The History of Bourbon Whiskey

The History of Bourbon Whiskey

The History of Bourbon Whiskey

The Resourceful Pioneers of the U.S.A.

The American beverage better than all others is Bourbon whiskey. First produced in 1780 by pioneers who had settled in Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, especially in the valleys of the Cumberland and Appalachian Mountains, bourbon is a marvelous example of the passions and ingenuity of 18th century Americans, the goal of not a few being to produce whiskey that would be similar to that of Scotland. When the rye crop failed, however, the settlers fell back on the oldest American staple, corn. They discovered that the combination of local water, much of which came from limestone springs, and corn mash would produce a whiskey very well suited to the palates of those in their new nation.

So popular did bourbon whiskey become that in 1791, when George Washington declared a tax on its production, several thousand whiskey makers took up arms against the government. After quite a few tax collectors were tarred and feathered and a few even lynched, the government sent in armed troops. The "Whiskey Rebellion" failed but that did not stop innovative Kentuckians and others from taking their more or less portable stills to the woods, there to begin producing the "moonshine" whiskey that can still be found in rural regions along the Appalachian Trail and the Cumberland Gap. A few, realizing that Americans so loved their whiskey that they would pay the required taxes, set up legal distilleries for their corn-based whiskey. Because the first of those distilleries were located in Bourbon County, their whiskey had no trouble finding a name.

How is Bourbon Made?

By law, bourbon whiskey must contain at least 51% of corn. After cleaning, the corn is coarsely ground before being mashed and then mixed with limestone water and rye. If the whiskey is made by the sweet-mash method, that mixture is blended with barley and malt and, as in making beer, is then stirred, heated and cooled. Fresh yeast is added and the mixture is fermented in open-topped vats before being distilled into whiskey. In the more popular sour-mash method, the mash is blended with slightly sour boiling hot leftovers from an earlier distillation. By whatever method, the whiskey is then aged in wood barrels until it has attained the required levels of smoothness and complexity.

Bourbon whiskey has never fallen out of vogue in the United States and starting about a few decades ago began to attain an increasingly high level of acceptance in Europe and the Far East. Although bourbon has been available locally for many years, until recently it was a drink whose popularity was limited largely to an older, better established population, many of whom had immigrated from the so-called Anglo Saxon nations. All of a sudden, however, along with single malt Scotch and Irish whiskeys, bourbon has become one of the frequently requested choices of the younger crowd.

Some Americans, mostly country folk or blue collar workers, have acquired the habit of tossing down a shot glass of bourbon and following that with a beer. Others make a cocktail by mixing their bourbon with Coke. We consider the beverage most pleasurable when drunk neat, on the rocks or, if one chooses, with the addition of small parts of water of soda. The following are our reviews of the most popular bourbon whiskeys.

Bourbon Reviews

Makers Mark: As deep and complex in flavor as it is in aroma, this smooth, rich bourbon is one of the very best. Score 91.

Wild Turkey: With its 50+% alcohol content, this is one of the most potent examples of Bourbon Whiskey. Aged in wood casks for 12 years, this full bodied whiskey has lovely flavors and aromas of violets, vanilla, smoke and juniper berries. Score 91+.

Jim Beam, Black Label: After 8 years of aging in wood casks this highly aromatic, remarkably smooth, deep blonde whiskey has lots of spices and even an attractive nutty flavor in its flavor. Score 90.

Jim Beam, Choice 8, Green Label: Aged for five years in wood casks this pale golden whiskey is lighter in body but no less full of flavor than a fine single-malt Scotch whiskey. Score 90.

Evan Williams: Deep brown in color, with remarkably smoky overtones and full bodied, this is a smooth, clean Bourbon, with unalloyed flavors and aromas. Score 89.

Jim Beam: Clean, well balanced and with flavors of honey, spices and oak, this has justifiably been the most widely accepted of all bourbon whiskeys. Score 88.

4 Roses: With just enough of a bite to make it enormously popular in the southern states of the U.S.A., this darker, intentionally more coarse whiskey, has lovely flavors and aromas of violets, vanilla and juniper berries. Although a bit coarse to drink neat, this bourbon is ideal for making cocktails. Score 86.

Heaven Hill: Surprisingly light in color. If the truth be told, this somewhat coarse whiskey reminded me not so much of sophisticated Southerners sipping bourbon on their lawns but of moonshiners drinking from the jug. Acceptable primarily as a mixer in cocktails. Score 84.

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