Bourbon gets it start…
Welcome to the American Whiskey Podcast where we talk about the intersection of American history and American whiskey. In this episode we are going to talk about the birth of bourbon. Up until now in our historical whiskey journey, we’ve talked about early whiskey that was primarily unaged. But at what point did they start putting this unaged whiskey into barrels that had been lit on fire? And much like the first person who watched an egg come out of a chicken’s butt and thought, hmmm let’s crack that and put whatever is inside in my mouth, who thought of the idea of lighting the inside of barrels on fire and aging whiskey in them? Whiskey advertisers would have you believe it was a certain man who’s name is scrawled across labels in every liquor store in the US. But those mad men have been known to stretch the truth a time or two. At the end of this episode we’ll be trying some Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, so if you’ve got some, pour it in a glass and let it breathe as we explore a tale of stretched truth and duplicity.
We are going back to the mid to late 1700’s and might even go further back. So jump in your time machine, be prepared to encounter some morlocks and let’s hope that our removal of the levers have stopped them from figuring out how to operate our machine while it’s locked inside that giant sphinx. As we discussed in previous episodes, the whiskey market in the mid 1700s is booming. The whiskey is safer to drink than water, cause like dysentery could kill you, bro. It keeps you warm in the cold winters. It lasts longer and is easier to transport than the grain it’s made from and it would definitely take the edge off of a 16 hour day working on the plantation.
So let’s first start with the definition of Bourbon. So, as we’ve talked about before, American whiskey is a makeup of American grains, ground down and added to water. Then yeast is added and that yeast starts a process known as fermentation, essentially the yeast eats the sugars present in the grain and then the yeast expels gasses and more importantly alcohol. This is then cooked and the gas that evaporates is captured and cooled, thus making white dog in liquid form. This is what they were drinking throughout the 1700s. But For that white dog whiskey to become bourbon it must then be aged in new charred oak barrels. In addition, it must be at least 51% corn, the remaining 49% can be any other grain, including more corn. There are requirements on proof as well, it must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof, it must enter the barrel at no higher than 125 proof, and it must be bottled at higher than 80 proof. An interesting thing to note is that there is no requirement on age for a whiskey to be called a bourbon, it just must touch the inside of a new charred oak barrel. However, to be labeled as a straight bourbon, it must be aged for at least 2 years. Of course the government is the one who came up with all these numbers and specifications, but who came up with that original process of charred barrels?
A preacher discovered bourbon?
So legend has it that a Baptist preacher from Virginia is the man we have to thank for giving us sweet, sweet bourbon whiskey. His name is Elijah Craig and he was a fiery preacher at that, a real fire and brimstone type of guy. In fact he amassed such a following that the local Virginia clergy and they put him in jail. Of course, this was in 1768 and was before the declaration of independence and such, so English Episcopalian clergy were still the rule of the land. But from his jail cell he continued to preach and one of the men he influenced with his message was a man named James Madison. Most of you will recognize that name as a president of the united states.
Elijah Craig and James Madison…
It is known that Elijah Craig has several conversations with James Madison about the freedom of religion. Being that one of the main sources of fuel for the American Revolution was the freedom of religion, it’s easy to see Elijah Craig as a minor character in the war. He was jailed at least twice by Anglican officials for “disturbing the peace” but it was well known he was thrown in jail because his theology differed with that of the crown. Because of this oppression, Craig and his followers, deemed the travelling church, move westward into the territory that would later become the state of Kentucky.
It is conceivable then, that the conversations that took place between James Madison and Elijah Craig greatly influenced Madison’s penning of the first amendment. As you may have heard, Madison is considered the father of the Constitution and one of the things he considered of great importance was religious freedom. There are several letters exchanged between Craig and Madison that discuss not only matters of religion but also more personal matters such as the division of counties in Kentucky and that if Kentucky were to become its own state, it have equal representation in the government. This suggests Craig asking a favor of Madison and further denotes a friendly acquaintance between the two.
Anyways back to the bourbon. So we have a very popular drink called whiskey, but the taste is a little rough around the edges, which is great for frontiersman and the rugged type, but not so great for the refined palates of the city folk who were used to wines and cognac imported from Europe, specifically France, this is an important note to our story but we’ll get back to it.
So Elijah Craig first opens a distillery in 1789. Amongst other much more profitable and notable businesses like a wool mill. In his production of whiskey a terrible accident happens and the barn which he is using as a cooperage catches on fire, scorching the wood that was piled up to build new barrels, leaving a thick char on the inside. Of course, wood was really hard to come by in the densely forested region of Kentucky, so it had to be used anyways. Craig built the barrels putting the charred side of the wood inward and filled them with whiskey anyways. This resulted in the wood absorbing the new make whiskey and the sugars from the charred wood integrating with the liquid, creating the first batch of Bourbon and establishing the method in which we still use today.
Actually, that’s not true. That’s not true at all. In fact, the REAL way Elijah Craig invented bourbon was because he was buying a bunch barrels of fish, nails or other products. He recognized these barrels as still being good, we just gotta get this fish taste out of the barrel. So he took the barrels out back and burned the inside of the barrels enough to remove any remnants of the previous contents. Once that pesky fish taste is burned out it’s fit for the whiskey and viola! We have a whiskey that’s more like scotch because of the natural sea air being infused into it, straight from fish guts. Sound appetizing? No?
That’s because none of this stuff actually happened. In fact, there is no evidence that Elijah Craig actually invented or even produced bourbon at all. But the marketing department of Heaven Hill doesn’t want you to know that, Oh no. You see, in the year 1874, almost a hundred years after Elijah Craig had his distillery, there was a book written by a guy named Richard Collins called History of Kentucky. In this book good ole Dick, references that Bourbon was started in the same area that Craig had his distillery. When Heaven Hill read that when they opened in 1935, shortly after prohibition, they decided they’d brand a bourbon named after him and then flooded the market with the rumor that Elijah Craig is prominent figure in whiskey because he invented bourbon.
Okay, so it is pretty well established that Elijah Craig was in fact, not the father of bourbon. So who did invent bourbon? This is up for a ton of debate. There is actually evidence of people aging wine in charred casks all the way back to the Roman Empire. In fact, there is record as early as 20ish AD and a little later in 60ish AD when Pliny the Elder, ya he was like a historian before he became your favorite Russian River IPA, wrote of Gallic tribes storing wine in charred wood barrels. Although not confirmed, this is the earliest recorded use of barrels aging alcohol. Pliny even noted that the tribe was aware that using certain kinds of wood would poison the wine. Which leads us to believe they have been using barrels for a really long time to have had the experience to know which would turn their alcohol to poison.
So fast-forward a couple thousand years. Kentucky is exporting their whiskey to different territories, including traveling down the river to the French settled territory of New Orleans. There were business owners serving alcohol to people and noticed that most of the consumers preferred the French wines and the cognacs. The French had been aging cognac in since the 1400s with the purpose of mellowing out the spirit and adding color. So it didn’t take distillers long to catch on when their corn whiskey sat on the shelves and the aged spirits sold.
So modern historians have chose two likely candidates for the first use of charred barrels. Specifically, two brothers who had made their way from France during the Reign of Terror, which was basically a French Civil War, the Tarascon brothers had bought land down the river from Kentucky, in between New Orleans and Kentucky. They bought this with plans of building a shipyard because they had lost a ship over the Ohio falls. This put them in perfect position to buy un-aged whiskey coming out of Kentucky and place that whiskey into charred barrels. Then they sent it down to New Orleans. This greatly increased the flavor of the corn whiskey and put it on par with the much more expensive cognacs and brandies being imported but at a fraction of the cost.
So obviously, before this time the word “Bourbon” wasn’t attached to American corn whiskey. So where did the name come from? There was a French royal family dating back to the 13th century. Because of the previously mentioned exodus out of France during the Reign of Terror, there was a lot of French influence on the naming of cities and streets. In Kentucky, there is a county called Bourbon county that was named after the French Royal Family. In addition to that, there was Bourbon street in New Orleans.
So just like the story of Elijah Craig there are two versions of how the word bourbon became attached because it was used as a reference to the county where it came from or because they would order it using slang, “give me some of that bourbon street whiskey.” But this time, the marketing guys are actually to blame. There is a theory that it’s the middlemen like the Tarascon brothers that came up with the name. It was a great sounding name that people outside of French colonists didn’t have an association with. And furthermore, the Bourbon royal family was mostly regarded as good leaders by the French. As a bonus, anyone who did take offense could be told that it was actually named after the county it came from. Thus, bourbon earned its name.
Let’s drink some bourbon
It’s crazy how much influence marketing men have on history, huh? Well what do you say we drink some bourbon named after the guy who didn’t invent bourbon?
The Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 139.4. This is the 11th release of this series. So I’ll start this off by saying the 139.4 proof on this is insanely high. This is a barrel proof bourbon which means the proof that goes in the bottle is the proof that came out of the barrel. The Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is uncut and unfiltered according to their marketing department. Uncut means that there is no water added after the barreling process. In a lot of bourbons they add water to it after it comes out of the barrel to lower the proof and make it easier to consume. But not here.
The nose of this bourbon assaults your nose hairs with the most wonderful aroma. I get golden grahams so strongly on the nose. It’s so complex and fantastic. Underlying the thick maple and caramel are hints of apple cinnamon and orange peel. Honestly this is one of the best noses on any bourbon I’ve ever smelled. The sweet scents mask any of the alcohol smell that you’d typically get from the high proof.
The palate reminds you that you’re drinking 139.4 proof whiskey. Heat consumes your mouth and as the initial burn tapers off, your left with notes of oak and dark fruit, like cherries and black berries. For real, this is derlicious. The finish is long, so so long. As it travels down your throat your entire is body is warmed with that oh so pleasant tingle. The finish remains hot, but has a sweetness that makes me continue to smack my lips.
Honestly, with retail landing around 60-80 dollars, this bourbon is really hard to beat. The proof might be a little off putting at first, but if you can get past that, the reward is spectacular. Now the bad news is this is allocated, meaning it’s released once a quarter and in pretty limited quantities. The good news is the distributors haven’t kidnapped this one and started holding it hostage, so if you do see it on the shelf, chances are it will be for retail or slightly above. You should buy it. This is a fantastic example of what a barrel proof bourbon can offer.
And we’re done. We’ve been on a journey discovering who the father of bourbon is and unlike an episode of Maury, we actually have a pretty good idea that we’ve got two dads. You know, I tell my wife I have the heart of a small boy, filled with courage and wonder, then I hold up the jar its kept in and she rolls her eyes at me. Hope you enjoyed this episode. Catch ya on the flipside.
Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage By Michael Veach
Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey By Reid Miten buler