‘Red Liquor’

red liquor

In 17th century colonial America, rum was the dominant distilled spirit. It was rather easily produced from molasses which came from an abundant Caribbean sugarcane supply. Boston, was the first city in the colonies to distill rum and it was extremely popular. Rum was America’s original distilled spirit one could easily argue. That’s right, despite knowing that bourbon being the federally protected and distinctive American spirit in the 20th century, It wasn’t always that way. Rum was technically first to be produced and consumed in our country. And as The Bourboneer, I have no problem with that. Brandy, which is distilled from fermented fruit, was also very popular. Peach and pumpkin specifically were the most consumed. Pumpkin!?! Ew! Now I do have a problem with that. In no form does that sound appetizing at all.

It wasn’t until the influx of Scottish and the Irish immigrants, in the late 17th century, that whiskey began to take hold in America. There were issues however. Our soil wasn’t very hospitable for the growing of whiskey’s main ingredient, barely. There just wasn’t much of it around. Corn, on the other hand, was everywhere. There was so much corn that once it was harvested the colonists couldn’t consume or sell all of it. Unfortunately much of the crop was susceptible to decomposition and couldn’t be used. Possessing the knowledge of making whiskey, the colonist found it much more beneficial to distill the unused supply of corn instead of watching rot. Ingenious! The corn whiskey could be stored almost indefinitely and of course became a very lucrative endeavor.

As America’s population continued to increase, thirst for the new corn whiskey naturally followed suit. In order to keep up with demand, methods for storing and transporting the whiskey became a priority. Barrels hewn from the bountiful supply of American oak became the custom of choice used to ship the whiskey. Now using barrels was not a new method of storage, not at all, but it was new for the purpose of storing and transporting whiskey. Barrels that held other products like fish or salted meat were often reused to save money. Why spend the money to make new barrels when you could reuse old barrels once used to store other things. However, before the whiskey could be poured into the barrel, the barrel had to be cleaned and free of potential contaminants. Burning or charring the inside of the barrels was the cheapest and most effective method of sterilization. Clearly, there was not a huge demand for a ‘fishy’  palate in the new whiskey. Can’t say I blame them. Now a pork belly (bacon) aftertaste in a whiskey, specifically bourbon…mercy! I might as well have died and crossed over to glory. But I am getting ahead of myself. My apologies.

What soon became very noticeable to whiskey drinking Americans was that their favorite booze, after being removed from the charred barrel, now had color. It was no longer clear. In the barrel, the once colorless corn whiskey absorbed the characteristics from the charred wood and took on a light brown or red color. The properties of the whiskey also became more purified and possessed less bite and less of a sour or acrid taste. This new ‘red liquor’ understandably became a sensation and laid the groundwork from which bourbon got it’s start. The story behind how bourbon got its name, however, is one of lore and for another time. I promise I will write about it soon.

It’s no coincidence today that bourbon color profiles are commonly described as a gradient of the color red. Look at any bourbon review and you will see tone descriptors such as russet, mahogany, burnt umber, amber, chestnut, auburn, tawny and red gold. Red is a powerful color commonly associated with emotion, power, desire, pioneering spirit, ambition and leadership. Sounds perfectly American if you ask me. It’s no wonder why we love our bourbon so much even if on sometimes subconscious levels not commonly realized. Bourbon has redeeming qualities such as character, bourbon can stand alone without mixing, it’s sweet, it’s spicy, it’s full-bodied and is as ‘red’ blooded American as guns, pick-up trucks and BBQ. Can’t say that about vodka. Can’t say anything about vodka really, well nothing positive anyway.

So the next time you pour yourself a glass of bourbon, hold it up to the light and remember the ingenuity, albeit by happenstance, that made our early whiskey blush enough to become what we now refer to as our distinctive American spirit.

-The Bourboneer

 

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Belle Meade SBW, 45.2% ABV or 90.4 proof, Aged 5.5 – 7.5 years. Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, TN.

References: Whiskey A Very Peculiar History: “Meanwhile in America…” Fiona McDonald. Salariya Book Co., Ltd 2011.

Know Thy Distilled Spirit

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Well if you are drinking bourbon, and you damn well better be, then we know you are enjoying a whisk(e)y. We all know that whisk(e)y is a distilled grain spirit and in the case of bourbon, that grain is mostly corn. At least 51% corn to be considered a bourbon. Obviously it can be more, but never less than 51% as required by the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 C.F.R. 5). Bourbon can only be produced in the United States (For a review of what a bourbon is, please read the Bourbon Basics article posted on this site)

So we know Bourbon is made of corn. But do you know what other popular spirits are made from? How about scotch, rum or vodka? Well, you’re in luck. Despite my affinity for bourbon, I also know a little about other spirits as well. Let The Bourboneer impart some knowledge.

Vodka – Main ingredient: Just about anything. Ingredients like potatoes, rice, sorghum, sugar and even grains like wheat and corn are regularly used. Vodka is distilled so many times the ethanol level is usually around 95% until it is cut with water prior to bottling. All flavor is distilled out and the spirit is not aged therefore leaving a bland characterless offering.

Rum  – Main ingredient: Sugar cane (molasses).

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Scotch  – Main ingredient: Barley but also other cereal grains.

Irish Whiskey – Main ingredient: Barley but also other cereal grains.

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Canadian Whisky – Main ingredient: Rye and Corn

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corn

Tequila – Main ingredient: Agave plant (blue)

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Gin – Main ingredient: Juniper berries

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BrandyMain ingredient: Various fruit depending on type desired (ie., peach, apple)

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CognacMain ingredient: Grapes

SherryMain ingredient: Wine fortified with grape spirit

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So there is a brief overview, not comprehensive of course, but a guide so to speak for the next occasion you partake in your favorite distilled spirit. However, when you pride yourself in drinking the world’s finest spirit, bourbon, then at least 51% corn is all you need to know.

– The Bourboneer

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Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Angel’s Envy KSBW (finished in port wine barrels), 43.3 ABV or 86.6 proof (NAS) Louisville Spirits Group, Louisville, KY.

Oh Yeah!?! Prove it!

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Not to undermine Cervantes’ brilliant quote, but for the sake of this article the proof of the alcohol is in the drinking. By a small sample we may judge the whole barrel. Let me explain.

Before you partake in enjoying your favorite bourbon, do you take a look at the proof? Or the amount of alcohol within? Of course you do. In fact, I am pretty sure that between the time you purchased the bottle and the time you completely emptied it you perused the label to see what “proof” or Alcohol By Volume (ABV%) your bourbon was rated. It is common knowledge that the amount (%) of alcohol  is half of what the proof rates. So for example and to keep it simple, if the proof of your favorite bourbon is 100 then the alcohol content is 50%. This is nothing new to any of you I am sure. But where did the term “proof” come from and what was it’s original meaning?

To find out we need to take a trip back in time to somewhere between 16th and 17th century England. Specifically the Royal Navy and the transportation of one of the Empire’s desired imports…rum. I know this is a bourbon site but just bare with me, will ya!

So imagine yourself back in time sailing on the H.M.S Tall Ship from a New England distillery with a hold filled with barrels upon barrels of rum. You’re a young Quarter gunner’s mate on your way back home to England. It’s a long monotonous journey and all that sailing has made you quite thirsty. But you’re tired of the water aboard ship. You can’t help but staring at a small barrel tucked away in the nose of the hold. It’s practically hidden from plain sight. “No one’s going to know if I take a little. Just a few sips to take the “edge” of this long sail. That’s all! No one will be the wiser.” So you pop the bung from the barrel and dip anything you can find into the sweet intoxicating libation. “So good,” you think to yourself as you take a few more sips. You repeat this process over the next several days, but despite your best efforts to remain discreet a few bowmen catch wind of your chicanery. They threaten to report you to the Lieutenant unless you allow them to take part in your artful deception. You oblige to save your neck.

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To make sure the barrel is not left empty, you and your cohorts cleverly sample from numerous other barrels instead of just the one. However, after a few days of inconspicuous imbibing you realize there are several barrels that are much “lighter” than when they were originally stowed. Especially that first smaller barrel. You begin to panic. To rectify the problem you add water, saltwater, urine and whatever you can find to restore the level of the barrels back to the desired amount. Phew! You just prevented yourself from being keel-hauled or being hung from the yardarm.

Or did you?

After the long and arduous sail, the Captain, the Master and the Captain of Marines  decide celebrate their arrival home with a drink from a small private barrel set aside in the nose of the ship’s hold. But these officers are no dummies. They know the temptations that befall sailors during such journeys. As you peak into the galley, you see the Captain make a small pile of gunpowder on an old charred wooden plank. “What is he doing?” you despair. Then, from the small barrel that you and your mates carelessly over-sampled for nearly the entire trip, the Captain fills a small glass and pours it over the gunpowder. “Huh?” you ask yourself. “What is going on here?” The Master hands him a flame from a small desk lamp. Phhhssssst! The flame immediately goes out and the gunpowder doesn’t ignite. “Captain!” the Captain sternly bellows to the Captain of the Marines. “Find out who is responsible for this!” You watch in terror as the Marine commander nods,”Yes Captain, right away!”

A few hours later you find yourself with your hands and feet bound and a rope around your neck being hoisted to the block of the upper arm. As you look down desparately squirming, taking your last breath, you see those scoundrel bowmen grinning as they man the rope. Your last thought, “How in the King’s name did the Captain prove the rum in the barrel was watered down?”

The Captain was wise enough to know that unadulterated rum would ignite when introduced to fire and would subsequently burn with a dull cherry colored flame. This was his way of “proving” that the alcohol was or wasn’t watered down. If it wasn’t diluted then it was considered “100 proof” and worthy of being enjoyed. It was determined that gunpowder would not burn in rum with less than 57.15% alcohol. So if the rum burned or ignited then it contained at least that amount and was defined as having 100 degrees of proof. So there you have it! The etymology of the the word “proof”as it relates to alcohol.

Like most things that were born of British ingenuity, we in the United States eventually changed the proof system to our liking in 1848. At that time, proof became known as the percentage of alcohol in our spirits such as bourbon.

So be sure to check out the proof of your next bourbon purchase. But I think you’re pretty safe in drinking it at your leisure without pouring it over gunpowder. In fact, for the safety of you and your family, I strongly recommend not testing the proof in such a manner. Please just read the label instead.

-The Bourboneer

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Evan Williams KSBW, 43% ABV or 86 proof (NAS) Old Evan Williams Distillery, Bardstown, KY.

References:

http://www.wikipedia.com -“Alcohol proof”, http://www.hmsrichmond.org, http://www.wikipedia.com-“Royal Navy ranks, rates and uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries”, http://www.macmillandictionary.com -“Parts of boats and ships”, http://www.izquotes.com