05/06/2011 8:23AM

Bourbon: A taste of Kentucky

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LEXINGTON, Ky. − Bourbon. It’s been called “moonshine’s uptown cousin.” It’s been used as currency and as a painkiller for wounded Civil War soldiers. The artist John James Audubon once made a fortune speculating in it. And it’s the heart of the Kentucky Derby’s official drink, the mint julep.

Kentucky’s bourbon industry is as famous as the state’s horses, and the two often go together. Blanton’s bourbon bottles feature a racehorse finial, and Maker’s Mark produced a special bottle commemorating Keeneland Racecourse’s 75th anniversary. The bourbon-racehorse link is only natural, bourbon experts say, because both get their strength from Kentucky’s limestone-filtered water and mineral-rich soil.

“Kentucky is just the natural place for bourbon whiskey,” said Mike Veach, a bourbon historian and associate curator of special collections at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society. “It’s hot in the summer, it’s cold in the winter, and it has all of the limestone springs that are iron-free water. You don’t want iron in your water when you make whiskey.”

There’s little doubt corn-based bourbon was born in Kentucky, but its exact parentage remains cloudy. Legend says it was the Baptist minister Elijah Craig who first kept his whiskey in charred oak barrels and came up with a caramel-colored spirit in the late 1700s. But Veach believes it more likely originated with French expatriates who created a drink similar to cognac that would appeal to the rich, French-leaning New Orleans market − long an important trade destination for Kentucky products.

“What makes French brandy − cognac, armagnac − different from our whiskey? It’s aged in charred barrels,” said Veach, the author of a forthcoming book about bourbon history, Bourbon Whiskey: A Kentucky Heritage. “I always challenge people: Get a glass of bourbon, a glass of cognac, and a glass of any single-malt Scotch you want, then tell me which two taste the most alike. Everybody agrees it’s the bourbon and the cognac.”

In the 18th and 19th century, when Kentucky was part of Virginia, and Bourbon County took up much of the state, practically every farmer had a still for transforming corn into the whiskey they eventually named after their county. The names were as distinctive and evocative as the tobacco-colored product inside: Peacock, Rebel Yell, Old Crow, Jim Beam, Cabin Still.

Kentucky’s modern bourbon distilleries still hark back to that highly individualized family heritage, though many of the companies now are in the hands of large corporate entities.

“Growing up in Kentucky, it seemed like every family you knew had their own bourbon recipe,” said Tom Bulleit, who left law practice to resurrect his family’s bourbon heritage. Bulleit Bourbon descends from a 150-year-old recipe created by Bulleit’s great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, a tavern-keeper and distiller who vanished in 1860 on a trip to New Orleans. The Bulleit recipe stayed alive mainly through oral tradition until his father gave it to him, Bulleit said.

Today, bourbon’s content is prescribed by a 1964 Congressional resolution. To earn the name “bourbon,” the spirit must be at least 2 years old, aged in new oak barrels that have been charred, distilled under 160 proof, and made of a mash consisting of at least 51 percent corn. It also must be made in America.

But there’s still plenty of room for variation. There are the sweeter wheated bourbons, such as Maker’s Mark, which use wheat instead of the more usual rye. Bourbons with higher rye content, like Bulleit Bourbon’s Frontier Whiskey, have a spicier or fruity flavor.

Bourbon has long played a role in politics. In fact, Kentucky’s role as the home of bourbon stemmed in part from the Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s administration, when Congress enacted a tax on American whiskey. After farmers in western Pennsylvania attacked tax collectors in response, Washington sent troops to Pennsylvania. As part of the settlement with the rebels, Washington gave incentives to farmers to move south and west into western Virginia, including the land that is now Kentucky. Virginia’s governor at the time, Thomas Jefferson, added more temptation by giving 60 acres in “Kentucky County” to any settler who would build a house and raise corn, spurring Kentucky’s corn whiskey production.

Bourbon later served as a fuel for Kentucky politics and was, on occasion, preferred currency for vote-buying. Historians Lowell Harrison and James Klotter cite a typical tale: A Kentuckian once lambasted his son for selling his vote for four dollars when the going rate was seven dollars and a half-pint of Heaven Hill.

But bourbon also was an easy target for the Bluegrass State’s temperance crusaders. In the 1800s, according to Berry Craig’s True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics, Kentucky’s legislature considered banning the relatively new spirit on the grounds that it was too mellow and might even tempt ladies to sip it. Bourbon, of course, survived that attempt and now generates more than $125 million annually in state and local taxes. But Kentucky’s paradoxical relationship with demon drink continues: 43 of Kentucky’s 120 counties remain dry today, and 20 more are classified as “moist” − dry counties that have a wet city within their borders.

In 1920, Prohibition put many Kentucky distillers out of business − or sent them underground. But pharmacies and hospitals could still store bourbon for medicinal purposes. George Garvin Brown, founder of the Brown-Forman Company, started off as a pharmaceutical salesman who started his distillery to manufacture it for medicinal purposes.

“I imagine a lot of people around then developed a cough,” said Kentucky Distillers’ Association president Eric Gregory. And horses, too: the Hagyard veterinary clinic in Lexington was one medicinal outlet for alcohol during Prohibition.

“Prohibition really did a number on bourbon,” said Gregory. “Before Prohibition, we had hundreds of distilleries across Kentucky, and after it, that number was whittled down to 30 or 40 distillers.”

Today, bourbon is on the upswing and back in fashion, thanks in part to its long and colorful history − and to new blends and cocktails created by master distillers and mixologists from Harrodsburg to Hong Kong. The new emphasis is on premium bourbon, which is proving as popular in Asian and European markets as it is at home. There’s a Bourbon Festival every year in Bardstown, a Bourbon Heritage Month in Kentucky every September, and a Kentucky Bourbon Trail that draws nearly half a million bourbon-lovers for distillery tours.

According to the KDA, Kentucky’s bourbon production has grown more than 50 percent since 1999. Many familiar old names are still on the bottles, like Jim Beam, Bulleit, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey (reputedly the favorite of late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson). Today, the commonwealth provides 95 percent of the world’s bourbon and currently has more than 4.6 million barrels of bourbon aging.

“That means we have more barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky than we have people in Kentucky,” Gregory said.

Obviously, there’s plenty to go around.

So how do you like yours?

Gregory is quick to say there’s no wrong way to drink bourbon, except that it should never be mixed with driving.

“I’ve got friends who mix it with ginger ale, and I’ve got friends who drink it neat,” Gregory said. “There’s a great restaurant in Louisville called Bourbons Bistro that has a fantastic bourbon bar with some very expensive bourbons. I’ve seen people there order a glass of premium bourbon and want it with Coke, and the bartender will serve them the Coke on the side, saying, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ ”

For the truly adventurous, there’s bacon-infused bourbon. Or you can try stepping back in bourbon history. Filson historian Veach says some of his favorites are pre-Prohibition era bourbons he and friends have collected.

“They’re very different, but they still have the same general characteristics: caramel, vanilla, and wood,” Veach said. “But they have a little more flavor from the grains, and they’re much better at a younger age. A 4-year-old whiskey bottled in 1918 will have as much flavor as a 6- or 8-year-old product today.”

However you like it, connoisseurs say, a sip of bourbon is a taste of Kentucky.

“Bourbon in Kentucky is not just a drink,” KDA’s Gregory said. “It’s a lifestyle. Every sip of Kentucky bourbon conjures images of horse farms and rolling green hills and that gentle southern charm. There are other states now producing some good bourbons. They can try to duplicate our products, but they can never replicate the history and tradition here in Kentucky that has made bourbon a legendary symbol for the Bluegrass.”