The sordid history of America’s drink: Bourbon

Sean Ludford is a regular spirits content contributor to Check out his website at

Bourbon is America’s drink, so deeply submerged in this country’s history that most every obvious trace of its legacy has been eroded away by time, politics, and image problems. Nearly, if not entirely, forgotten is the fact that America’s first civil war was inspired by whiskey.

A short decade after the last shot was fired in America’s Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania farmers took up arms against their government to resist taxes on the spirits produced from their own crops. In the end, it required a complement of troops larger than those who followed General Washington into battle against the Red Coats to repel the uprising. The burden of taxation notwithstanding, 1840 rang in with nearly 2,000 distilleries operating in Kentucky alone and more than 3,500 in Pennsylvania. The late 1800s were America’s golden days of distilling but the century closed with a rapidly growing temperance movement that inevitably resulted in Prohibition. Prohibition was, of course, a colossal failure but it was a tremendous shot in the arm for organized crime, which in turn inspired the Godfather trilogy, Good Fellas, and The Public Enemy films for which I am eternally grateful.

Bourbon producers struggled to revive their trade in the post Prohibition era. Largely, they succeeded as Bourbon graced the bars, taverns, and homes of America once again. The 1980s gave birth to a new kind of temperance where issues of health were paramount. The new mantra did not call for abandonment of spirits but rather quality over quantity. In some respects, this new call for moderation was nearly as painful as Prohibition as Bourbon was associated with “hard drinking” and it had little appeal to young drinkers. Cognac and Scotch Whisky, particularly single malts, had gained reputations as sophisticated or at least contemplative drinks. Bourbon was in danger of slipping into irrelevance. However, Bourbon producers were far too resilient and clever to simply crumble. They “reinvented” themselves and gave birth to “single barrel” and “small batch” Bourbon with graceful new and refined identities with labels to match. Kentucky, and America, now had its answer to single malts and the eager-to-be-enlightened public drank it up.

Blanton’s, from the Ancient Age Distillery (now Buffalo Trace), was the first commercial single barrel Bourbon. Other distilleries soon followed with single barrel or small batch Bourbons of their own. Soon Bourbon drinkers were bombarded with a slew of brands with few recognizing that these whiskies came from just a handful of distilleries. Only 11 active distilleries remain in Kentucky. Twenty years after the introduction of single barrel Bourbon, customers are asking where do all of the labels come from and what separates them from “grandpa’s Bourbon.”  The answer makes Bourbon producers a bit uneasy. “Small Batch” marketing has successfully created an image in the consumers’ mind that these modern Bourbons are created, and distilled, in small quantities from a unique recipe and then aged slowly and carefully. The producers never actually said this, but they also never discouraged the misconception. Small batch is all about barrel selection. As the “regular” Whiskey may be created by the marriage of hundreds of barrels, small batch is created by 20 to 50 carefully chosen barrels of a particular age and bottled at a targeted strength. Single Barrels are, of course, single barrels.

If you are wondering if these great small batch Bourbons made at a famous distillery are actually older, stronger, and hand selected versions of the distilleries regular whiskey. The answer is yes. Most Bourbon distilleries have brands that far outnumber their recipes. In fact many, but not all, use just one Bourbon recipe. In Scotland, the standard practice is to release a number of labels with varying age statements all under the distillery’s name. In Kentucky, these different Whiskey expressions are often given unique identities borrowing names from distilleries long forgotten or honoring the men that contributed greatly to their respective distillery and the industry: Blanton’s Booker’s, and Elmer T. Lee to name just a few.

If you are feeling cheated or betrayed, don’t. Premium Bourbons are largely quality whiskies that you have loved for years. They frequently represent the best of what a distillery has to offer and although they are often identical at birth, they evolve, diversely influenced chiefly by age and secondarily by warehouse location. It can get pretty hot in Kentucky and these large tall warehouses all have their hot spots, cool spots, and temperate areas. The best Bourbons often come from these “sweet spots” in the warehouses. Master distillers and warehouse managers have known this long before the Small Batch and Single Barrel revolution. In years past, these “special barrels” were known to be enjoyed by the distillery’s workers who would dip in for a wee dram at the end of a hard day’s work.

Knowing how a particular recipe ages, knowing the barrels themselves, the multitude of warehouse locations is an art. The men, and women, who create these great Bourbons, are just as creative and passionate as a master chef. The intimate knowledge of the many variables and how these unique elements can come together to build a great spirit is simply awesome.

The Bourbon industry is stronger today than ever before. Great traditions of the past are employed daily while new, younger distillers are taking the reigns and taking chances with new brands and contemplating new techniques. Besides that, it’s just damn good drinking.


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