Antebellum Bourbon was Little Aged? Not.

15ylabel1

 

An article  appeared on August 1, 1886 in New York’s The Sun entitled simply “Bourbon and Rye”. The author, uncredited, billed himself as an expert. The article shows every sign he was, e.g., his deft explanation how exporting whiskey could reduce the cost of aging.

Not least interesting is the account of bourbon’s character before the imposition of the whiskey tax, first levied in 1862 to help pay for the Civil War and sharply increased later in the war. For convenience, I’ll speak of bourbon before and after simply the war.

The writer posits the pre-war, or Antebellum, period as the golden age, when bourbon was long-aged, especially on the distilling estates of the Bluegrass:

Then the theory was that Bourbon never reached its rich maturity “until half the contents of the barrel had evaporated”. Nothing short of six-year-old bourbon was accounted fit for use, and many a hospitable Kentucky mansion contained in its cellar mellow and aromatic Bourbon of from ten to twenty years old.

Although the author doesn’t mention it, some commercial distillers such as Oscar Pepper also aged their product well. Oscar Pepper’s product, made by legendary Scots-born physician James Crow, was noted for its red colour and was probably at least seven years old. As early as 1818 some Kentucky whiskey is documented at seven years of age, and some was available at higher ages.

Still, some bourbon historians state that most bourbon before the Civil War was young, a year or two at most. Gerald Carson appeared to hold this view in his landmark The Social History Of Bourbon (1963).

The Sun explained that aging liquor was no great burden before the war or while the new tax was still low. Annual shrinkage, the angel’s share to which all aging spirits are subject, adds to the cost as tax was paid on new spirit and the producer was not credited for shrinkage. Still, the extra cost to age whiskey (warehousing, insurance, interest, etc.) was considered acceptable. When the tax rose however to $2.00/gal. it became uneconomic to age whiskey for as long as before. The writer was a little inaccurate on his recollection of the tax rates, this U.S. government source gives the true picture, but there is no reason to question his general argument.

The result of the Civil War tax was, it appears, that bourbon became much younger. Sold at two or three years’ age, it was half the minimum age stated as acceptable before the war. This created an opportunity for blenders, who added a few gallons of expensive old whiskey to a much larger amount of neutral spirits to create an acceptable drink. Indeed, blending manuals start to appear about 1860 although the commercial practice probably started earlier. This blending is the origin of modern American blended whisky, taking in brands such as Seagram Seven Crown. Scotch and Canadian whisky also became largely blended articles in the 19th century.

hirsch-selection-22-year-old-straight-rye-whiskey-kentucky-usa-10121931t

By 1886 the increase in the bonding period, during which whiskey could be stored tax-deferred, as well as new rules that relieved distillers from paying tax on the angel’s share, made it economic to keep whiskey for longer again. When these stocks were supplemented by American whiskey brought home from a seven-years plus sojourn in Bremen or Liverpool, that created a market where bourbon and rye could be offered at seven years vs. the earlier four year average.

It’s interesting that again today, four years’ aging is the norm for straight whiskey. Jim Beam White, Four Roses Yellow Label, Maker’s Mark, and Jack Daniel’s, say, are likely not much older. A sharp spike in bourbon sales evaporated the “whiskey glut” of 15 and 30 years ago and has reduced the amount of extra-aged whiskey to a trickle, however.

There is a tendency in bourbon country, among many who know, to consider bourbon over-aged at more than eight or 10 years old. Former distiller Charlie Thomasson, in a c. 1960 article on old-time distilling at Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY (now in operation again), wrote that the best bourbon was about six years of age. Yet The Sun in 1886 stated that Kentucky grandees prized bourbon aged two to three times longer than that before the Civil War. Thomasson felt that prolonged aging would impart a “punky” taste, a degraded flavour from a break-down of the barrel wood, yet old Kentucky must have liked that taste.*

Despite Carson’s view, there is good reason historically in my view to consider that “bourbon” – vs. that is “common whiskey”, always meant a well-aged whiskey, brown or red with a sweet taste from caramelized wood sugars. In contrast, common whiskey including corn whiskey, un-aged or little-aged until the Civil War, had an unrefined, more congeneric palate.

Of course, terminology was never precise. “Old whiskey” could mean bourbon, or straight rye, and conversely examples can probably be shown of early bourbon advertised at two or three years age. But in general, bourbon, or the quality end of it, always meant arguably a long-aged drink of rich palate, comparable to fine brandy, say. The Sun’s account supports that.

The takeaway: good bourbon was expected to be long-aged before the war. Perhaps due to its extra-congeneric character resulting from use of pot stills or crude column stills, those extra years were needed. The bourbon or rye mash of today’s distilleries, apart perhaps some craft producers, is likely much cleaner, and hence needs less time in wood to mature.

At day’s end, I like six- to eight-year-old bourbon, although some extra-old bourbon is exceptional, yes (George Stagg comes to mind). But Thomasson –  a teetotaller, by the way – had it right in general terms, imo.

Note re images: the labels shown above were sourced here and here. Both are believed available for educational or historical use, all feedback welcomed. All trademarks shown belong exclusively to their owners or authorized licensees.

………………….

*[Note added January 27, 2020].  Needless to say different tastes have always existed, some people just like the taste of very aged whiskey, others less so. See also further in the text my remark that new spirit in the period quite possibly was considerably more congeneric than today’s, resulting from still technology of the time. This alone would encourage longer aging periods than today is likely necessary.

5 thoughts on “Antebellum Bourbon was Little Aged? Not.

  1. Quick follow-up to my last points: it appears that the 1862 law required payment of the excise every three months, see this summary in a government manual of the period: https://books.google.ca/books?id=TVZcdHoTPiYC&pg=PA81&dq=distillers+tax+1862+tri-monthly&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwim3L2Jg6TnAhVLwFkKHXFhBkIQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=distillers%20tax%201862%20tri-monthly&f=false

    The “45” mentioned is section 45 of the 1862 revenue act.

    This seems to be an administrative way for the tax to be computed and collected vs. anything pertaining to aging.

  2. Hey Gary, that was me with the twitter comment. The 1862 number came from Michael Veach (https://bourbonveach.com/2019/09/09/bonded-warehouses/ , https://bourbonveach.com/2018/04/09/whiskey-taxation-part-two-the-american-civil-war-and-beyond/). I haven’t gone back and read the August 1, 1862 tax law but the whiskey tax did start in 1863. Having dedicated space for a bonded warehouses was not required until 1868 but obviously some percentage of goods were being stored for a while at least before then.
    The one year limit strikes me as more operational in the sense that it allows simply for logistics and planning shipping more than aging. (For example, distill in fall and ship by river boat in the spring).
    I think that one overlooked thing that happened in 1868 is that the government eliminated the leakage/evaporation allowance (https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112109642535?urlappend=%3Bseq=16). This lasted until 1880.

    • Thanks Andrew, I will check the references for sure this week, and if I can add anything will be happy to.

      By the way when I stated above that old whiskey is documented quite early in bourbon development, I had in mind Crowgey, see here at p. 111.

      Gary

      • I’ve read the links and a number of modern and contemporary sources on the tax history. Notable is the complexity of the system from Day 1, augmented by the continual series of amending legislation during the war and after and issuance of manuals and decisions by the Dept. of Internal Revenue. As far as I can tell, the tax of $0.20/gal imposed from August 1, 1862 on new distillation (hence not existing stocks, and apparently production had been greatly ramped up in anticipation of the tax) was levied on production, inspection and gauging, so no conventional bonding period, but under a term-limited bond posted by the distiller, whiskey intended for export or re-distillation into alcohol could be shipped from the premises without payment of the excise. It was three months for export from a U.S. port, again from a summary reading of various sources. In other words, if the article wasn’t exported by then the government would call on the sureties under the bond to collect the tax. So what you said about shipping between the seasons makes sense to me in this light, however I believe that applied, at least under the original law, only to exports from the U.S., of which there would have been relatively little, I think, unless the system to export whiskey to avoid the excise started this early. This seems unlikely during the war, but I don’t really know.

        I may examine this area in further detail at some point including Congressional discussions attending the original bill and amendments, which may shed light on contemporary understanding of aging norms for different classes of whiskey.

  3. I had a comment on Twitter today viz whether the initial one-year bonding period introduced in 1862 can be viewed as suggesting most bourbon until then wasn’t sold at very old ages.

    I did not check beyond this resource (American Whiskey Trail) but it states the introduction year for the first bonding period as 1868, when the tax was reduced from a wartime peak of $2.00/gal. (proof gallon) to $0.50/gal.

    Regardless of the year of introduction, the suggestion is, as I glean it, if the government only gave a year’s grace period to pay the tax, whiskey must typically have been sold quite young, not much more than a year old, else the distillers would have to finance the tax yet not be able to recoup the money from a pending sale.

    First, I cited the news account discussed in my post as evidence that good bourbon was often sold between 10-20 years old and at least at 6 years old before the war. I don’t know of course how accurate that was, but it seems to me a statement worth taking into account, that reasonable credence should be given, given the year of writing. No doubt a lot of whiskey was sold unaged or just a year or two old, and I’m sure I’ve seen ads for such whiskey in bourbon histories and my own newspapers searches from the 1850s on.

    However, how much of that young whiskey was typically called bourbon, vs. the well-aged stuff? We don’t know really, but the story I cited is some evidence that good bourbon at least was at the higher range.

    Also, I think at the time, the bonding period did not necessarily correlate to the expected sale window. The government’s overriding concern was to collect the tax, that is why there was no bonding period granted at all, initially, it seems.

    When it finally introduced the idea, a conservative one year was provided. One can argue, as I read too the Whiskey Trail’s analysis, that this left distillers holding the bag for the remaining portion of time needed to ensure a quality product to sell. They would have to finance their investment from a bank or another way, until funds were received by selling the product on the market.

    All this said, again I do not know the average age of whiskey advertised, say, as bourbon before the Civil War. Maybe it was lower than even six years. A detailed historical and economic study would need to be done to determine that question.

Leave a Comment