In honor of National Bourbon Heritage Month, we would like to take a moment to reflect on how America’s Native Spirit has shaped our culture, influenced our lives and sparked many of our best decisions and greatest ideas.
Daddy kept whiskey, but he didn’t drink it much.
I think he refrained out of deference to my mother, who had five younger brothers, all of whom were bad to drink and light on ambition. They all still lived on Grandaddy’s farm, in trailers strewn haphazardly along Seedtick Road. In the evenings, after supper, they’d gather on the front porch of the big house to smoke and drink and tell stories, settling into an acrid haze of young male dissolution.
Sometimes in the summer, when we’d drive down for a visit, I’d sit out with them a while, listening to their bray and brag, and inevitably one of them would pass me the pint of Old Charter or Old Crow. I’d take a tentative sip and taste snake venom and tears. I’d pull a face and they’d laugh in a way that wasn’t quite unkind but made me feel smaller and odder and less a part of their orbit than I’d hope to become. My first sip of bourbon was charged with confusion and shame.
Whiskey made my uncles mean, and so my father stuck mostly to beer around my mother, though he always kept a gallon of Jim Beam and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s in his bar. I watched the levels of these bottles rise and fall over the years, but I never saw my father pour a drink from them.
My bunch drank a lot during senior year — we poured 151 rum over Coca-Cola Icees to take to our homeroom. At night we cruised the dirt roads with bottles of Pepe Lopez tequila and Cutty Sark clinking on the floorboards. We drank to dissolve our inhibitions, to talk to girls from other high schools, to be the sort of wild desperate kids we saw in the movies. A few of us tried too hard and didn’t make it out.
I feel bad about that — I wasn’t the fastest or the fittest of our herd, just one of the lucky ones.
I started to learn about drink in college, when I bought pints of Canadian Mist to fit in my date’s purse for football games and we drank fraternity house jungle juice made with grain alcohol from galvanized garbage cans. I had a few beers with my father before he died.
I tried to make myself love Scotch, because it was my idea of what the person I wanted to be would drink, but I couldn’t keep up with it. It was, like some ladies I admired, too expensive and worldly for me. I could barely flirt with it.
I took back up with bourbon sometime around my 30th birthday. I started calling it in bars. I liked the way it made me feel, which was authentic. Every Southern eventually comes home. (Even if it’s in a box.)
America’s only distinctly indigenous spirit, bourbon tastes of blood and smoke—of ashes, caramel and quit. Take too much your head might bust open, like Zeus birthing Athena—a swole-head god in trouble with the goddess. It took a little doing, but I’ve learned not to overdo it, not to sink into the comfortable numbness that consumed my uncles, and I’ve found it can be downright ennobling.
It’s odd that America’s whiskey has a name redolent of Old Europe’s musty humors and class structure. Bourbon takes its name from “Old Bourbon,” an area that later became Bourbon County, Ky., which in turn was named after the royal House of Bourbon, a branch of the Capetian dynasty descended from King Hugh Capet of France, whose ascension to the throne was widely considered to be the birth of modern France.
That the spirit’s invention is occluded by mystery seems appropriate—we want our ghosts to retain some mystery. Some say it started with a barn fire that damaged a Kentucky distiller’s oak barrels. Rather than discard the charred barrels or waste time searching for fresh ones, he filled them with corn liquor and sent them downriver to New Orleans. By the time the booze arrived, it had acquired the characteristics of what we now know as bourbon. It was amber colored and flavored with woodsmoke. And people liked it.
Or maybe a distiller decided to scorch the interior walls of old fish barrels so he could use them to age his distilled spirits?
More dubious is the legend of Elijah Craig, a preacher who is said to have aged corn squeezings in charred oak barrels as early as 1789. But while Craig existed, he was a Virginian who never lived in what became Bourbon County.
Anyway, by 1821, there were newspaper ads for “bourbon whisky” to be delivered in barrels to taverns all over the country.
Yet it wasn’t until May 4, 1964, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took measures to define and protect bourbon as a distinctive American spirit. They declared that in order to be called “bourbon,” a liquor had to be distilled from a fermented mash of grain, at least 51 percent of which must be corn, bottled at between 60 and 160 proof. Most importantly, it had to be aged in new, charred American oak barrels.
(Once the barrels have been used, they’re no longer eligible for aging bourbon, so they’re shipped around the world where they’re often employed in the aging of other potent potables. Some European beers are aged in old bourbon barrels by Belgian monks. Our world is soaked in poetry.)
Those charred barrels are what accounts for the difference between sweet, oaky flavors of American board and the somewhat more astringent, aromatic (and perhaps subtler) notes of Irish whiskey or the terroir tones of Scotch.
It’s a common misperception that no spirit produced outside the state of Kentucky could legally identify itself as bourbon. This was supposedly because only Kentucky’s limestone-rich soil produced the right kind of spring water for distillation.
While some will argue that’s true enough, one can make bourbon anywhere in the country. They make it in Little Rock, Rock Town Distillery produces a wonderful, if pricey product called Arkansas Young Bourbon. Unlike almost all other bourbons, it contains no rye because they don’t grow rye in Arkansas. The mash is made of native corn and soft wheat.
There are Texas bourbons—Garrison Brothers, Ranger Creek—and bourbon distillers in Indiana (W. H. Harrison) and Virginia (A. Smith Bowman). The idea that Kentucky is the only legitimate home of bourbon is a myth promulgated by Kentucky protectionists, and—at least to some degree—by the marketers of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, which eschews the bourbon label although the spirit meets all regulatory requirements. (Though they do filter their stuff through charcoal, which is an extra step.) Jack Daniel’s would prefer to be seen as a unique alternative than another one of the boys. Whatever.
When I was coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, bourbon had fallen on hard times as the overall number of American drinkers declined (some recreational drugs make you want to sip sugary soft drinks, or so I’m told) and baby boomers turned to the milder (and dubious) pleasures of wine coolers and light beer. Bourbon, once the drink of choice of Samuel Gompers and William Faulkner, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain, was too raw and flavorful for health-conscious yuppies.
Then in the 1990s, Clintonian prosperity gave us upscale small-batch bourbons—the American answer to single-malt Scotches and expensive brandies. These days there are bourbon snobs everywhere and cults of Pappy Van Winkle and Booker Noe, the late small batch evangelist who happened to be the grandson of Jim Beam. (I had a couple of boozy lunches with the man, and I miss him.)
It’s not unusual to encounter $60 bottles of bourbon. I usually have a couple of them in my bar (which was also my father’s bar—it’s the one thing I took out of my mother’s house when she moved out of my childhood home a dozen years ago). I always have half a dozen or more different bourbons, from modest Evan Williams to the most pricey of the gettable Van Winkles. (It’s probably just as well that the most expensive ones are practically ungettable—I hear it may be back on some shelves this autumn.) My go-to bourbon is probably Knob Creek, though I like the Bulleit’s cowboy style and Maker’s Mark and dear old Evan Williams, as raw and ornery as he sometimes gets.
These days I drink bourbon mostly in what I consider moderation. Part of it is no doubt affectation, but I like the taste, the char and burr of the creekish stuff, the tangle of fire it makes in my gullet going down, the soft plosion of satisfaction that blossoms in my brain.
I like bourbon, despite the rocky start we had.
Dale Smith is a writer, musician, lover of novels, baseball, dogs, and punk rock music .