An article from August 1, 1886 in The Sun (New York), entitled Bourbon and Rye, discussed whether a new era of well-aged bourbon and rye would commence. The author, uncredited, described himself as an expert in the field and the article shows every sign he was: see for example his deft explanation how temporary exportation of whiskey can reduce the cost of maturing it.
What I find really interesting in the piece, apart from the looming shadow of Prohibition, is the description of Bourbon before the Civil War, or not so much the war, but the raising of the whiskey tax, newly imposed in 1862 and sharply increased by the end of the war. For convenience though I’ll speak here of before and after the war.
The writer posits the pre-war era, or Antebellum Period, as the golden age of Bourbon, when it 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, commercial producers such as Oscar Pepper also aged their product for a reasonable time, this is known from other sources. Oscar Pepper’s product, made by the legendary Scots physician James Crow, was noted for its red colour and must have been seven years old at a minimum. As early as 1818, some Kentucky whiskey was advertised as seven years of age and some was known to be available at higher ages. Still, some bourbon historians have considered most Bourbon sold before the Civil War was young, a year or two at most. Gerald Carson appears to hold this view in his The Social History Of Bourbon (1963).
The Sun explains that aging liquor was no great burden before the war or when the tax was low. Annual shrinkage, the angel’s share to which spirits are subject, added to the whiskey’s cost as the tax had to be paid on new spirit and the producer was not credited for shrinkage, but the extra cost was considered acceptable. When the tax rose however to $2.00/gal., it became uneconomic to age whiskey 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 regime was Bourbon became much younger than people were accustomed to earlier, two or three years old, half the minimum age considered acceptable before the war. This created an opportunity for blenders, who added a few gallons of rare 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 practice probably started earlier. This blending is the origin of modern American blended whisky, taking in brands such as Seagram Seven Crown.
By 1886, the increase in the bonding period, during which whiskey could be stored tax unpaid, and new rules which relieved distillers from paying tax on the angel’s share, made it economic to keep whiskey for longer if not generally 10 and 20 years. When these stocks were supplemented by American whiskey brought home from a seven years sojourn in Bremen or Liverpool, that permitted a market where bourbon and rye could be offered at seven years vs. the four year average then prevailing.
It’s interesting that again today, four years is the norm for straight whiskey. Jim Beam White, Four Roses Yellow Label, Maker’s Mark, or Jack Daniel’s, say, are that age more or less.
There is a tendency in modern distilling to consider Bourbon over-aged at more than eight or 10 years. Charlie Thomasson, in a c. 1960 article on old-fashioned distilling at Willett’s Distillery in Bardstown, KY, wrote that the best Bourbon was about six years of age. Yet The Sun in 1886 explained that grandees prized Bourbon aged two to three times longer before the Civil War. Thomasson felt that prolonged aging would impart a “punky” taste to the liquor, a degraded flavour from a breakdown of the barrel staves, yet old Kentucky must have liked that taste.
Between the late 90s and about 2010, there was a large amount of old Bourbon and rye in the market, a legacy of the “whiskey glut” of the 80s and early 90s when brown spirits languished in relation to vodka particularly. That changed of course as the whiskey renaissance took pace. Old Rip Van Winkle, Hirsch, Michter’s, and other brands noted for long ages became rare. Where you could still find them, they cost a lot more than before.
Despite Carson’s view, there is good reason historically to consider that “Bourbon” always meant an aged drink, one that a acquired a brown or red colour from the wood and a sweet taste from caramelized wood sugars. In contrast, much “whiskey” and especially “common whiskey”, including corn whiskey, continued to be sold un-aged or little-aged until the Civil War. Terminology was never precise. “Old whiskey” frequently meant Bourbon (or straight rye), and I am sure examples can be cited of “Bourbon” advertised at two or three years. But in general, Bourbon, or the quality end, meant a well-aged drink with a rich palate, one comparable to fine French brandy, Cognac and similar. The Sun’s account supports that.
I don’t believe Bourbon emerged to compete with brandy or acquired its name from a connection to New Orleans or the French influence there. But there is no question Bourbon was considered an alternative to Cognac as a quality spirit. The availability of old brandy by the mid-1800s perhaps inspired extra-long aging by Bourbon distillers. A similar influence was probably at play too from the Scottish Highlands where the lairds liked to keep a vatting of old malts in the cellar. There was old rum as well in the international market: all these trends worked together and probably influenced each other.
The takeaway: when people say today Bourbon at 12, 15 and 20 years is too old and reflects more a glutted market (or that time) than a gastronomic criterion, it is not so. Fine Bourbon was precisely in that range before the Civil War.
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.