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.
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.