" One Bourbon I can handle
Two at the most,
Because at three I'm under the table
And with four I'm under the Host..."
-Unnamed attendee at the tasting.
Last Month, we had a great time and learned a lot about the trendiest of whiskeys. Bourbon is the only truly American spirit Created mostly by Scots- Irish and German immigrants in what is now Kentucky, Bourbon was made with what they had the most of-- namely corn and rye.
The name is a source of dispute: many historians assume that it came from Bourbon County in Virginia (now Kentucky), so named to honor the French royalty that came to our aid in the Revolution. Others claim that the easiest market for this brown elixir was New Orleans, an easy trip down the river and most famous for its Bourbon Street-- also named for the Bourbon Dynasty in France. Regardless, it is agreed that to be called "Bourbon", a whiskey has to meet certain requirements.
It must be made in America. Any part of America-- bourbon made in Hawaii is just as legitimate as what is made in Kentucky. Tennessee Whisky could legitimately call itself bourbon, but chooses its own path instead. Maybe someday soon we could compare Tennessee whiskey with Bourbon, if only for scientific interest.
It needs to be made from at least 51% corn- the rest of the grain bill is unspecified. Most bourbons have a combination of rye and barley, but a few skip the rye altogether and use wheat. Corn is not only native to this country, but easy to convert to sugars, making it easy to ferment into alcohol. Rye gives a spicy flavor to whiskey, ofsetting the sweetness of the corn and giving it more personality. Barley, of course is what the Scots swear by, and it gives whiskey body and character. Wheat is a soft flavor; Maker's Mark is notable for using wheat and omitting rye altogether making it smooth and approachable.
It needs to be aged in new, charred barrels made specifically of White Oak. When wood is charred, the sugars within are caramelized and the flavors are intensified, Charring also gives bourbon its characteristic color. The funny thing is that there is no specification for how long bourbon needs to be aged, technically it has reached the threshold the second the barrel is sealed, but most bourbons are aged anywhere from three months to several years. Why new barrels? To be honest, I don't really know, human nature being what it is I suspect that it has something to do with the barrel making lobby, that information is lost to us. I do know that after the barrels are used, they are often sold to Scotch distillers. The bourbon makers say "Now that we have used up all the flavor in our finest bourbon, you can have these...", while the Scotch makers say "Now that you have absorbed the harshness from the new wood, we will make good Scotch...". I don't know if they really say that, but it's my article and that's how I imagine the conversation. Incidentally before the bourbon is aged, it is a clear white color, and is known as "White Dog". All of the Bourbons we tasted were either a number 3 or number 4 char which denotes the time and degree that the barrels were charred before the bourbon was aged.
We paired the bourbon with a variety of foods, I think the most interesting was the chilled Cucumber and miso soup with the Maker's Mark, but I think the favorite was the Sea Salt and Dark Chocolate truffles with the Angel's Envy. Of course the Pastry Chef was away, so the truffles were not as pretty as they might have been. In every pairing, I tried to emphasize how much salt works in your favor with whiskey, in much the same way that we pair salt with tequila.
Whiskey has always been a controversial subject in this country. In the years following the Revolutionary war, the first real challenge to the new Federal Government was the Whiskey Rebellion. The new Government was in deep debt, and whiskey was an easy thing to tax. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was charged by George Washington to collect more funds which he enthusiastically did by passing a tax on Whiskey. The problem is that the tax definitely favored the wealthy over the less wealthy, and those in towns and cities in the east were favored over those on the frontier. This was a big deal, because selling surplus grain when you lived far from town was difficult. Wagon loads of grain were difficult and expensive to get to market, but if a resourceful farmer could convert their surplus into whiskey, it could be held in barrels, fetch a higher price, and at greater demand. The Farmers expressed their political opinions with tar, feathers and bullets. The violence was eventually put down, but it was clear that whiskey was considered fair game for taxation.
The tax was repealed in 1804 by Thomas Jefferson, reinstituted in 1814 (due to the war of 1812), repealed in 1817, reinstituted in 1842 (Mexican American war), and again in 1862 along with the first income tax (Civil war). During the Civil war, The Confederacy instituted a prohibition of making grain spirits, not so much because of morality but because they really needed all the grain for troops, and the copper from stills in the war effort. The Northern States preferred more rye-based whiskey, which President Lincoln was happy to allow and tax, but by the end of the war, bourbon was more in favor-- due in part to so many soldiers having tasted it during the conflict. It is hard for anything to be more American than Bourbon.
Thank you to all who attended, and thanks so much for the enthusiasm and laughter. We are planning another tasting on Tuesday the 13th, I haven't picked yet what we will taste so if anyone has a suggestion, send it in quickly.
More pictures are available for download on Shutterfly: