My introduction to bourbon happened early one morning when my prospective mother-in-law reached across and offered me her flask. It was my first time out. I swigged with gusto, the stuff would have made Godzilla gasp. Mother R. looked at me, smiled, and said “for courage”. This is part of the tradition. It keeps you happy. It keeps you warm. It keeps you brave and it kept me on the horse!
It has been called everything from Dixie Nectar and Liquor Joy to Old Friend. It is Bourbon the legendary liquid embodiment of the American spirit a democratic drink savored by devotees who run the gamut from Chanel-suited arbiters of taste to good old boys and from oratorically inclined politicos to CEOs and college students. And now, right up there with such American icons as Levi's, Coca-Cola and Apple, bourbon has gone global where trendy young drinkers have discovered its unique flavor. It is the chic drink in hip clubs and the sole attraction at innumerable whiskey-only bars, where its all-American imagery has lent the liquor an ineffable cachet and an aura rivaled only by trinkets from Tiffany.
The fascination with bourbon is as informed as it is intense. A journalist spent many hours at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, in Bardstown, Kentucky. The visits purpose? Research for a book a catalog-size compendium containing photos of every shred of bourbon memorabilia and paraphernalia housed in the museum itself.
Bourbon is a drink whose historic roots mirror the folklore of America's colorful, fiercely independent frontier past. Back when streams still sparkled and the social life of early Kentucky settlers revolved around quilting bees and barn raisings, the native corn grown on most farms was a staple for both man and beast, and the "good spirits" distilled by settlers were an accepted medium of exchange. With the prohibitive cost of transporting milled corn to the eastern markets, it was not long before some bright fellow figured out that by converting the crop to whiskey, a horse could carry the equivalent of a dozen bushels of corn to the nearest trading post.
The crystal-clear water used to distill the whiskey was another pivotal element in the early days of bourbon's development. Central Kentucky sits on a deep shelf of limestone, which acted as a filter on the streams running through it, leaving the water free of the iron and minerals that might adversely affect the product's taste. Kentucky whiskey didn't actually become bourbon until the Reverend Elijah Craig, a Kentucky-based Baptist preacher who took pleasure in an occasional nip, reportedly devised the prototype in the spring of 1789, when he accidentally charred the inside of one of the barrels he was using to transport his homemade liquor (a combination of limestone-pure spring water and corn with some rye and barley malt) by barge to the New Orleans market. The thrifty Craig used the charred barrel anyway, and a few months later, when the whiskey had made its voyage downriver, it was discovered that it had taken on added color and balance by absorbing tannic acid and caramel from the scorched wood. He distilled his whiskey in Bourbon County (named in honor of the French who aided the Colonists in the Revolutionary War); hence, the liquor's name.
In the early days, bourbon was sold and shipped to taverns in barrels, accompanied by a few fancified empty bottles. Since the barrels were unsealed, the quality of the whiskey varied depending on whether an unscrupulous middleman had diluted it or substituted one brand for another. Once at the tavern, the liquor was poured into the decanters, which were etched with the distillers' brand name. George Garvin Brown, the founder of Old Forester, is credited with being the first to bottle and seal bourbon in glass in 1870. Soon other distillers followed suit, and Brown's sensible solution established an early form of bourbon quality control.
Bourbon is all-American literally as well as figuratively, for it is decreed by federal law that bourbon may be made only in the United States from a fermented mash of grain containing a minimum of 51 percent corn (though the percentage may run as high as 75 percent) and aged for a minimum of two years in charred oak barrels that may be used only once. Varying percentages of other grains such as rye, barley, and wheat are also allowed. The mysterious changes in color (from clear to amber) and flavor (from raw pungency to smoothness) wrought during bourbon's maturing process are a function of the barrels in which it ages. As the bourbon expands and contracts in and out of the red layer of caramelized wood behind the charred layer, the liquor's taste, bouquet, and rich color develop. The charred oak gives bourbon its color.
Faithful purists drink bourbon neat from a small snifter or tulip glass in the same fashion that an elegant cognac is enjoyed. In concert with other liquids, bourbon is also the pivotal ingredient in a myriad of mixed drinks from Manhattans, old-fashioneds, and whiskey sours to ambrosially festive, highly ceremonial mint juleps that are synonymous with Kentucky Derby time and languid afternoons of dawdling on verandas.
Today there are more than 200 bourbons distilled in the United States. But cold hearted sales figures, of course, are not the whole story. It's important to bear in mind that emotions run high among bourbon fans when it comes to their elixir of choice.
Rife with the romance of America's rough-and-tumble past, bourbon has also inspired some rather potent poetics. Bernard DeVoto, in The Hour, described true bourbon as “awaking delight like any great wine with a rich and magical plenitude of overtones and rhymes and resolved dissonances and a contrapuntal succession of fleeting aftertastes."
In a more earthbound vein, it is said that on an excursion abroad, Mark Twain claimed to customs inspectors that he was traveling only with clothing. As an inspector turned up a carefully cosseted bottle of bourbon from his suitcase, Twain promptly identified it as his "much needed nightcap."
And even our Secretary of State…a much needed nightcap or for courage, she did not say.