Friday, June 14, 2013

Bourbon—What Americans Drank Before Craft Beers, Clever Little Chardonnays, and Flavored Vodka

Well, it’s Flag Day, official birthday of the Stars and Stripes.  As good enough reason as any to celebrate.  Pull up a chair.  Let me pour you one—Bourbon.  Neat of course, straight out of the bottle and into the glass.  A little water back.
You see by some accounts it’s also the birthday of Bourbon whiskey.  Legend has it that on June 14, 1789 the Rev. Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher in what was then Fayette County, Virginia and is now Scott County in north central Kentucky, poured the raw corn whiskey from his still into charred oak barrels to age, which would ultimately become a brown colored elixir. 
Craig was born in Orange County, Virginia somewhere between 1738 and 1743.  He was a moderately successful tobacco planter in 1761 when he was born again and became a Baptist along with several of his brothers.  Within a few years he was preaching, first in his own barn, then on the circuit before becoming the pastor of Blue Run church, halfway between Barboursville and Liberty Mills.  Later he was appointed apostle the wide area north of the James River.
But the Baptists, threatening to sweep the back country and frontier of Virginia, soon came under attack by established Anglican Church.  Several time Craig and his brothers, who had followed him as preachers, were arrested and jailed for failing to pay taxes to support the church and preaching without a license.
With the hold of the Anglicans weakened during the American Revolution  Thomas Jefferson famously got the revolutionary Virginia government to adopt the principle of freedom of religion in the Declaration of Rights in 1776. Craig spoke to and converted ever larger crowds, often mixed Whites and Blacks, both slave and free. 
But when the war ended elements of the Tidewater aristocracy pressed for the church, now re-established as the Episcopal Church to regain its privileges and tax support.  Craig was a leader of the western Baptists who fought for their religious freedom allied James Madison and supported from afar by Jefferson.  He was a delegate to the Ratification Convention of 1788 and with Patrick Henry opposed the adoption of the Constitution without a Bill of Rights.  After securing religious liberty in the Virginia and Federal constitutions Craig was ever after a  vigorous Jefferson Republican.
Meanwhile Craig’s brothers had led the largest migration to the new lands beyond the mountains, the so called Traveling Church of more than 600 people who crossed into Kentucky County through the Cumberland Gap.  In 1782 Craig joined his brothers and bought a large tract of land near the settlement of Lebanon.  Within a few years not only had built up a church and a fine farm, but had established lumber and Grist mills, a blacksmith shop and nail cutter, as well as general stores and taverns.  The distillery he established in 1789 was just the next logical step in the expansion of his holdings.  With a still Craig could convert the corn from his farms and mills to a product that could be hauled over the mountains and sold for cash back east. In the process Craig became a wealthy man.
But he shared his wealth.  He founded the first classical academy west of the mountains in Lebanon in 1787 and later donated the land and seed money for Georgetown College, the first Baptist college founded west of the Allegheny Mountains.  He also supported Baptist missionary efforts and the establishment of new churches. 
In fact, he gave so much of his fortune away that when he died in 1808 the Kentucky Gazette eulogized, “He possessed a mind extremely active and, as his whole property was expended in attempts to carry his plans to execution, he consequently died poor. If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig.”
But those kill joy historians point out that Craig was hardly the first man to make whiskey from corn rather than rye whiskey of the east.  And they are not even sure that he used charred oak casks, at least at first.
Indeed corn whiskey was being made all over the trans-Alleheny west, the  source of hard money for pioneer farmers.  The stuff made famous by the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania from 1791-94 probably tasted more like lighter fluid than the aged whiskey we are used to.  It went directly into jugs from the still and was corked raw.   It was despicable stuff to drink, but thirsty Americans, evidently gluttons for punishment, did so any way.
Whiskey historians speculate that Scotch-Irish distillers, familiar with aging in a barrel, introduced the practice to the frontier before the turn of the 19th Century.  Craig may, or may not have been one of those to adopte the practice early.  At least he was wealthy enough to sit on his product for two to six years while the whiskey aged and mellowed in the barrels.  Smaller operators had to rush their product to market immediately.
Whatever the case, by the 1820’s many Kentucky distillers were producing aged whiskearound Fayette, Scott, and Bourbon counties.  The stuff came to be called Bourbon.  Jacob Spears was the marketing genius who first slapped the Bourbon label on his bottles.
In the mid 1830’s the development of the sour mash process using material from an older batch of mash to start fermentation in the batch currently being made was introduced.  The process was said to “smooth and mellow” the flavor.  Dr. James C. Crow, a Scottish immigrant then employed as a master distiller for Glenn’s Creek Distillery in Woodford County Kentucky and/or his assistant Dr. Jason S. Amburgey is credited with invention of the process.  He later went work for two other produers using the technique.  Knowledgeable drinkers began calling his stuff Old Crow.  Eventually it was marketed under that name.  After disputes about authenticity, the brand finally came into the hands of the Jim Beam company which sells it as a lower priced whiskey.
Virtually all Bourbons are now produced by the sour mash method.
Oh sure, they still drank rum by the gallon in the seaports, Eastern farmers and tradesmen drank Rye, and the rich imported wines and brandies.  Germans and other despised immigrants, gargled beer by the growler,  But by the time of the Civil War real American with hair on their chests drank Bourbon neat, straight, or mixed with branch water.
Prohibition not only did damage to the Bourbon industry, it also changed American drinking habits, encouraging the spread of beer drinking and the use of gin and vodka in cocktails.  Scotch smuggled into the country by daring-do and Canadian blended ryes which flooded the country supplanted Bourbon with many whiskey drinkers.
But well into the last decades of the 20th Century any saloon worth its name carried a long self of call-name Bourbons of distinguished legacy.  No most of the joints I go into have replaced them with row after row of fancy Vodkas and designer Tequilas.  Most are hard pressed to keep one Kentucky Bourbon in stock plus the highly advertised Tennessee sipping whiskey Jack Daniels, once prized as a 90 proof but now watered to 80 proof and sold to be mixed with Coke. I’ve found saloons with no Bourbon at all.
And charming young bartenders are mystified by the simple order “Bourbon, neat, water back,” often serving it up on ice and/or mixed with water.  This is a sure sign that American civilization is doomed.
Meanwhile finish that snort.  Let me pour you another.  We have some commiserating to do….

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