Bourbon: Harnessing the Spirit of America

Most politicians keep their affection for liquor off the record, so it takes a special drink to inspire positive U.S. Congressional action. But bourbon, traditionally enjoyed by Kentucky Derby spectators the first Saturday in May in some 120,000 mint julep cocktails at Churchill Downs, is by Congress’s decree a “distinctively American” spirit deserving of extraordinary safeguards.

Bourbon’s history is entwined with America’s itself. In 1791, U.S. Treasury Secretary (and recent hip-hop hero) Alexander Hamilton decided to pay down the Revolutionary War’s bills by taxing some product made and consumed in America. That product was the whiskey we now know as bourbon. Bad idea.

Many whiskey-makers were Scottish and Irish farmers who had—like their homeland ancestors—turned excess crops into alcohol. Farmers on the frontier (now western Pennsylvania) often bartered items rather than using cash so when the tax collectors arrived, they couldn’t pay the tax. They rebelled by tarring and feathering those tax collectors, so President George Washington suggested (with an army of 13,000 to back him up, just in case) that they move to new frontier land past the Allegheny Mountains named “Bourbon County.” Incidentally, what was then “Bourbon County” was an area so huge, it encompasses 34 current-day counties, part of which is modern Bourbon County, Kentucky.

The farmers’ specialty would become known as bourbon whiskey. And the Whiskey Rebellion would establish both that our new nation could withstand violent citizen opposition, and a consuming passion for the indigenous U.S. spirit that centuries later is a global obsession.

All whiskies are fermented mashes of grains, distilled into alcohol. Bourbon specifically uses mostly corn as its base, and is aged in charred new white oak barrels. It’s quintessentially American both in ingredients (corn and oak) and in its resourcefulness. Americans had lots of corn but didn’t have reliable ways of transporting it. Americans needed liquor. And oak trees were plentiful, therefore oak barrels became an easy way to transport the whiskey—and made the drink tasty too.

barrel of bourbon

A Woodford Reserve barrel waits to be opened at the distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. Photo by Flickr user Andrew McDaniel, Creative Commons

The oak’s sugars caramelize when toasted, so the liquid picks up an amber color and smoky-sweet vanilla flavor as it flows through the barrel’s pores. As with creating any flavored product, the maker’s own recipe, techniques, time of ageing, and specific wood will all contribute to a bourbon’s specific flavor.

All of this history and care led Congress in 1964 to declare bourbon a distinctive product of the United States, “unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” Coincidentally, the statement was approved in conjunction with the World’s Fair that closed 50 years ago; and 2015’s World’s Fair—focused on food—opens in Milan on Friday. Expect bourbon.

In making its declaration and promising that the U.S. would keep any foreign whiskey “bourbon” out of the country, Congress endeavored to give this liquor name protection similar to Blue Ivy. By federal law, Bourbon, among other rules, must be at least 51 percent but not more than 80 percent corn mash (the rest is a distillery’s particular mixture of barley, rye, and wheat) and at least 80 proof but not more than 160 proof.

Bourbon can legally be made anywhere in the U.S., but Kentuckians will insist that their water is special, like New Yorkers with their bagels and pizza. Kentucky water is low in iron, because it passes through limestone, and high in magnesium and calcium. (Kentucky racehorse owners also credit the water for their strong animals.) That’s why bourbon made in Kentucky will always say “Kentucky Bourbon.” Lobster can be from anywhere too, but if it’s from Maine, wouldn’t you say so?

For two decades, America’s international trade agreements have included special bourbon protections, with foreign countries agreeing not to manufacture or export anything called “bourbon.” NAFTA recognizes bourbon as a U.S. product, as do several compacts with other countries. These protections are needed, as bourbon’s exports in 2013 totaled more than $1 billion if you count Jack Daniels (but its extra step of charcoal filtering makes it legally a whiskey and not a bourbon).

Today’s global booming cocktail culture is one reason for the rise in bourbon consumption. The spirit’s ability to mix well with ingredients is notable, particularly for a brown liquor. Scotch, for example, isn’t known for its mixability, although its distillers are trying to change that.

The bourbon demand and race to keep up supply is causing some frenzy. Kentucky officials just busted an alleged bourbon heist ring for stealing 18 barrels, at 500 pounds each. It included Pappy Van Winkle, which my friend just bought at an auction for $6,500 for a bottle.

By law, distillers can use bourbon barrels only once for aging, so spent ones are available for kitsch collectors or sent overseas for aging Scotch. For gourmets who like Bourbon’s flavor in food and other drink, old barrels are now aging everything from beer to maple syrup to Worcestershire sauce.

So for this Saturday’s 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, one bet is safe—the two-minute race will allow for hours of great bourbon drinking. Some say that our young country doesn’t have much by way of food culture. But by God, we have bourbon. And thanks to federal law, a lot of international agreements, and the continued help of the Congressional Bourbon Caucus, no one can take that away.