Have you ever accidentally picked up a cup at a party, thinking it was yours, and suddenly realizing it wasn’t. Then to your dismay you not only realized that it most certainly wasn’t yours, but that it was someone else’s chew or tobacco “spit cup?” Even worse, did you take a sip by mistake and then projectile vomit across the room? I have. Well, I never experienced the sheer terror of actually drinking someone’s diarrhea consistent, mud colored, mint flavored spit, but I did come pretty close. I’ve been witness, however, to a woman who unwittingly committed such a regretful party foul. It was awful…the gagging, the reverse peristalsis, the fear and confusion in her eyes. I nearly called an ambulance. I had too. My stomach hurt so badly from laughing that I couldn’t catch my breath. I know I am a terrible person for making light of someone else’s tragedy. But you weren’t there. It was so beyond comprehension that all I could do was laugh. Ahhhh, the good times! Anyway moving on, I will never forget that unfortunate scene. But I do want you to hold on to that thought for a moment.
In this country, back in the 1800’s bourbon was often purchased by wholesalers right from the distilleries. Many wholesalers then blended the bourbon with other “neutral” spirits to “water down” the product before selling it to establishments. Basically, the blenders would use a portion of the real bourbon, cut it with cheaper spirits and then sell their version as genuine bourbon at a premium price. Despite sounding so scandalous this dilution process was very common and actually had a name. It was called rectification and of course money was at the heart of it’s derivation. But with that being said, let’s get back to the spit.
What do you think happened to the beautiful amber color of bourbon when it was blended with a neutral spirit of a clearer hue? That’s right…the cherished and expected color became faded and less vibrant. So when these wholesale blenders sold “their” product to bars, pubs and taverns, the often seedy proprietors did what they could to reintroduce a “true” bourbon color without adding actual bourbon. Making a quick buck at the expense of unsuspecting patrons was the name of the game. And some of the ingredients they used were, well, quite unsavory and not only made people very ill, but were also known to cause death.
First on the list, was turpentine and not to exclude many other similar non-potable chemicals. Yeah, you heard me correctly…paint thinner was used to enhance the color of bourbon. I bet that felt good going down! Talk about a whiskey “burn.” But the coup de grace of additives (and the subject matter of this article) had to be…can you guess? Oh yeah, you got it! Yup, it was tobacco spit (juice). Really, tobacco spit!?! I mean just because it’s brown doesn’t make it acceptable. I can think of a lot of other things, many, many other things that wouldn’t be nearly as dreadful in my bourbon. Why those cheap, no good sons-a-bitches! I can’t even imagine coming to the realization, at the end of a long night of drinking, that I had been slurping down the fresh and still warm chaw of the morally and physically reprehensible bar tender. Oh wait, I can imagine. I saw it firsthand when that poor soul at the party years ago became Regan MacNeil of the Exorcist. Unfortunately, this is not something I made up. Tobacco spit (juice) was an actual ingredient used to enhance the color bourbon. Sad but true.
Thankfully in 1897, Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act. This act created a government certified authenticity that protected the bourbon making process and in essence the integrity of our native spirit. To be considered Bottled-in-Bond, the bourbon had to be made during a single distillation season by a single distillery. During which it had to be stored in a federally bonded warehouse for a minimum of four (4) years. After the four years it had to be bottled at 100 proof, or 50% ABV. The certified authenticity of being Bottled-in-Bond was displayed on the label and guaranteed where the bourbon was distilled and bottled. This was the law. Some labels still use the Bottled-in-Bond process today (Jim Beam, Col. E.H. Taylor and JTS Brown).
So, the next time you pour yourself a glass of your favorite bourbon and admire the beautiful russet, auburn or even burnt umber hue, be thankful. Be thankful to the government. Yes, that entity we usually want far away from our personal lives and choices. Be thankful they had the foresight to take action to protect not only our beloved bourbon, but our lives as well. Remember, if it wasn’t for their legislation you and I could still be sipping on turpentine or even worse, tobacco spit!
Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Jim Beam Single Barrel KSBW. 47.5% ABV or 95 proof (no age statement) Jim Beam Distilling Co., Frankfurt,KY.
References: American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, Clay Risen, 2013 New York, NY. Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit, Dave Huckelbridge, 2014 New York, NY. Bourbon Curious, Fred Minnick, 2015 Minneapolis, MN.
Image provided by “Weird Science” Universal Studios – Silver Pictures, United States (1985).