbons into two primary style categories. The majority of the most popular brands use what is known as a “high rye” formula (20 percent-plus), from giants like Old Grand-Dad to beloved smaller-batch brands such as Woodford Reserve, Bulleit, Redemption and Booker’s.
“On average we have 30 to 40 different types of bourbon in each resort outlet, and the River Bar & Lounge at Sea Island has the biggest selection, with around 65 depending on the time of year,” Wallace says. “Most are higher rye, but some top-sellers are high-wheat bourbons, including Eagle Rare, Blanton’s and the best-known, Maker’s Mark.” Since recipes are not listed, recently more bourbons started labeling themselves as high-rye or high-wheat to aid consumers. One of the first steps during Moonshine University’s bourbon courses is blind tasting to see which flavor style visitors prefer. Likewise, Wallace offers Sea Island members and guests guided tastings, both unstructured at the bar as well as more formal planned sessions. “We offer a bourbon tasting class for corporate groups, but I just did a private tasting for a family.”
A very notable high-wheat recipe is the great white whale of bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle, hard for even top bars to obtain, and ultra-desirable in its scarcity—especially after a warehouse theft left stocks at precariously low levels. “We have an allocation of Pappy Van Winkle and we stock the 10-, 12-, 15-, 20- and 23-year-olds,” Wallace says. “We get them in late November and the community here knows, they come in asking for them.”
Whether you opt for an exclusive bottle like Pappy Van Winkle or a more readily available bourbon, each variety of America’s native spirit is the product of careful craftsmanship and offers its own unique flavor profile.
Resort Lead Bartender Nic Wallace shares the recipe for one of the River Bar & Lounge’s most popular cocktails.
1 ounce Bulleit Bourbon
1 ounce Lustau Pedro Ximénez Sherry (or another PX sherry)
1 ounce Cocchi Americano Rosa
1/4 ounce angostura bitters
Orange and lemon peels, for garnish
Stir first four ingredients together and serve in a rocks glass over one oversize “king” cube of ice. Garnish with the expressed citrus peels.