Bourbon, Straight – The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey by Charles K. Cowdery

Bourbon is as American as apple pie and baseball, but a number of things have undercut its popularity.  Prohibition actually introduced America to imported liquor like Canadian whisky and Scotch.  In the 70’s, bourbon seemed old fashioned (excuse the pun), and America began experimenting with all sorts of liquor from vodka to tequila.  However, recently, bourbon has reclaimed its fame especially with the TV show Mad Men set in the 60’s and movie The Internship where they celebrate with a 23-year Pappy Van Winkle.  From personal experience, I noticed a huge whisky and craft cocktail renaissance in the late-00’s, and I jumped on that bandwagon and subsequently spent many nights completely blacked out.  They say alcohol is alcohol no matter the medium, but I would argue that concentrated alcohol, no matter how much you dilute it with water or juice, somehow confuses your liver more and results in you being more screwed up.  At the same time, I think a lot of bartenders will serve you on the safe side of giving you over 1.5 ounces especially when you’re tipping them well. 

This book traces the history and notable contributors of bourbon from the Colonial days.  The book is well written and easy to read and an absolute read for bourbon fans.  I’m just going to give you the highlights.  I know most book reviews are not supposed to give away all the gems of a book, but this is a non-existent book club review and I’m always breaking the rules. 

Corn is the major ingredient in bourbon, but most colonial whiskey was made from rye.  The interesting thing about the history of bourbon is that it is an odd blend (excuse the pun) of tradition and authenticity with total bullshit and lies.  In other words, bourbon celebrates its history and the great men who mastered bourbon, and their names are still prominent on most brands of bourbon, but today, their methods and ingredients are ignored, and many brands are made by a huge distillery that makes the same stuff for many other brands.  In other words, imagine if Rolling Rock, Bud, Old Milwaukee, and PBR were all made from the same plant and were all the same beer.  The same thing is happening with other brands like Westinghouse and RCA.  They’re just names.  Their products are made in China, and many of these brands are owned by Chinese companies.  The book doesn’t cover this concisely, but there are only five major bourbon producers in the world. Diageo, Beam, and Brown-Forman, all traded on the New York Stock Exchange.  Beam makes Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Booker’s.  Diageo makes Bulleit, Johnnie Walker (scotch), Crown Royal (Canadian whisky), and George Dickel (Tennessee whiskey).  Brown-Forman makes Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee whiskey).  Sazerac is privately owned by Americans and makes Buffalo Trace, Van Winkle, George T Stagg, and EH Taylor.  Heaven Hill is privately owned by Americans and makes Elijah Craig and Evan Williams.  Kirin beer owns Four Roses and is a small bourbon producer. 

Brand names go deep in bourbon.  The early settlers of Kentucky included Jacob Beam (great-grandfather of Jim Beam), Basil Hayden (grandfather of Old-Grand-Dad founder R. B. Hayden), and Daniel Weller (grandfather of W. L. Weller).  The reason for this is that a distiller’s name meant something.  In the early days, you often never knew what you were getting in your whiskey kind of like modern illegal drugs.  The distiller would sell barrels of whiskey to wholesalers.  The wholesalers would open them up, filter them, and blend them and add stuff to create their own product and often shady retailers would simply cut it down with water or inferior whiskey.  Then the saloon or store would serve it to customers, but they too could cut it down and adulterate it.  Back in the day, it was too expensive to bottle whiskey, but when they finally did, they would use the distiller’s name, and the bottle would have his signature.  Back then, you could create and sell your own bottle of Jim Beam, but you couldn’t use his signature on that bottle, because forgery was illegal.  This is why, to this day, you’ll see the distiller’s signature on the bottle, despite the fact that the bourbon doesn’t even use the original distiller’s recipe or method for making that bourbon.  Bottles became popular after the automatic bottle-making machine was invented in 1903.

The book takes a jab at the other liquors as being nothing but Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS).  Any grain spirit distilled at 190 proof (95% alcohol) or higher is GNS and lacks distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.  Vodka is a GNS because it starts at 190 and is simply cut down to 80 or 100 with water.  Gin is vodka plus juniper berry flavoring.  Most liqueurs are vodka plus fruits, spices, or herbs.  The author argues that vodka doesn’t have any distinct smell or tastes, but I would argue that there are trace amounts that distinguish one vodka from another.

All bourbon distilleries use the same US No 2 grade corn and they all buy from the same suppliers.  So it’s not the ingredients that distinguish bourbon but rather the combinations, methods, oak, and aging.  The reason why we say proof is that 50% alcohol was considered the standard, 100 proof.  Kind of stupid, but it’s tradition just like the foot and pint measurement.

The non-alcohol by-products of the distillation process include fusel oils and acids known as congeners that give non-neutral spirits their distinctive flavors, and also headaches.  The carbon in the char in the oak barrels helps filter out the congeners, hence older bourbon tends to be smoother.  Tennessee whiskey also achieves this through charcoal filtration.  To be called Tennessee whiskey it must use this filtration as well as be made in Tennessee.

To be called bourbon, you can make the stuff anywhere not just Kentucky.  It is how it is made that matters.  It must be cut down to less than 125 proof, stored in a new oak barrel charred on the inside (making America the biggest exporter of used oak barrels).  The author misses the key factor that it must be made of at least 51% corn.  There is also straight versus blended bourbon.  Straight bourbon must be aged at least two years and not blended.  Small batch (doesn’t necessarily mean small) must simply be made from the same still, barreled the same and aged in the same rackhouse.  Single barrel means it came from one single barrel.  They don’t bottle bourbon directly from the barrel but rather dump them all into a huge tank except single barrel bourbon.  Arguably, it tastes better because it has a more unique distinctive taste, but arguably it tastes worse because whiskey ages differently in different barrels and depending on its location in the rackhouse, near the center, wall, roof, etc.

The reason there are so many French names for cities and counties in Kentucky is that they were named after the War of Independence in recognition of France’s support of the rebel alliance.  Therefore, Louisville, Kentucky and Bourbon county.  Bourbon County was actually a lot larger and later cut into smaller counties.  So most bourbon was not originally made in what is now Bourbon County but rather all over Kentucky, the old Bourbon County.  34 modern Kentucky counties were once part of old Bourbon County.  Whiskey from Bourbon became popular because it was made from corn and also of higher quality than other whiskeys. 

White oak is used to age whiskey because besides being plentiful in Kentucky, it is dense enough not to leak but not so dense so whiskey can penetrate it and pick up the wood sugars and flavors. 

There is some whiskey that is high proof like George T Stagg at 142.7 proof.  You’re not supposed to drink it straight.  Drinking high alcohol content can actually corrode the lining in your esophagus and stomach.  You look cool but stupid.  It’s supposed to be cut down with water.  It’s only high proof so that more of it can be put in a bottle, like dishwashing detergent that is condensed.  You’re not supposed to use a full cup, although the lines inside the cup are illegible so as to encourage you to use too much and buy more.  But high proof bourbon is also somewhat pointless, because the price is usually a lot higher and aging at higher initial proof prevents the whiskey from picking up flavors from the wood.

Chapter 8 is actually pretty handy, because it notes that if you just grabbed ten bourbons off the shelf, chances are, one or more of them are the exact same bourbon just labeled differently.  The author also notes some of the best representatives of each distillery. 

I didn’t know this, but the historical period known as the Wild West began after the Civil War and involved mostly Confederate veterans who wrangled longhorn cattle which were abandoned by Mexico following our annexation of northern Mexico.  If you could herd them to Kansas City, you would get paid for them.  The Wild West wasn’t as romantic as you might imagine.  It was a lot of single dudes riding around to sleazy towns full of brothels and saloons where they would waste their money on booze, gambling, and whores.  (They would be later replaced by silver and gold miners.) 

You may also be surprised to learn that a large amount of government spending was funded through alcohol taxes.  A quarter of federal income came from the federal excise tax on distilled spirits.  By 1876, liquor taxes generated half of federal income until Prohibition.  It is no coincidence that Congress created income tax in 1913 in anticipation of lost alcohol tax revenue.  In fact, part of the Repeal of Prohibition was the desire to raise alcohol tax to pay for America’s build up into World War II.  One estimate is that 44% of the price of hard liquor goes to taxes.

Dr. James Crow who was a physician and chemist trained in Edinburgh, revolutionized the process of making whiskey specifically the sour mash process using spent beer from a previous distillation in addition to keeping everything clean and free from contamination by bacteria, wild yeast, and other microorganisms.  I talked to a distiller in Sparks, Nevada who told me that he was more in the business of cleaning than making distilled spirits.  To emphasis the corruption of bourbon, Dr. Crow’s Old Crow whiskey, the method by which it is made, is now called Jim Beam.  The place where he made Old Crow is now owned by Woodford Reserve.  So basically, if you want to taste Old Crow whiskey, just mix together Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve.

Jack Daniels tastes like bourbon, because it is basically bourbon.  The difference is in the location, the Tennessee water, and the use of sugar maple charcoal to filter out the congeners which make it as smooth as well-aged bourbon.      

Chapter 17 offers another whiskey sampling guide which allows you to distinguish different levels of various ingredients to determine what flavors or characteristics they contribute.  For example, three bourbons with different levels of rye, corn, or aging.  A interesting formula.  If you want to reduce 100 proof to 80, add 1 part water to 4 parts whiskey.  In other words, add half-an-ounce of water to two ounces of whiskey.  The flavor of bourbon can be divided into six categories: herbs and spices, flowers, fruit, candy (caramel, honey, toffee), wood, and others (corn, leather, must, tobacco, nuts).

The actual reason I bought the book was to get more information on Colonel EH Taylor and George T Stagg.  I read somewhere that George T Stagg lent EH Taylor money to build an expansive distillery but then called the loan short before Taylor had money to make payments.  Keep in mind, in the world of bourbon, since it’s aged, you don’t make revenue for a few years.  So it sounded like Stagg set Taylor up to fail.  If you search the Internet, you won’t find out much about this.  The book only mentions this in one sentence, “When Taylor became over-extended, Stagg took full advantage of his partner’s predicament, even to the extent of claiming ownership of Taylor’s name.” 

EH Taylor is the true father of modern bourbon.  He was an honorary Colonel.  Apparently, Kentucky gave out that title to everyone including Colonel Sanders.  Taylor lobbied to pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 which regulated bourbon.  To be labeled bonded bourbon, the whiskey had to be from one distillation season, one distiller, and one distillery aged in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse for at least four years.  Before this, you could call your whiskey bourbon and it could be blended and made any which way.  After the act passed, people began to trust bourbon quality more, and bonded bourbon became a highly desired product, elevating it from the working class masses to the upper classes.  Yet to this day, few people know who EH Taylor is, and most insulting of all, the George T Stagg bourbon seems more popular than the EH Taylor brand.  This is like Trump vodka being more popular than Stolichnaya. 

While the author gives Tennessee whiskey a whole chapter, he doesn’t even mention Indiana bourbon.

As mentioned in the beginning, bourbon is the story of tradition and authenticity blended with bullshit and lies.  MGP (Midwest Grain Products) which was formerly LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana), makes rye whiskey for Bulleit, Templeton, High West, and George Dickel in addition to gin and vodka.  However, this hidden industry secret aside, Indiana has great bourbon that is overlooked just like Sonoma wine is overlooked because it’s next door to the huge monster Napa.  Two Indiana bourbons that I consider on par with most Kentucky bourbon are WH Harrison and Backbone.  Indiana and Kentucky share similar climate, but Indiana can boast that their limestone water is better than Kentucky water.  Additionally, a lot of Kentucky bourbon is aged in Indiana oak. 

The chapter on Maker’s Mark which was created in 1959 is a great story of one of the most popular bourbons around and how it is nothing but a simple marketing gimmick.  Whether you like it or not, advertising works.  When I was a kid, I always liked the old beer ads, “It’s Miller Time!”  “Raaaaai-neeeer beeeeer” “Hamm’s the beer refreshing” or the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull crashing through walls like the Kool-Aid jug.  When you don’t get raised by a dad, you are especially drawn to commercials showing men doing men things like drinking booze at a bar, and when you get your first can of Miller at a bar or Maker’s Mark, it makes you feel special, like you’ve joined the men’s club.  While I try to stick with independent food and beverages, you can’t deny the allure of grabbing stuff you used to see on TV as a kid. 

The book ends with a handy review of bourbons.   


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