Saturday, March 15, 2008

3 Booze 101: A (Not-So-)Brief History Of Bourbon Whiskey......

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Like that title? I'm sure some of you are probably thinking, "Too bad they didn't offer course in college? I would've passed with flying colors." Hahahahaha. But this little history lesson isn't about recording one's own personal drinking history. LOL! It's about the history of booze itself, more specifically Bourbon whiskey.

As a continuation on the previous post's theme, I decided it would fitting to write a little piece on the history of Bourbon whiskey, & in the process, learn something about a subject that, only just moments ago, I'd professed to know next to nothing about. Have to say that I learned a lot through my research. And no, not THAT kind of research! ;-) I mean actual research, as in books & online references.

OK, so let's start with the basics. Many of you might already know that Bourbon whiskey is frequently associated with Kentucky, & other parts of the South. You might also know that it's typically distilled from grains like corn, wheat, rye, & barley. And if you're really savvy, you might even know that there are US federal regulations requiring that, in order for a whiskey to be labelled true "Bourbon whiskey," it must be made in the US, be 100% natural, consist of atleast 51% corn, be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof, & meet various other requirements. If you know all that without having to look it up, I will now congratulate you & say, "Man, you are good. I'm really impressed you know that off the top of your head." Either that or you work in the distillery business. ;-)

But what you might NOT know is that Bourbon whiskey did NOT actually originate in Bourbon County, Kentucky, as it's so commonly thought, but rather in another county in Kentucky altogether. And no, I am not playing some kind of inane April Fool's trick on you, even though April is still almost 2 1/2 weeks away.

Shocking, I know. ;-)

Yes, I do realize that most of the world refers to Bourbon county, Kentucky, as "the birthplace of Bourbon whiskey." In fact, if you google the word "Bourbon whiskey," you'll see several of these erroneous references to this supposedly "well-documented fact," plastered all over the internet (i.e., Wikipedia, etc.) & probably other offline sources as well.

Well, now you can tell anyone who repeats this little fallacy that they're all dead wrong & that this commonly-held notion is complete & utter rubbish. ;-)

And here's why..... The honor of that claim (i.e., the true & rightful birthplace of Bourbon whiskey) apparently goes to Fort Harrod, which in 1774 -- the year commonly attributed to Bourbon whiskey's birth -- was then part of Lincoln County, Kentucky. Back then, Bourbon County didn't even exist. Bourbon County was first formed in 1785, & at that point in American history, it was actually part of the State of Virginia. It was brought into being by the Virginian state legislature, whose members decided to slice off a piece of Fayette county & retitle it "Bourbon County." ;-)

Now, while it IS true that Bourbon whiskey has been brewed in Bourbon County for quite a long time, this fact was purely coincidental & had nothing to do with its true place of origin. Furthermore, the distilling of whiskey was no mean an exclusive practice of the region. According to historians, by the time Bourbon county came into being, there were already several distillers throughout Kentucky who were well-versed in the art of making whiskey.

So, first came the drink, then came the county. And neither began with any connection to the other. [Yup, you heard me correctly! "So how about them apples?!" ;-)] It was only until much later that an association was imposed upon the two entities, forever linking them together in the minds of Kentuckians & consumers everywhere. (More on that later.) To some, this revelation might seem like splitting hairs, while others might not really care, but it's still the truth! ;-)

Even though I'm sure it'd be much less of a bother for people to go on believing the less-complicated, albeit fallacious, version of this story -- it'd certainly be a whole heck of a lot easier to remember, & at first glance, appears logical enough -- it would be irresponsible of me or anyone else to suggest otherwise.

But of course, history is more complex than that. It also has this funny little way of being convoluted & inconvenient, & doesn't always end the way we'd like. It would be rather nice if it came wrapped in a pretty little package, but it's not always as nice & neat as we would often like it to be. And sometimes what we'd like to call historical fact is really just a myth repeated over & over to the point where the repetition of a statement in perpetuam is eventually believed as fact. Don't even get me started on the purported "facts" surrounding the origins of pizza, the inventor of the Vigenère cipher [commonly misattributed to -- you guessed it -- a man by the name of (Blase de) Vigenère], the discovery of America, or Paul Revere's "midnight ride." ;-)

But let's return to our story...... So, if Bourbon whiskey didn't originate in Bourbon county, then why do people still associate it with this area? What gives? Where did the name "Bourbon whiskey" really come from? Well, all shall be revealed very shortly, I promise.

It all began with a region once referred to as "Old Bourbon" & the early exportation practices of one of its most popular products, whiskey.

"Old Bourbon" was a term originally used to describe the geographic location of the original Bourbon county as it was first established in 1785, which encompassed a vast region of Kentucky, (basically all of the land to the north, east, & southeast of Lexington). (This area was named after the French royal dynasty, The House of Bourbon, to demonstrate America's gratitude for their military aid during the Revolutionary War.) This area was later sub-divided into other, smaller counties. (To give you an idea of just how big this county once was, consider that 34 modern Kentucky counties were once part of the territory originally delineated as Bourbon county.) In the late 18th century, any barrels of whiskey from this general region were labelled as "Old Bourbon," regardless of their specific location within this territory. The stuff which came from this area was generally regarded as the best.

Around this time, whiskey also became the region's most important export, & out of financial necessity, farmers often found themselves resorting to the practice of distilling their crops as a way to stay economically viable. However, distilling wasn't done merely for the purpose of basic economic survival; it was also clearly a highly profitable venture, and so, not surprisingly, the whiskey business soon began to flourish. At the turn of the 18th century, there were more people distilling whiskey than you could shake a stick at, & pretty soon everybody & their grandmother was trying to get in on the act.

So eventually, people stopped referring to "Old Bourbon" as a geographical region, & the term instead became synonymous with the Bourbon whiskey product itself, as distillers in various other parts of Kentucky soon also took up the practice of labelling their barrels as "Old Bourbon," regardless of where it came from.

So, as you can see, the name of this legendary libation was, in fact, appropriated ex post facto by some rather shrewd distillers before the advent of patent law. ;-) Basically, it was an ingenious little piece of "early American" marketing -- as in "ye olde hype"(!) -- dreamed up by some rather clever & opportunistic Kentuckians, who were out to make a buck or two. ;-)

Hey, they knew a good thing when they saw it! The fact that the name of this distilled beverage has little to nothing to do with its true geographic origins wasn't about to stop these guys either. The way they saw it, it was just savvy marketing.

Probably one of them said to the other something like, "Hey, that 'Old Bourbon' whiskey coming down the Ohio River sells really well & is some pretty great stuff to boot. Wouldn't it be a great idea to call our whiskey 'Old Bourbon' too?! Now that would certainly help to drum up business, eh?!" And, thus we have an early American example of the copy-cat phenomenon. ;-)

Regardless, I'm sure these whiskey distillers found it incredibly convenient indeed to have a "Bourbon county" located in Kentucky! :-) (By the way, you might be interested to know that Kansas also has a Bourbon country, founded in 1855, which is named after the original one in Kentucky. Sorry, Kansas, I think someone already beat you to the punch for those booze-infused tourism dollars. ;-) Nice try though! JUST kidding.)

Anyhow..... By around 1840, the first descriptor ("old") was dropped & it just became known as "bourbon." (For some reason I'm very tempted to geek out & now find it difficult to restrain myself from reciting that infamous HHGTTG passage which begins, "Oh don’t give me no more of that Old Janx Spirit...." Any clueless people, please simply disregard the reference!) As I was saying, pretty soon people everyone had taken to calling their whiskey "bourbon," & it became rather confusing; so something had to be done about that! To distinguish the various types of whiskeys, the definition of "bourbon" was restricted to whiskeys that were predominately corn-based, in order to distinguish them from the other types of grain-based whiskeys like wheat & rye.

So why do people still persist in thinking that Bourbon whiskey comes from Bourbon county, Kentucky, even to this day? In the end, the real truth of the matter is this: Over time, much of the prior collective knowledge about the history of Bourbon whiskey was either forgotten or lost to the annals of history. And, as is the case with the passage of time, decade after decade went by, & after a good long while, the people who knew that sort of knowledge firsthand had pretty much all died out. There were suddenly a lot of people around who weren't at all familiar with the history of the region or the true origins of Bourbon whiskey.

Apparently, there weren't any job openings for "whiskey historian" back then. ;-)

Anyhow, due to the aforementioned reasons, people, in general, through basic ignorance or lack of curiosity about the heritage of the region, just began to assume that Bourbon whiskey was originally invented in Bourbon County, Kentucky, even though the association was, in truth, quite false & there was little supporting evidence to back up these foregone conclusions. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this myth persists to this day. (I imagine that perpetuation of such a falsehood could be, in varying turns, either deliberate or inadvertent, depending on the extenuating circumstances.) And, thus ends our little history lesson for today. Phew!

So how about that for a curious little factoid, which will surely impress all your friends & colleagues?! Who knows, maybe it'll come in handy the next time you play Trivial Pursuit?! Now you will have an interesting anecdote to tell people at parties whenever anyone raises a glass of Bourbon. ;-) I'm sure you'll be the life of the party with that story. ;-) Hahahahaha. But at the very least, it will surely be fun to freak out everyone else around you with this little known piece of trivia! Plus, you can show up all of those snooty know-it-alls who think they know everything there is to know about alcoholic spirits. ;-)

So, you're welcome for that little history lesson. Have a side-order history with that honey-glazed Bourbon chicken. ;-) (Yes, I promise, the recipe's coming up next!!!!)


Footnote: The above story is a good illustration of the point that just because something might seem as if it's highly likely to be true (i.e., that two entities appear to have a correlation, etc.) doesn't mean it's necessarily so. ;-)


BrooklynBlue said...

Good write-up! A lot of bourbon historians are pretty dry, so thanks for spicing it up a little. :)

Obviously you're somewhat of a whiskey enthusiast. Any plans to write up any bourbon reviews of your own? I've just started and found that there aren't that many sites doing it. Could always use more!

Cyberpenguin said...

Thanks, Brooklynblue! Glad you enjoyed it.

Don't know if I'd go as far as to say that I'm a whiskey enthusiast; I'm hardly an expert on the subject. Not sure if you saw the part of this post where I wrote that it was my intention to "...learn something about a subject that, only just moments ago, I'd professed to know next to nothing about." ;-0

If you get the chance to view my other posts here on the subjects of whiskey & Bourbon, you'll see that I'm not really a drinker of the stuff (atleast not straight up anyway!), but rather was seeking to use it up by cooking with it. Otherwise, it was just going to sit there in my liquor cabinet unused, unless guests wanted a glass of it! ;-)

So as you can see, I really wouldn't be the ideal candidate for writing up bourbon reviews, as I wouldn't know the first thing about them, other than some of the label names. Heheheheheh.

But anyhow, thank you for your enthusiastic commentary! I enjoyed reading what you wrote & will certainly check out the link you posted.

Thanks for stopping by! Hope you found some recipes that interest you.


BrooklynBlue said...

Ah, gotcha. Your blog popped up in one of my Google Reader topical search feeds. I'll be sure to click around and check out a few recipes.

My wife and I are both vegetarian and foodies as well, so we do a lot of cooking at home. I'm sure I'll find something new to try here!

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