July 18, 2009

Early Distilling In Kentucky

Several sources of bourbon-related information name Elijah Craig as Kentucky's first bourbon distiller. Other sources give that title to Evan Williams. Wrong. Undoubtedly, both Craig and Williams had a beneficial impact on bourbon distilling in the 1780's and later. However, bourbon was distilled in what is now Kentucky years before either Craig or Williams began to make whiskey.

It's important to understand that in colonial America, distilling spirits - whiskey, rye, brandy, rum - was simply part of everyday life. Having distilling equipment was as common as having a grist mill or a loom, and distillation was an efficient and necessary means to make good use of grain surpluses grown in the colonies - what wasn't used for food was either distilled or traded. So, even before settlers moved into Kentucky, spirits were being distilled all along the eastern seaboard, Maryland and Pennsylvania being known for rye and the New England area for rum.

When colonists moved into Kentucky around 1774, most traveled via land through Virginia, and later via river from Pennsylvania. These settlers knew how to distill, and upon the creation of permanent frontier settlements, distilleries were built as a matter of course. Keep in mind that in these early days, the vast majority of stills were made for home consumption and not commercial use. And, since corn was the primary crop grown in the Kentucky frontier (along with wheat), it became the surplus grain used to make whiskey, and eventually bourbon. Elijah Craig and Evan Williams didn't show up until years laters.

Whiskey distillers simply moved to Kentucky - they weren't born there. Settlers took their well established European distillation practices with them as they expanded westward, and into what is today Kentucky. They worked with what the land gave them, most notably corn, and made their spirits accordingly. Consequently, the initial distillation of bourbon whiskey was dependent on the idiosyncracies of Kentucky's climate and soil rather than a single man.

July 10, 2009

Jim Beam White Label Review, and Just For Fun, Jim Beam Red Stag Review

Jim Beam White Label is the best selling bourbon in the U.S. and abroad. The White Label is Beam's standard bottling, and to many people is synonymous with bourbon. It's aged 4 years, making it relatively young, and is priced very competitively at around $13.00 per 750 ml.

White Label's color is pale amber, and you can tell it hasn't had too many years in the barrel. It is also 80 proof. Its nose is pleasant and soft, very floral and clean. It's pretty thin in the glass, and is without the strong legs that some people pay close attention to. Tasting gives slight cinnamon and a sweet dankness. This dankness, in the finish, turns into what I consider the signature Beam flavor: heady, sour funkiness. I think this taste is attributable to the Beam Family yeast, and it imparts a marked organic mustiness to the bourbon.

I think there are better bourbons at this price range. While I can enjoy the vast majority of bourbons neat, I do prefer Beam White on ice. It also mixes very well in cocktails. Given its ubiquity, if it's all you can get you hands on, it won't ruin your evening. All in all I don't seek White Label out too often.

Moving on, we have Jim Beam's Red Stag. The Red Stag website explains the product: "Born in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country, Red Stag by Jim Beam™ contains all the pride of Jim Beam's 200 year old family tradition. Through a slow infusion process, our distillers start with fine four year old Jim Beam® Bourbon and then complement its distinctive taste with hints of natural black cherry flavor. The result is a sweet well-rounded taste that's delicious mixed or straight up."

I first heard about Red Stag in late February, and it was officially released on June 1. I had occassion to get a bottle, so this review marks my first encounter with it. I should also mention that I am still having an internal battle regarding flavored bourbons - are they too gimicky, thereby insulting bourbon heritage? Or are they merely another product, albeit aimed at a particular market segment, that simply add to the array of whiskey choices? I don't know, but I am trying to be open-minded. Anyways...

Red Stag, per the label, is "Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused With Natural Flavors." It is black cherry flavored, is 80 proof, and is virtually identical in color to Beam White Label, with a slight red tinge.

The nose is unsurprisingly syrupy sweet, and smells candy sweet. In the background is a distinct bourbon and ethanol smell. The taste allows a lot of the Beam-ness to come through, and while flavored, you still know 1) there is bourbon in here, and 2) that bourbon is Beam. I appreciate that Beam did not sacrifice bourbon taste for the sake of flavor infusion. It finishes, well, like Beam and cherries. The closest thing I can compare it to is whiskey mixed with Torani blackberry syrup.

Red Stag is not a failure. I would drink it again willingly, on the right occassion. The Beam company being what it is, I'm sure there was substantial market research and all that to make the introduction of Red Stag something more than a calculated risk. I guess we'll see, and if nothing else, at least us bourbon enthusiasts have one more thing to talk about.

July 6, 2009

A Rare Glimpse Into Anchor's Distillery

Anyone who has toured San Franciso's Anchor Brewing knows that you get to sample their beer for free and see how they make it. What you aren't allowed to see, however, is the small distillery on site. I am a big fan of Anchor's rye whiskey products, and also believe that Fritz Maytag (Anchor's owner) represents all good things in American whiskey.

Enjoy - it's absolutely worth it. And, I apologize for not being able to embed the video (I'm not allowed).


July 1, 2009

How Bourbon Really Got Its Name, Really?

There are several different stories that explain, or attempt to explain, how American corn whiskey became known as bourbon. Despite the differences among these accounts, there is a common thread linking them all together: Bourbon County, Kentucky.

After the American Revolution, what is today the State of Kentucky was a large territory in Virginia. Around 1780, Virginia began to divide this large Kentucky territory into smaller units. To pay respect to the French for helping the U.S. defeat England, a bunch of these divisions were named after the French, one of which being called Bourbon County after the French royal family. So, that's how Kentucky got a Bourbon County.

One explanation of American whiskey being called bourbon was simply because bourbon was invented in Bourbon County. Many related accounts expound on this idea, claiming Elijah Craig was the first to distill "bourbon" in Bourbon County that was called "Bourbon County Whiskey." The name was eventually shortened to just bourbon. The unfortunate side to this tale is that Mr. Craig never distilled in Bourbon County and there is not one single place where bourbon can accurately be said to have been invented.

Others say that the bourbon name grew from Kentucky's trade with southern cities. Whiskey was a popular export from Kentucky, and much of it was shipped down the Ohio River. The primary port in Kentucky served Bourbon County, an area where a lot of corn whiskey was being produced. However, the vast Bourbon County was subdivided into 34 smaller counties as the 19th century approached, and the region was then known as Old Bourbon County. The whiskey that was made in this Old Bourbon region was labeled "Old Bourbon Whiskey" on the barrels that were shipped down river. As time went by and more whiskey was shipped, people began to understand Old Bourbon Whiskey to be the corn-based whiskey that many had not tasted before. Eventually, "bourbon" was the name used by whiskey drinkers to distinguish it from rye.

Along those same lines, another account tells us that both Bourbon County and Kentucky earned a respected reputation for the whiskey that the early Americans made there. "Kentucky bourbon" became the popular, generic classification for the whiskey that came from that part of the county, differentiating it from Pennsylvania rye.

Still other accounts discuss how advertising gave bourbon its name. When whiskey was shipped down the Mississippi River, it was referred to as "whiskey from Bourbon," meaning Bourbon County. In 1821, it was first advertised as "bourbon whiskey," and within 20 years, bourbon was the household name for American corn whiskey.

Finally, another explanation goes like this. By 1786, bourbon was known as "Kentucky" or "Western whiskey" so people could tell it apart it from Pennsylvania and Maryland whiskey. In this same year, about, Bourbon County was created, and near this time whiskey was first floated down the Mississippi River for trade with New Orleans and St. Louis from Bourbon County. The whiskey became to be known as "bourbon" based on its point of origin.

Well it seems that no two stories are the same. But despite the nuances, the common thread of Bourbon County remains. The most plausible explanation appears to be that many different distillers in and around Bourbon County made whiskey from corn. Since there was a concentration of these whiskey makers in the area, their corn product became associated with the Bourbon County region. Whether by trade, advertising, or word-of-mouth, this Bourbon County whiskey became popular, and eventually became known as bourbon. So, Scotch comes from Scotland, Irish whisky comes from Ireland, and at one point, corn whiskey came from Bourbon County and the surrounding area.