The American Spirit: Bourbon's Frontier Roots

“Do what you can with what you have where you are.”  These words, spoken by Theodore Roosevelt, succinctly sum up one of the most important attributes of humanity: perseverance.  While Roosevelt was definitively not referring to the creation of alcohol, history has shown that at least some of humanity’s persevering spirit extends in that direction as well.  This was true in the late 18th century when frontier settlements in Kentucky were founded by Scotch-Irish immigrants.  Drawn by cheap land and the opportunity to make better lives for themselves, many settled in a place called Bourbon County, west of the Allegheny mountains.

They quickly set about building homes, planting crops, establishing an economy and -- like their forefathers -- distilling whiskey.  However, the imperatives of survival required establishing quick, sustainable source of food before any thought could be given to styles of whiskey.  Whiskey was traditionally made from barley or wheat, which grew naturally in Europe and which were some of the the first plants to be brought from the Old World to the New.  So, while they were planted in Bourbon county as well, they could not be relied upon exclusively as a food source.  Corn, on the other hand, was native to America and, being well adapted, was heavily cultivated by these Kentucky settlers.  The corn grew quickly and yielded well, and thus was the bulk of leftover grain that could be spared for whiskey production.

Having solved the grain problem, these settlers faced another significant hurdle.  The flavor of whiskies comes from the barrels in which they are aged.  While barrels were in relative abundance in Europe, owing to the mainland’s robust trade in wine, they were tougher to find in Kentucky.  Barrels are bulky and heavy, and only absolute essentials could be brought into the wilderness.  One such essential, stored in a barrel, was whale oil, which provided light to ward off the nighttime dangers.  However these barrels, once emptied, smelled awful, and were an unattractive vessel to store whiskey for future consumption.  But faced with the prospect of building barrels from scratch when winter was coming, even a whale oil barrel was worth a shot.  The inside was scraped down to new wood and then the barrel heavily charred to attempt to burn out any undesirable flavors.

What resulted was a rich, sweet, caramel colored spirit that went on to find success throughout the US and, eventually worldwide.  In 1964, Bourbon gained legal recognition and protection as a product of the US.  Amongst other requirements, the criteria for Bourbon codifies choices that the settlers of Bourbon County made out of ingenuity and necessity.  First, as a nod to the grain selection, the spirit must be made from at least 51% -- but no more than 79% -- corn.  And second, it must be aged in a new, charred, white oak barrel for at least 2 years.  If these early settlers had tried to cling to the ways that whiskey was made in their homelands, they probably would have been very disappointed with the result.  Instead, they simply did what they could with what they had where they were and created America’s most iconic spirit in the process.

It is often assumed that the longer the aging, the better the bourbon.  However, virtually the only thing you can be assured of is that it will cost more.  Because Bourbon barrels are new and aggressively charred, it is possible to age Bourbon too much, and the result will taste woody and out of balance.  If you’re just getting into Bourbon, look for something in the 6-10 year range.  And while wine is more my bailiwick, I will say that I have had a few Bourbons made by Willett Family and really enjoyed them.  If you get cask strength though, remember to add a bit of water, otherwise it will be too strong and not nearly as delicious.