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The Birth of Bourbon

The Birth of Bourbon

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When early Americans first traveled west, they brought stills for personal use. They needed distilled spirits for social and economic reasons. A jug of whiskey was brought to all social occasions such as a cabin raising or a wedding, but it was also used as barter for supplies. These early spirits were not aged in barrels and were often flavored with fruit and sugar to take the rough edges from the drink. It was not until the 1820s that aged whiskey called “bourbon” was produced.

The first written mention of “bourbon whiskey” is from an 1821 issue of the Western Citizen newspaper. Aging the whiskey in a charred barrel is what makes bourbon. It is not known who first did this, but the earliest known mention of charring a whiskey barrel is from 1826 as a Lexington grocer writes to distiller John Corlis telling him he has heard that charring the inside of the barrel will improve the flavor of the whiskey. The next step in the evolution of bourbon is in the 1830s when James Christopher Crow goes to work for Oscar Pepper as a distiller. Crow uses scientific methods to understand the distilling process and writes down his results. By writing down his results, he was able to reference his notes with each batch to produce a more uniform quality bourbon.

After the American Civil War the industry grew as the use of steam power, the invention of the column still by Aeneas Coffey in the 1830s, and the railroad all combine to make large distilleries successful. In 1870 George Garvin Brown introduces Old Forester, the first bourbon to be sold only by the bottle. Bottles were expensive since they had to be hand blown and often were of variable size. For most of the 19th century the primary package for the distiller was the barrel as consumers would bring in their own flask, jug or bottle to purchase their whiskey from the saloon or liquor store. Some stores did bottle bourbon to aid in this sale since not everyone had their own bottle. In the 1870s E. H. Taylor, Jr. takes advantage of new technology and marketing methods to promote his OFC whiskey. He developed a full-sized trademark for his barrel heads and makes his barrels with brass instead of iron hoops. He uses color lithographic methods to print letterhead and sales brochures to promote his bourbon whiskey.

In the 1880s machine blown bottles were available and the consumer finds more brands available by the bottle. Rectifiers who did not own a distillery but instead bought barrels from distillers to bottle as their own brand gained popularity during this time. They would often mix the whiskey with neutral spirits and added color and flavoring agents to the whiskey to create their own product. These rectifiers were flooding the market with cheap whiskey they were calling “bourbon.” This led to the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 as the distillers worked to make their aged bourbon stand out as different from rectified whiskey in the marketplace.

The beginning of the 20th century saw further strife between the rectifiers and the distillers with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The question became what was “Pure Food” whiskey. This question is answered on December 29, 1909 when President Taft makes his decision on the matter, defining the categories known today as “Straight,” “Blended” and “Imitation” whiskey.

Prohibition closes down the distilleries in 1919. The barrels were private property and as long as the distillers did not sell the whiskey illegally the government could not take away their bourbon. Six companies applied for and received licenses to sell spirits as “medicine” during prohibition. People could purchase one pint of 100 proof spirits every ten days for medical use. The distilleries could sell to pharmacies to fill this need. They could also sell 12 pints of spirits a year to doctors and dentists. Prohibition comes to an end on December 5th, 1933 as Utah becomes the last state needed to pass the 21st amendment, repealing the 18th amendment.

With the repeal of prohibition came new liquor regulations. The federal government imposes new rules such as standard bottle sizes and label requirements. On March 1, 1938 a regulation took effect making new cooperage required for straight whiskey. In 1964 the United States government passes a resolution making bourbon a product of the United States.

The 1960s saw the beginning of a decline in bourbon sales as over-production led to cheap prices and the young generation turned their backs on drinking bourbon. This decline continued through the 1970s and 80s. This turned around with the introduction of super-premium bourbons such as single barrel and small batch brands in the 90s. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Bourbon had not only recovered, but had become tremendously popular as drinkers came to apprecaite the quality and taste of well-made bourbon by long-time distillers and new craft distillers.

The History of Bourbon

The distillation process dates back to before the birth of Christ, but was originally created to make perfumes. The earliest records of distillation of alcohol are in Italy in the 13th century. Alcohol was distilled to create wine. The art of distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century.

The word ‘whisky’ is an English word from Celtic origin meaning “the water of life.” The word began to be used by everyone to describe this wonderful liquor. Different spellings of the word became synonymous with the country from which it was made. Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey to distinguish one from the other, and the spellings still remain different for many distillers to this day.

Whiskey made its way over to America and before the Revolutionary War all whiskey was made from rye. But rye didn’t grow very well in the southern states, so as whiskey making moved south, it was necessary to find a new grain to use. The introduction of corn as the major ingredient also changed the flavor of whiskey. When the Colonies became the United States of America, the newly formed Government was cash poor, having racked up massive debts to finance the war with Great Britain. Alexander Hamilton, the new Secretary of the Treasury, proposed that Congress impose a tax on whiskey to help retire the debt.

This tax was not popular with the farmers who grew corn for a living. Many were distilling their corn into whiskey for ease of transport to the local market. There the whiskey could serve as a substitute for cash. In fact, during this time whiskey was the most stable currency in the U. S. and the most versatile, since each state printed its own currency and in some cases one state did not recognize the currency from other states.

In 1794, when tax collectors pressed the farmers to pay the tax, seventeen hundred insurgent farmers broke into open revolt. President George Washington called up fifteen thousand troops to put down the rebellion. Even though no shots were fired, this became the first time a Commander in Chief personally let troops into battle. After what became knows as the Whiskey Rebellion, the federal government offered each settler sixty acres of land in Kentucky. The land came with the provision that they make a permanent home there and grow corn.

In 1780, Kentucky was originally divided into 3 counties, Jefferson, Lincoln and Fayette. In 1785, these counties were then divided further into Nelson, Bourbon and Mercer Counties. Bourbon County was named after the French royal family the Bourbons. This was to honor them for their help during the Revolutionary War. Farmers started making whiskey from corn and shipped it down the Ohio River to New Orleans, from Bourbon County. This Bourbon County whiskey was dispersed there all over the South. The whiskey was shipped in charred oak barrels to kill off any bacteria. The long journey in the charred barrels as they heated up and cooled down along with the constant movement, added color and flavor from the charred oak, giving the whiskey a very desirable result. The barrels were stamped “Bourbon County Whiskey” and subsequently this wonderful whiskey became known as Bourbon from the area it came from.

Most people believe that a Baptist minister, the Reverend Elijah Craig, was the first person to distill bourbon in 1789. There are many stories about who was the first person to distill corn to make bourbon many tell that Wattie Boone, Daniel Boone’s cousin, was the first. This was the story that I was told when I was young. I have done a lot of research over the years and the truth is no one really knows who invented bourbon. The legend of bourbon became reality in 1964 when bourbon was officially named America’s native spirit by the U.S. Congress. Congress decreed that bourbon could be made only in the United States and that whiskey made in the United States must meet certain criteria in order to be labeled bourbon.

The requirements for bourbon are:

  • Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon must be aged in charred new oak barrels.
  • Only pure water may be added to bourbon.
  • Bourbon must not exceed 125 proof going into the barrel.

Bourbon is the most regulated whiskey and one of the most regulated spirits in the world, as the 4 original requirements haven’t changed in over 200 years. Although most bourbon is made in Kentucky, technically bourbon can be made outside the Bluegrass State as long as the 4 requirements are followed. I have lived my life in Frankfort and Lawrenceburg, in the heart of Bourbon country, and have tried MANY different types of bourbon over the years. I tend to lean toward the 8 to 15 year old bourbons. Anything under 8 has a little too much bite and over 15 are too smooth, as weird as that may sound.

Four Roses Single Barrel, Blade and Bow, Knob Creek Single Barrel and Noah’s Mill are some of my favorites. Wild Turkey makes a Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel that is hard to beat. I enjoy sitting on my front porch at night with my wife with a glass of bourbon on the rocks. Me with Four Roses, and her with Jack and Coke (yuck lol). I’ve tried whiskey many times and am very much a corn-fed bourbon man. Those who know me know that I can go on for hours about most any topic (haha). So now I’ll leave you to your tastings. I hope that when you try your next 15 year old bourbon, you’ll feel a bit wiser. Thanks and please don’t hesitate to ask if you’d like some more suggestions.

1900—A new era and dark days.

Bourbon continued to grow and expand through the 1900s, developing rigorous standards for its production and quality, until Prohibition brought it all to a screeching halt in 1918. For over a decade, bourbon production was effectively out of business.

1933—The great bourbon comeback.

By the time the Prohibition law was repealed in 1933, many bourbon makers were lost to history. But James Beauregard Beam seized the opportunity to move near a rail line and upgrade his distillery at the ripe old age of 69. With the help of family, James B. Beam had the distillery, built by his own hands, back up and running in only 120 days.

1964—America's Native Spirit.

Over time, America and the world grew to love bourbon as the only major distilled spirit that can trace its roots back to American soil. In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared bourbon to be "America’s native spirit," and in 2007, the U.S. Senate set aside September as National Bourbon Heritage Month.

A boy, a brilliant idea and the birth of Bourbon vanilla

Some stories are too special to be washed away by the ebb and flow of time. They deserve as big an audience as they can get, and should be retold over and over. The one I’m about to tell you shows the ingenuity of someone who had the odds stacked against him, big time. An unschooled boy, born into slavery, unfamiliar with the luxury of big dreams.

The boy was born in 1829 in Sainte-Suzanne, a commune on the north coast of Réunion, which at that time was called Bourbon. His name was Edmond. Yes, just Edmond, because slaves weren’t allowed to have last names. Edmond’s mother, Mélise, died in childbirth. Since the boy never knew his father, he was effectively an orphan from day one.

Long before his name became forever linked to the spice’s history, vanilla had wowed the European elites. Queen Elizabeth I of England ate it in puddings. Founding Father and third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson discovered vanilla in Paris and came up with America’s first recipe for vanilla ice cream.

An unsolvable problem?

As demand increased, a challenge arose: all of the world’s vanilla came from Mexico, and production was limited to two tons a year. European attempts to grow vanilla in the Philippines, Indonesia and India all failed. Unaware of these fruitless efforts in faraway places, Edmond grew up on the Belle-vue estate of plantation owner Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont. The boy followed his master around, learning about all the animals and plants, including one very odd one: a vanilla vine.

Just like all those other vanilla plants grown outside of Mexico, Ferréol’s vine didn’t produce any fruit. Until the spring of 1841. As Ferréol was taking a walk with Edmond, he discovered, for the first time in twenty years, two green capsule-like seed pods hanging from the vine. He was in for a second surprise, because when he turned to Edmond, the 12 year-old boy told his master that he had pollinated the plant by hand. A seemingly unsolvable problem had been solved.

Ferréol’s initial disbelief turned to amazement as more fruit appeared in the following days. He asked Edmond for a demonstration. The boy opened a vanilla flower and carefully lifted the membrane that prevents self-fertilization, using a blade of grass or splinter of bamboo. Then, he squeezed the pollen-bearing and pollen-receiving parts of the flower together, an act that the French would come to call ‘le geste d’Edmond’.

That spring day in 1841 changed Edmond’s life. Soon he was travelling the island showing his ‘geste’ to other slaves. Réunion’s annual vanilla production grew exponentially, from two tons ten years later to two hundred tons by the end of the century. Mexico’s days as the world’s prime vanilla producer were over.

Seven years after the pollination miracle, Ferréol granted Edmond his freedom, six months before most of the other slaves on Réunion. His freedom came with a last name, Albius, but didn’t last long. After moving to the city of Saint-Denis, he worked as a kitchen servant before spending three years in prison on charges of theft. Later on, he would marry and move back to the country, close to the plantation he had called his home for so many years.

The boy who single-handedly changed the course of vanilla history, never benefited from his discovery and died in 1880, at the age of 51. A short obituary appeared in the local paper, Le Moniteur, reading: “The very man who at great profit to his colony, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers has died in the hospital at Sainte-Suzanne. It was a destitute and miserable end.”

A bronze statue in Sainte-Suzanne reminds passers-by of Edmond’s achievement. In his right hand, he is holding a vanilla vine. Although his life ended pitifully, the legacy of Edmond Albius lives on. Every time you are about to enjoy that distinctive vanilla flavour, whether it’s in a culinary creation, ice cream or your favourite cocktail, pause for just one second. Think about that boy, his brilliant idea and the birth of Bourbon Vanilla.

For many decades after Edmond’s invention, one question remained: why did vanilla vines produce fruit in Mexico and not anywhere else? It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that researchers found the answer: because of a native glossy green bee called Euglossa viridissima, the only insect capable of pollinating vanilla orchids.

What Is Bourbon? A Brief History of America’s Whiskey

Oh, bourbon. Not only are you the favorite drink of adventurers, artists, accountants, and members of other professions that don’t start with the letter A, you’re also America’s spirit. We mean that literally. The drink revered by the uber-rich and common citizens alike. You were born in the land of the free and home of the brave and you wear that badge of honor proudly.

But, what makes bourbon America’s spirit? Is it because every batch is distilled by a bald eagle? Sadly, no. Below, we’ve put together a brief but thorough explanation on what makes bourbon bourbon and the history behind it.

Related Reading

Learn How Bourbon is Made

All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Now, you might be asking yourself “what the heck does that mean”? Without drawing some elaborate Venn diagram, it basically means that bourbon is an elite class of whiskey that must meet certain criteria to be called bourbon.

By the act of United States Congress, you must meet a rigid set of criteria to earn the classification of bourbon otherwise, it is just whisky.

The film walks through the A, B, C, D, E, F, Gs of bourbon as a simple acronym to explain its defining criteria.

A – American Made
Most people think bourbon has to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon but that is not true. To earn the designation of bourbon, it has to be made in the United States of America bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky. You can use the same process to make bourbon but if it’s done in Canada, for instance, it can’t be called bourbon. It would just be whiskey.

Now it is true that most bourbon is made in Kentucky. Kentucky happens to provide the perfect environment for making great bourbon which is why most bourbon distillers are located in Kentucky.

B – Barrels
Bourbon must be made in brand new barrels and absolutely cannot be made in used barrels. The barrels are a key part of the bourbon-making process as the bourbon will absorb the white oak of the charred bourbon barrels and affect the taste of the bourbon.

The wood of the barrels themselves add to the flavor and life of the bourbon. Just how wine is affected by the grapes used, bourbon is affected by the trees used to make the barrels. The barrel gives a rich caramel flavor that is a distinct flavor for bourbon.

Kentucky’s extreme weather fluctuations, with harsh winters and blistering summers, provide a great environment for aging in the barrel. The weather conditions impact the taste by causing the barrels to expand into the wood and then contract, which adds to the flavor.

C – Corn
To be designated as bourbon, it has to be 51% corn. The corn imparts a unique flavor of sweetness on the bourbon that gives it a different taste than whiskey or other spirits. Another reason Kentucky is a great place to make bourbon is its close proximity to where a lot of corn is grown in the Midwest of the United States.

D – Distillation Proof
The proof is the strength of the alcohol. Bourbon can’t be higher than 160 proof coming out of the still above that, and you are in the vodka category. The proof is double whatever the percentage of alcohol is in the spirit. So a bourbon that is 160 proof is 80% alcohol.

E – Entry Proof
Going into the bourbon barrel, it must be 125 proof (62.5% alcohol) or less.

F – Fill Proof
When taken out of the barrel and bottled, the proof has to be 80 (40% alcohol) or above to be considered bourbon.

G – Genuine
No additives are allowed in bourbon. Bourbon has to be natural. If flavors are added, it is not bourbon, it is whiskey. You will see many flavor-added bourbons in the bourbon aisle at the liquor store, but they are not bourbon by definition, they are whiskey.

The Birth of Bourbon - HISTORY

Note: Many thanks to our dear friend Hein Bruins, of Hein's Royal Genealogy Page, who kindly informed us of the birth of this newest descendant of Duke Roberto I of Parma and Piacenza!

Tristan de Bourbon Parme and his wife Shira Szabo have welcomed the birth of their first son, who has been named Imri. Imri de Bourbon Parme was born at London yesterday. The name Imri is Hebrew in origin Imri is the name of two men in the Torah and Bible. The first Imri was a son of Bani, of the tribe of Judah (1 Chronicles 9:4). The second Imri was the father of Zaccur, who assisted Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:2).

Tristan de Bourbon-Parme (b.1974) is the son of Prince Rémy of Bourbon-Parma and his first wife Laurence Dufresne. Tristan is a grandson of Prince Louis (Luigi) of Bourbon-Parma and Princess Maria of Savoy. Tristan's paternal great-grandparents are Duke Roberto I of Parma and Piacenza and his second wife Infanta Maria Antonia of Portugal as well as King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy and Princess Elena of Montenegro.

The Birth of Bourbon: A Photographic Tour of Early Distilleries

Whiskey making has been an integral part of American history since frontier times. In Kentucky, early settlers brought stills to preserve grain, and they soon found that the limestone-filtered water and the unique climate of the scenic Bluegrass region made it an ideal place for the production of barrel-aged liquor. And so, bourbon whiskey was born.

More than two hundred commercial distilleries were operating in Kentucky before Prohibition, but only sixty-one reopened after its repeal in 1933. As the popularity of America's native spirit increases worldwide, many historic distilleries are being renovated, refurbished, and brought back into operation. Unfortunately, these spaces, with their antique tools and aging architecture, are being dismantled to make way for modern structures and machinery. In The Birth of Bourbon , award-winning photographer Carol Peachee takes readers on an unforgettable tour of lost distilleries as well as facilities undergoing renewal, such as the famous Old Taylor and James E. Pepper distilleries in Lexington, Kentucky. This beautiful book also includes spaces that well-known brands, including Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace, have preserved as a homage to their rich histories.

Using a technique known as high-dynamic-range imaging -- a process that produces rich saturation, intensely clarified details, and a full spectrum of light -- Peachee reveals the vibrant life lingering in artifacts from worn cypress fermenting tubs to extravagant copper stills. This lavish celebration of bourbon's heritage will delight whiskey aficionados, history buffs, and art lovers alike.

Birth of the Bourbon Institute, Passage of the Forand Act

Sidney Frank, Schenley’s vice president and Rosenstiel’s son-in-law, had told reporters about the strategy and now other DSI members wanted temporary provisions preventing Rosenstiel from advertising his older products until they had the chance to catch up.

As other liquor titans attempted to undo their competitor, Rosenstiel would prove to be a challenging opponent. He quickly outflanked his DSI adversaries by forming an alternative lobbying group, the Bourbon Institute. Much later in 1973, DSI, the Bourbon Institute, and another trade group would merge to form the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS) – the industry’s main lobbying arm today.

Working swiftly, the Bourbon Institute successfully lobbied for passage of the 1958 Forand Act, which made whiskey taxes due at 20 years instead of eight, buying Rosenstiel precious time. In the long run, it would also give distillers more flexibility to create some of today’s most noteworthy brands although the competitive advantage it gave to Schenley, underwritten by the government, temporarily stoked “the fury of the three other big distilling companies,” as reported by The Economist.

Watch the video: The Birth of Bourbon: James E. Pepper Distillery, a case study (July 2022).


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